Remasters are a strange concept, aren’t they? It’s a bit like saying, “We didn’t make a very good job of mastering this the first time around, so now we’re having another go.” Except, outside, in the real world, you would probably go back and redo the job for free if you hadn’t it very well the first time around. In the world of music, it’s considered completely fine to charge people a second time for something that they already own.
Which is not to say that you should oppose them – many of them sound considerably better than the original releases. My point is solely that there is a curious conflict – should you continue listening to the poor quality, lo-fi original, or should you switch to the tampered with, but ultimately vastly superior, remaster? Or will you even notice the difference at all?
I’ve fallen foul of it a few times, in particular a couple of months ago I bought the new Massive Attack, The Postal Service and Electronic remasters, so here are some case studies.
The Postal Service – Give Up
Despite being released at a relatively technologically advanced time (2003), the original CD does exhibit some really strange mastering. In particular, the treble was way too high, particularly on the drum sounds. To me in a way it was always part of the charm of the original – it did sound like a rock group had picked up some synths and tried to record an electronic album (this isn’t a million miles away from what actually happened).
This new recording adds a bonus disc containing all the tracks from the singles (which is great) and also some wonderfully squishy packaging, but is also a total rethink of the mix. No longer does it sound as though it was mastered by a maniac. It’s here in full fidelity, and it really does sound considerably better. Compare the two, even on low-quality computer speakers, and you’ll hear a noticeable difference immediately.
This one is definitely worth the upgrade.
Electronic – Electronic
Prior to this I only had the original (10 track) release from 1991, with the orange sleeve, which honestly sounded totally lousy, and this had always been true. There was a lot of lazy mastering around the start of the 1990s, and this album seemed to have suffered particularly badly.
This time around, you get a bonus disc of obscure highlights from the rest of their career (obviously including Disappointed), but also you get a considerably better master. As with Give Up, the album is suddenly a joy to listen to – a great example of a necessary remaster done well.
Massive Attack – Blue Lines
This one is the exception. The new release doesn’t particularly offer anything extra. You get an insignificant wraparound sleeve, which seems a little unnecessary; the booklet has been demoted to a single page; and the credits are cleverly hidden behind the CD holder. Perhaps also slightly questionably, there was no room for anything extra (the gloriously Celtic-themed b-side Home of the Whale and the single version of Unfinished Sympathy would surely have been essential?)
Also by contrast, the original album sounded great, and I’ll honestly say that without a careful cross-examination I can’t hear a difference between the two. It looks as though this new master is a high bitrate studio version, which may make a difference if you download the digital files, but really doesn’t seem significant on CD.
All three of these will be reviewed in full in the near future. I could give you plenty more case studies, but those will do for the time being.
The remaster, therefore, is an unpredictable beast. Is it a necessary revisiting of a classic album, or a quick and easy money spinner for a bankrupt artist or record company? I think both are probably true. Certainly I could name plenty more examples of remasters where the difference is entirely inaudible to all but the most trained ear.
It’s also an opportunity for the most momentous of messes – the New Order reissues are probably the most famous, so badly handled that they led to many fans (surely the primary audience of a remaster) boycotting them altogether or trying to remaster them for themselves.
A remaster is an obvious money-spinner – without adding any extra content, it offers the opportunity to splash a big word all over the front cover, and even if there are costs involved, a lot of people are going to be taken in by that.
But is it a bad thing? On balance, probably not – you’re giving a new lease of life to a much loved product, and making it sound the way it really should have in the first place.