Should we clean up old recordings, or keep their noise and distortion in all their glory?

Should we clean up old recordings, or keep their noise and distortion in all their glory?

We think we know everything these days. But are we getting a little too clever? Perhaps people in an earlier age of recording knew something that we don't.

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Back in the 1930's and 40's my great-uncle, Robert MacGimsey, recorded hundreds of Negro spirituals on his Louisiana plantation, using a portable disc recorder and lacquered aluminum discs. I had the recordings dubbed off on 1/4" reel-to-reel tape in 1968 to preserve them, and of course today none of the old discs are playable.

About twelve years ago I began digitizing these recordings and cleaning them up with PC software: All of the clicks, over 90% of the turntable rumble and other background noise, etc., were removed successfully, and I went further to do "micro-surgery" on all other aspects of the songs, including diction and articulation, EQ, time-stretching, even adding a stereo effect, until the recordings were just sparkling clean and clear.

It was my intention to release a series of CD's which would be suitable for radio broadcast and would play well in home stereo units and car CD players. Well, they weren't very well received. Many folks didn't believe that they were actually old recordings, because they sounded so clean and sparkling, so modern. Others were incensed that I had in any way changed the musical content, or the medium by which it was created. These were VINTAGE recordings, and people wanted to hear them they way they would have sounded on a Victrola!

The project still resides on my old hard drive and on numerous DVD's. And in all of this, I re-learned a valuable life lesson: People love antiques, whether they be visual, physical, or audio; and I seemed to have destroyed that illusion for them, in my quest for "perfection."

There are stories of well-intentioned individuals who have taken a genuine old Stradivarius apart, scooped out the back and top much thinner than it was originally, or maybe even made a new top for it and threw the original away, and actually re-varnished the whole, thinking they had done a great service of some sort. What they did was to destroy almost the entire value of that priceless artwork, when leaving it in its now imperfect, but original, condition would have today brought perhaps two or three million dollars at the auction block at Sotheby's.

Can we improve upon Leonarda da Vinci's Mona Lisa by adding mascara, eye shadow, highlighted cheeks and perhaps some nice earrings and a gold necklace to her? Or could we 'correct' Michaelangelo's David or Madonna and Child with a little chipping here, and a little grinding there? Maybe rewriting Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to read, "Romeo, dude, where the **ll are ya?!" Reworking an original, vintage work rarely results in any kind of an improvement, just like using modern mastering on an old (or maybe even bad) song to produce a 'Masteringpiece.

Consider what modern electronics have done to 'improve' the great studio recordings of the past, when played on an MP3 or an iPod. If you can't hear the sonic difference, then my point is well stated: We have lost the 'golden ears' of our parents and grandparents, who listened to all genres of music on their big, stereo music systems, whether they were reel-to-reel tape or LP's.

I well remember my old uncle's Fisher machine, which consisted of separate, heavy cabinets for each of the channels, housing high-quality 15" woofers and various other sized, and warming the house with too many tubes to remember. And the sound was out of this world: Operatic singers were present in your living room, violinists and string quartets were alive and breathing, symphony orchestras surrounded you and blasted out their might on those forte passages, and Elvis Presley and John Gary and Bing Crosby sounded better then than I have ever heard them sound on digital equipment.

So, perhaps in summation, my thoughts would be, if it's vintage, leave it vintage. It it's poor, old or new, modern mastering isn't going to make it wonderful. Great music isn't created in the mastering room, it's created in the recording studio. I'm 65, by the way, and my hearing is still worlds ahead of any young person I know today.

Perhaps we're even doing a great disservice to our younger generation by giving them super-loud music that grievously lacks in quality? When I dine, I have to admit that, sometimes, quantity is quality. But not so with music. Forget 'in with the new and out with the old'. That works great for New Year's celebrations, but not always for music.

We should leave vintage recordings the way they were originally, and let the historians of future generations have something to enjoy in its purity.

Publication date: Saturday June 16, 2012
Author: Glen Stockton



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Earlier discussion on this topic...

Big K, Munich, Bavaria

M2c.. If you can, restore the original sound, but never try to re-invent composition and performance.
Some 130 years ago you had to visit a concert hall to hear music and people received the most wonderful thing in pure, and if lucky,in good quality. They knew what music and instruments sounded like und how it can get under your skin. What MP3 and earphones do to today's users is criminal and nothing short of a future mass-deafening problem. I am quite astonished that so few listeners hear that the sound ( and the feel) of data reduced audio is so inferior even to a Vinyl or CD. I fear, the roots are already layed in school, where more and more music education is cancelled. A bad light upon the whole education systems, because they should all know that learning to play music makes kids noticeably smarter and has undeniably huge and complex social components, too.

Anyway, crackling, humming, noise and the bad frequency / dynamic ranges of the old days were not what producers wanted. It just couldn't be done any better at the time. I'd fix that with the original alway in mind.
I do quite a lot of restoration and try my best between the technical possible & reasonable and the will of the customers, which is not always as conservative as I wished, but most the time I am happy with the results. Have you seen the latest little helper gadget from Celemony called "Capstan"? If you are into tapes,as well, check it out.. It made my day a few time, already.
Cheers, Big K (only 52...)
Saturday June 23, 2012

Ian, Melbourne, Australia

Exactly my thoughts Daniel. I would have thought that access to the performance would be most desirable. I'm 60 and quite the purist, but I sure don't want to hear all that noise.
Wednesday June 20, 2012

Kane, Baltimore, Md, USA

Your point is well made! Modern technology has its place however, for any true music lover, the warm classic tube sound is the best. And you are correct, at some point we have to learn to leave this alone and simply preserve them and not try to make them better ( so we think ).

There are many great things that digital can do however, it can't do everything. Digital records with 0s and 1s. There are frequencies that exist below 0, above 1 and in between 0 and 1 that digital does not capture in comparison to "the old sound". Digital craps out when it comes to harmonics. It can preserve but cannot truly improve the "old sound".

And Yes this younger generation is missing out on soo much sound that it is a sin. To master a beautiful recording and have it played back as a mp3 on a phone or ipod is such a waste. In fact, most people today, are only hearing the "tune" of a song and not the "sound" of a song.

Thank you for this article and I encourage are producers who are reading, to go "back" and produce and record good "sounding" music without all of this compression and autotuning and souless music. And make a play soulful music as best you can and share it on a sound system with the "hoopers" in atmosphere so that they can know and grow to love real and real sounding music.

Tuesday June 19, 2012

Daniel, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Sorry, a legitimate question, but the comparisons with art and a stradivarius are silly. The art works are original, the stradivarius was original so there is no need to touch those, but recordings are a reproduction of an original recording that was recorded on the best equipment they had in those days... and that has improved.

And most probably, if they are shellacs, they started to crackle and have clicks which never were intended to be there.
So for me it makes sense to remove the crackles, the clicks, but I would not stereo-ize it, or change the original performances in any way. Maybe EQ a bit, and that is.
But that is something totally different than giving Mona Lisa eye shadow....
Monday June 18, 2012