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Physical reissues: ‘last gasp’ or new dawn?

Pink Floyd, The Smiths, REM, The Beach Boys... 2011 has witnessed some landmark, kitchen-sink-and-all remastering programmes. Is this the start of a lavish new era for the physical reissue or merely a final, glorious hurrah, wonders David Davies?

Pink Floyd, The Smiths, REM, The Beach Boys… 2011 has witnessed some landmark, kitchen-sink-and-all remastering programmes. Is this the start of a lavish new era for the physical reissue or merely a final, glorious hurrah, wonders David Davies?

From USA Today to the New Zealand Listener, Nick Mason has certainly clocked up the media miles as the gargantuan ‘Why Pink Floyd?’ reissue campaign cranks into life. Common to many of these interviews has been the Floyd drummer’s suggestion that we might be witnessing a “last gasp” for the physical release – a troubling thought, no doubt, for the band whose Storm Thorgerson-masterminded packaging is some of the most elaborate in rock music.

If this is the last chance to get it right, Mason and company have certainly seized the moment: as well as relatively straightforward ‘Discovery Edition’ remasters of the original 14 studio albums, there are several double-disc ‘Experience Editions’, and – for the truly devoted/minted – five-plus-disc versions with special artwork and collector’s books of mid ‘70s classics The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.

This late-stage decision to unleash an abundance of previously unheard studio and live material – something that the band, fairly uniquely among its peers, had hitherto strenuously resisted – would appear to give credence to the idea that the non-virtually-oriented reissue/remaster could soon be heading into the sunset. And certainly, there is a widespread feeling that if artists wish to take another look at the physical product, now is probably a good time.

‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’ from The Smiths’ glorious 1987 swansong album, Strangeways, Here We Come, offered a famously biting commentary on the motivations of the reissue process, but it hasn’t prevented the iconic Mancunian quartet from initiating a major remastering campaign with an eight-CD box set, to be followed by individual album releases in 2012. At the helm of the remastering process are Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and engineer Frank Arkwright, who undertook the work at Metropolis Studios prior to taking up a new role at Abbey Road.

“I think we knew it was the opportunity to get them right,” Arkwright tells PSNE. “And it was exciting! We had four cases of analogue tapes which hadn’t been touched for years, and it was fascinating to play them back. They really captured the spirit and the atmosphere of the day they were recorded.”

The band’s original albums had not been remastered for CD since the original silver discs were issued in the 1980s – plenty of time in which to conclude that they were “too bright and thin sounding – not really the sound of The Smiths.” Resolved to lend the new versions “some room to breathe and some dynamics”, Arkwright and Marr set to work with a carefully-selected studio configuration featuring an Ampex ATR-100 tape machine, a Prism AD2 analogue-to-digital converter, and EQs from Sontec and Weiss. Paul Weller, Bernard Butler and Smiths co-producer Stephen Street all dropped into the sessions, which also yielded download and vinyl masters.

While Arkwright acknowledges that “the focus has been shifting towards download for a while”, approximately three quarters of his work still ends up on a physical format – be it CD or vinyl. The latter format appears particularly vibrant, with recent projects on behalf of Joy Division, Duran Duran and Bryan Ferry suggesting that the collector’s instinct remains undiminished: “A vinyl LP is a nice object to own, as is a box set with CDs, videos, artwork and 7-inch singles.”

Alex Wordsworth (pictured), studio manager at leading London mastering house The Soundmasters, is also firmly of the belief that the physical reissue still has a viable future. “Anything we remaster is for physical reissue as opposed to just digital, [and in fact we’ve probably] done more remastering in the last two years than we did in the four or five years before that,” says Wordsworth, citing often lavish back catalogue projects for artists including The Cure, Simply Red, The La’s and experimental rock pioneers Can.

With the exception of The Cure – still cheering up audiences worldwide after more than 30 years – none of those acts are going concerns. It therefore seems reasonable to expect the physical reissue to be further nourished by the inevitable quiet shuffle of more ageing bands into retirement over the next few years. As Wordsworth notes, “it’s not often that albums are remastered and rereleased while the band is still active or in its original form”.

In any case, he continues, mastering for download “does not affect the process we use – analogue mastering equipment and experienced ears”. But while the fundamental techniques might not change, new technologies are emerging that will allow engineers to further optimise their masters for different markets and formats.

The Sonnox Fraunhofer Pro-Codec Plug-In is a case in point. Designed for the real-time auditioning, encoding and decoding of audio signals using Fraunhofer codecs, Pro-Codec acknowledges “the huge change in trend in how music is purchased over the last few years, [meaning] that most mastering engineers’ work in producing a perfect WAV file is somewhat in vain since the file will be crushed by the aggregators and they have no control over how the end-result may sound,” says Sonnox WW sales and marketing manager Nathan Eames. “Pro-Codec will empower mastering engineers to audition the encoded mix in real-time and optimise their work for MP3 or AAC.” The plug-in will allow engineers to produce mixes optimised towards specific target codecs, while mastering engineers will have the opportunity to audition in the final format and produce compensated masters for final encoding and distribution.

Technologies such as Pro-Codec will help to smooth the inevitable format shift as the audiences who are most closely attached to the CD – many of whom will attribute a significant portion of their music spend to back catalogue – begin to melt away. But the Money-esque ringing cash-tills that have accompanied the Floyd campaign – no fewer than five albums recharted within the official UK top 100 albums chart in their first week of reissue – confirm that many listeners are reluctant to relinquish their attachment to the physical presence.