“Tube Mastering is my house,” says Andy Jackson, the founder of Tube Mastering, revealing exactly what has happened to the studio market.
“Everything is internet delivery.” Maybe so, but the arrival of another mouth-watering box set of discs issued by Pink Floyd – the original psychedelic architects, not a tribute band – provides the exception to that rule, with Jackson once again in charge of the remastering of Floyd history.
And exceptional it is. Some of the project is beyond remastering and extends to remixing and even re-recording, raising tantalising questions about how creative choices made in the analogue era can be made all over again in the digital era, given the right set of circumstances.
Later… with jewels honed
The Later Years 1987–2019, which came out November 29, 2019, is comprised of five CDs, six Blu-rays and five DVDs and is a sequel, quite naturally enough, to The Early Years 1965–1972 – although the world awaits news of a ‘Middle Years’ equivalent. So, this set covers the period after Roger Waters had left the band and its chronological centrepieces are the studio albums A Momentary Lapse of Reason from 1987, The Division Bell from 1994 and 2014’s The Endless River. In addition, there are remastered and expanded live sets, concert film and 5.1 mixes for those who mourn Super Audio CD.
The revisionism mentioned specifically refers to A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, for which Nick Mason’s drum parts and Richard Wright’s keyboard parts have been substituted. The process began a good ten years ago, but sadly – RIP Richard Wright – the keyboards could not be completed as planned. In the end – and in a way that keeps the sonic skin grafts in as much context as possible – they were transplanted from contemporary live recordings of the material, a process that Jackson acknowledges is a combination of digital facility and aesthetic necessity.
“There was a crisis of direction after Roger [Waters] left,” explains Jackson, “and Bob Ezrin was brought in to co-produce the original album. He had a mission statement: it had to sound like this new-fangled invention, the Compact Disc, and he said this brandishing Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits. There were all these other new toys, too, like MIDI, sequencing and the DX7. It sounded really new but, in retrospect, less like Pink Floyd. Being innovative is one thing, but the band has never been interested in being fashionable, which is how it sounded. When we did the next album, The Division Bell, we said, let’s not do that again.”
Pro Tools only took root as the 1990s progressed, and The Division Bell was more typical of Floyd in relying on printing musicians onto analogue multitrack. “It sounds like it could have been made five minutes after Dark Side Of The Moon,” as Jackson puts it. “Even the most recent material – David [Gilmour]’s solo album Rattle That Lock – is by and large human beings,” he continues. “There’s a bit of fun with loops and recording bits on iPhone, but it’s basically very traditional. So to combat the sense that Momentary Lapse was constructed around a MIDI backbone, which it was, we decided to rebuild the drums and keyboards.”
The drums were re-recorded in a more air-tight mode, avoiding the bombastic gated reverb of the ‘80s original, a goal achieved during fresh sessions on board guitarist Dave Gilmour’s Astoria houseboat and studio on the River Thames. Drums completed, the loss of Rick Wright demanded a re-think.“We combed through hours of recorded shows,” reveals Jackson, “obviously using material for the Delicate Sound Of Thunder live album release but there’s loads more, and picked out the best keyboard parts. They were playing to click so they all fitted well, and where they didn’t quite slot in we tinkered until they did. In truth, Rick’s playing onstage was more ‘off the leash’ and lively than in the pressure of the red studio light, so it was actually a really good move.“One of my only regrets from making all these albums with the band is that we never got to make them in the Pro Tools era, because the freedom it provides could have made both Nick and Rick relax a lot more and, I think, some of it could have been better. Endless River is Pro Tools but it’s the only one, and there’s no new Rick.”
Division of labour
Tube Mastering grew out of Grammy-nominated Jackson’s impeccable attention to detail over many years of Floyd sessions, notably at the Astoria, where the bar of hi-fi geekiness was raised to the level of giving the mains power itself a thorough MOT. But whereas in the past he’s turned to rarefied outboard – including Tim de Paravacini’s Esoteric Audio Research EQ and compressor and Leif Mases’ Maselec EQ and limiter – as well as cabling that would, in a few metres, match the price of a car – he has by his own admission been converted to working almost exclusively ‘in the box’. Take a deep breath. This has only been made possible by the advent of Universal Audio’s UAD range of plugins.
“That’s what did it for me,” he says, “and it’s only a recent decision.”The industry crossed a line when UAD came out, because it sounds as good as the outboard. The logistics and the ergonomics are a bonus, and it also means making 5.1 from stereo is not a big deal. It’s a not a big deal, anyway, as that market has never really taken off.”
The Later Years has involved more edited and remixing than The Early Years, but all of these projects call for curating decisions that strike a balance between audience expectations and the band’s best interests. “There’s always a conflict between what the diehard fans will want to hear and what the band will want anyone to hear,” admits Jackson, “but thankfully it’s not my choice. I advise the management on what’s available, what would be suitable for various formats and so on, and this box set has some material that hasn’t been heard before. But David will say ‘yeah, I’m fine with that’ or ‘God, no…”
Floyd material, even up to 1994, has to be transferred from stereo or multitrack tape to a DAW for remastering, in this case the industry-standard SADiE platform. Once inside this domain, the UAD comes into its own. “I once took a ‘classic album’ Floyd multitrack and did an analogue-domain static mix – no fader movements – with all the external APIs, 1176s and everything else connected, before then converting,” Jackson recounts. “Then I slavishly recreated all of that in the box, using the UAD plugins. In each case there was just one stage of digitisation.”Finally, we did a blind shoot-out,” he explains, “switching randomly, all of the tricks. It came down to ‘swings and roundabouts’ or, actually, the digital was better. Now, the Neve console has a big plank on it just to hold the monitors.”Those who remember Primrose Hill’s Utopia Studios will identify Jackson’s workaday 24-track training, where one day could throw you Judas Priest and the next Roger Whittaker. “You just had to get on with it,” he says.
Floyd work began in 1980 and the live recording of The Wall at Earls Court tour, followed by the movie soundtrack and then the 1983 album The Final Cut. Since then they’ve done virtually nothing in the studio without him, including solo projects for both Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters, and for the last album – perhaps the last album – he was producer. The Rubicon was crossed to the FOH position for Floyd’s 1994 world tour, although he had already mixed a Waters solo tour 10 years earlier.
Today the foot is somewhat off the accelerator, with Tube Mastering projects falling into place around a similarly relaxed role as senior engineer for David Gilmour’s many studios, including one now called Medina in Brighton. “By sheer chance, there was a building for sale at the back of his house there that had been a small theatre,” explains Jackson, “so it was soon obvious what he was going to do with it. In fact, that’s where we recorded Rattle That Lock.”Who knows what future formats await for new Pink Floyd remasters – perhaps a 360° headphone solution – but it seems likely that Andy Jackson will be there, shepherding some of the late 20th century’s most crucial music into it with a disarming sense of modesty. He concludes: “I learned a very important lesson a long time ago, and that was always to remember that it’s not my name on the cover. If you develop the wrong sense of ownership it will come back to bite you. Fortunately, we have a very good working relationship established over a long time, so I can make suggestions. And in the end, it’s their baby – not mine.”
Listen the album on Spotify below: