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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Vinyl Mystery: Wrongly Mastered Singles And Albums

Ahhh......the long and odd sounding history of the wrongly mastered record....

Nothing new really. Countless early recordings since the days of the very first hand wound cylinder recordings have had various pitch and speed anomalies until the earliest standard was set when electrical recordings were introduced in 1925, mandating 78.26 RPM as the universal speed for recordings on disc records in North America from 1925 until the end of the 78 RPM record (slighty less, 77.94 RPM for European recordings.).

And all was well...for the most part. There are some who beg to differ. Many Glenn Miller fans had issues with some of his recordings, namely this classic:

But considering there was only so much recording time on one side of a 78 RPM record, if it sounded a tad rushed, it probably was. Just like many other 78 RPM direct to disc mastered recordings. But everything seems to be on the right key here.

However, when tape began to be used as a standard of mastering albums, an old problem reared it's ugly head. Some of the earliest tape mastered albums of the '40s had something called "wow and flutter", very noticeable on analog piano recordings when the player plays a sustained note. (Play a sustained C major note on a piano and record it on an average analog tape deck, then play back the tape and you'll hear the difference.) Technology improved to reduce that artifact dramatically over the years. But analog tape still had that problem, no matter how top quality the tape and recording machine was. But the technology was refined enough on better tape decks to make it much less noticeable.  Digital recording virtually eliminated that problem, but at the expense of everything else in the recording. Namely high-hat and cymbals on the early digital recordings.

Tape and record players themselves always had pitch and speed control problems. Until the '60s when better audiophile technology came of age and pitch controls were a feature of better made turntables, there was not much you could do about the problem.

However in the mastering process of many recordings, either deliberately or by accident, some tracks in the studio tapes were mastered at the wrong speed. The most infamous example was the original Family Production's label 1971 release of Billy Joel's Cold Spring Harbor LP.

The instrumental tracks sounded fine, but Joel's voice was speeded up and sounded far too high pitched. It's been said Joel himself went around to New England record stores to buy up as many copies of Cold Spring Harbor as he could (luckily, it never fully went into national release at the time. But the 1971 release never sold many copies to begin with.) Some of the 1971 originals sold then and they are prized collector's items today.

The original copies of Billy Joel's Cold Spring Harbor album did not have a Columbia label.
Here is a sample of that original recording (note the pitch difference in Joel's vocals):

It was re-released by Columbia in 1983 with the vocals restored to normal pitch, but also remixed with slightly different instrumental arrangements on some tracks.)

But the crux of this particular biscuit is Robert Johnson's blues recordings of 1936 and 1937, which have been featured on countless compilations. In 1990, Sony re-released these historic sessions on CD, faithfully remastered from original acetate master discs.

However recently, it's been discovered that the pitch of the original recordings may have been exaggerated. When the recordings were slowed down by 20%, some say they had a more "natural" sound to them than the more frenzied tempo we are used to hearing Johnson's recordings at. The sound that many claim started rock 'n roll.

And if that's the case, how many other classic blues recordings from everybody from Bessie Smith to Blind Lemon Jefferson are mastered at the wrong speed?

Well first, being direct to disc, it's hard to deliberately master the disc at the wrong speed. But on a portable recorder/cutter being battery powered (likely), as used in those San Antonio and Dallas hotel rooms when Johnson cut these sessions, it COULD make a slower initial recording and when the recording was played back at AC powered 78 RPM, it can sound faster than the actual recording was.

It's debatable amongst blues fans, but it IS a plausible scenario.....read more here


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