Sonic Resurrection! - EMusician

Sonic Resurrection!

Even at the so-called peak of the band’s career, the Bongos never really attained the commercial success they deserved. But, like the foundations of Roman ruins upon which cathedrals were built, remnants of what the Bongos created are present in the music of REM, Marshall Crenshaw, and scores of other more celebrated post-punk pop groups. Magic was in the air when the Bongos were onstage and in their element, and their first album, 1982’s Drums Along the Hudson, captures the band’s unique vibe. Lead singer and guitarist Richard Barone — who was only 18 years old when Drums was recorded — was a wellspring of catchy pop songs, and each of the album’s 15 tracks was as engaging as the last. But the sound just didn’t do the music justice, and the album’s unflattering recording quality has haunted the Bongos legacy ever since.
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Nonetheless, many hold the album in high regard, so it wasn’t a surprise that the Bongos were asked to re-release Drums Along the Hudson late last year. With the opportunity to record a bonus track with longtime fan Moby, the Bongos briefly reformed and entered the studio. But upon completion of the bonus track — where the group was in awe of actually sounding on record the way they heard themselves on stage — the boys decided to take it one step further. They called on producer Steve Addabbo, owner of NYC’s Shelter Island Sound, and requested that he help restore and remaster the original mixes of Drums Along the Hudson — mixes that had been sitting in Richard’s home since 1982.

Of course, many of us have great songs we cut years ago that we’re almost ashamed of letting others listen to now. The songs are happening, but the production just sucks. This is how Barone felt about Drums Along the Hudson all these years. He was living with a master with which he was never fully satisfied. A master that needed tweaking — particularly on the low end.
“The drums had a much deeper sound on the mixes,” he observes. “But when we mastered the album, we were told the grooves of vinyl records couldn’t handle the low end we had on the toms. As a result, the drums ended up sounding much tinnier than I wanted. The sound we got at the mix never made it out of the mastering room.”

Barone may have been disappointed with the results, but, back in the vinyl era, mastering engineers did have to deal with the fact that low frequencies required physically deeper and wider grooves. Wider grooves meant less space for cutting tracks into the vinyl, so low-frequency content was often sacrificed to accommodate putting more songs on an album. Thankfully, this problem doesn’t exist within the digital mastering realm.

“A digital signal doesn’t care if it’s a tin whistle or a timpani, because it’s saving the sounds as a set of numbers out of your A/D converters,” says Addabbo. “Now we don’t have to choose songs over production quality. When Drums Along the Hudson was originally mastered for vinyl in the ’80s, you had between 18 and 20 minutes per side that you could work with, and more bottom end meant less playing time. In addition, mastering engineers faced another physical limitation with vinyl, which was the difficulty of maintaining hot levels as the cutter got closer to the inside grooves. Due to physics, the space is more cramped there, and there’s less room for the needle to move. [Editor’s note: This led to a phenomenon called “inner groove distortion,” and, to work around this, many vinyl albums were sequenced so that the end of a side had a ballad or other soft song.] Back then, mastering was a real balancing act. However, digital audio doesn’t have these physical limitations, so we can really crank the stuff, let the bottom be where it should be, and carry the desired frequency spectrum throughout the entire album.”

But before any sonic challenges could be addressed for the album’s remastering, the questionable state of the original 1/4" analog-tape reels had to be confronted.

“There was a major concern the tapes might not even play any more,” Addabbo confides. “I’ve had pretty miserable results with tapes that old. You just don’t know what you’re going to get, because the adhesive that holds the magnetic bits to the backing of the tape can get gooey over time. You start to play the tape, and, within two or three minutes, it grinds to a halt. Then, you have this brown gunk on your tape machine’s playback heads and rollers that looks like tar. This can clog your heads, and wreak havoc on the tape, because it’s basically scraping off the oxides.”

And that’s not all. Over a period of years — usually a decade or more — magnetic tapes attract dust particles and other gunk that can sometimes render them unplayable. To counteract this and other issues, the practice of “baking” old tapes has become commonplace. In a nutshell, the heat from a convection oven uniformly degrades the unwanted gunk and excess particles so the tapes can be played once again without causing damage to your songs — or your tape machine.

“We absolutely had to bake the tapes,” says Addabbo. “I have a convection oven in my home, and what I did was bake the six to eight 1/4" tapes at about 130 degrees for around two hours. It’s unbelievable how well the tapes played after that. However, old tapes are still finicky, so it’s good practice to transfer the audio to another medium as soon as possible. If you play the tapes too many times after baking, they probably won’t hold up for very long. Having said that, the baked tapes were shedding so little, that I worked directly from them for a while. I could really listen to the sounds on the original tape masters, and basically treat the process like a ‘new’ analog mastering session because the tapes had held up so well.”

The original leader tape used on the masters caused problems, as well. Someone had written vertical stripes with red ink as timing markers, and the ink touched the back of the oxide, which actually pulled the oxide right off the master. This compromised the sound of some song endings and beginnings. To fix these bits, material from CDs and safety masters had to be “flown” in once the audio was transferred to Pro Tools. Addabbo did the transfer at 88.2kHz, because the math the computer has to do to go from 88.2kHz to the conventional CD format of 44.1kHz is a “simple math” division by 2, as opposed to downsampling from 96kHz to 44.1kHz, which works out to division by around 2.1768707. When a computer has to do more complex math in these situations, the possibilities for round-off and quantization errors are greater.

Once in the digital domain, Addabbo and Barone tried to create a common sonic framework for the album. This was not an easy task, as the original tracks were recorded at three different studios by three different engineers, and on both sides of the Atlantic. They settled on the lead-off track, “In the Congo,” as the benchmark for the rest of the album.

“It had the right bottom, and it just sounded exciting,” says Addabbo. “The other mixes didn’t sound as loud, and they required a lot more creative compression and EQ to get them sonically matched. Coming off the tape, I hit my Medici EQ — which is a fine-tuning mastering device. I put a very gentle bump in the low end at around 100Hz and 125Hz. I also tend to look at the 500Hz range to eliminate any muddiness that can build up in the toms and guitars. Cutting that frequency range a bit tends to really liven up a kick drum. If the mix is good, the changes can be very subtle — maybe only 1dB total of reduction.”

One of Addabbo’s favorite tools to help him achieve sonic balance is the Waves C4 multiband compressor, which can isolate and process the dynamics of a specific frequency, enabling the engineer to alter, for example, the thwack of a snare drum or the thump of a kick drum.

“With a multiband compressor, you can pick out things in the mix that don’t sound very exciting, and really enhance any particular band,” says Addabbo. “Let’s say there’s too much bass. If you create the right low-end setting on a multiband compressor, you can have it kick in exactly when a specific frequency band gets too loud, and pull back the bass at just the right moment. A multiband compressor is also handy for the midrange frequencies, where a vocal can often use a little more presence, as well as for the high end, where a cymbal can be overbearing.”
Getting hot enough levels for broadcast was very important to Barone and Addabbo, as, like it or not, we are living in the age of competitive radio airplay.

“One of the things I was up against was making the CD loud enough so that it could compete with what’s coming out today, but without making square waves out of it — which most commercial CDs these days are starting to sound like,” says Addabbo. “To do this, I used a combination of analog and digital tools. I did some gentle overall compression on my SSL G384, using a very slow attack and a fast release. Generally, I don’t use more than maybe 1dB of analog compression on the SSL, because it affects the overall mix too much. Then, I used Digidesign’s Maxim and Waves’ L1 and L2 digital plug-ins. The L1 was employed for a couple of more dB of leveling and limiting. On the Maxim—which sounds sweeter to me than the L1 and the L2 — I set its ceiling to –1dB. I’m telling the limiter it can’t let the audio hit zero — that’s the cutoff. The final stage in the mastering chain was my Universal Audio 2192 AD/DA converter. It’s by far one of the sweetest two-track converters we have. Part of it has to do with its tube front end. Whenever I go into that box, it just seems to create a very pleasing master. It emulates the feel of 1/2" analog tape.”

Addabbo made the 44.1kHz CD by creating a playlist in the Alesis MasterLink, then did the track spacing and IDs in Waveburner.
“In Waveburner, you have a timeline, and you import your 44.1kHz master files to it,” he says. “It gives you a visual interface that shows you where your tracks are, and exactly how much time is between them, so you can make fine adjustments to ensure the right flow of your tracks.”
“The mastering process requires an entirely different frame of mind,” adds Barone. “It’s almost as if you have to become a ‘doctor’ for sound. As an artist, I’ve worked with some of the best mastering engineers — including Bob Ludwig — and I usually tell them, ‘Here’s my pain. What can you do to help me?’”

Home Cooking

Do you have some older tracks you recorded back in the days when you didn’t know what you know now, and you’d like to resurrect them? Try your hand at remastering. Even if the tracks don’t end up being released commercially, you’ll learn a lot.

Start off with equalization. You may need to add some high end for sparkle, or trim some bass to lessen muddiness. But also try to reduce frequency “buildups” you might have missed the first time around. Sweep a midrange EQ set for a huge boost [Tip: turn down your monitors first] and a relatively narrow bandwidth — like an octave. Some frequency ranges will jump out compared to others. Find the range that jumps out the most, then set the gain to zero to re-acclimate your ears to the “normal” sound. Then, reduce the gain a dB or two at that frequency. This will often tighten up, and even out, the sound.

Add any dynamics control after the EQ is squared away. A few dB of loudness maximization or compression can make for a hotter, more consistent sound, but don’t go overboard, or you could end up with the overcompression that mars so many recordings these days.
—Craig Anderton

Baked Goods

If your recording career pre-dates the digital age by a few minutes or so, you likely have some analog tape masters hiding out in your closet, storage bin, or garage. These don’t have to be the forgotten jewels of your musical repertoire — especially as personal distribution channels such as MySpace are available for you to introduce past endeavors to new listeners. But, as Barone discovered with his Drums Along the Hudson masters, remixing or even playing old two-tracks can be problematic if the magnetic tape is decayed and gooey. Baking is a proven method for making analog masters playable again, and it can pave the way for you to transfer your old tracks to digital, dress ’em for today’s audiences, and send them out into the public domain again. There’s a wonderful article on the process by engineer Eddie Ciletti on composer Wendy Carlos’ site at www.wendycarlos.com/bake%20a%20tape/baketape.html. You can also avail yourself of outside baking services, such as www.audio-restorations.com, which charges from $10 (cassette tape) to $50 (2" analog master) to resurrect old tapes. So, fire up the oven, and save your music!
—Michael Molenda