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Remaster (and its derivations, frequently found in the phrases digitally remastered or digital remastering) refers to quality enhancement of sound and/or picture to a previously existing recording.
To understand the concept of remastering, it is beneficial to understand that often a pyramid of copies would be made from a single original "master" recording, which might itself be based on previous recordings. For example, sound effects (a door opening, punching sounds, falling down the stairs, a bell ringing, etc.) might have been added from copies of sound effect tapes similar to modern sampling to make a radio play for broadcast.
A master is the recording which experts state will be the definitive copy that is duplicated for the end user usually into other formats i.e. LP records, CDs, DVDs etc.
Problematically, several different levels of masters often exist for any one audio release. As an example, examine the way a typical music album from the 1960s was created. Musicians and vocalists were recorded on multi-track tape. This tape was mixed to create a stereo or mono master. A further master tape would likely be created from this original master recording consisting of equalization and other adjustments and improvements to the audio to make it sound better on record players for example.
More master recordings would be duplicated from the equalized master for regional copying purposes (for example to send to several pressing plants). Pressing masters for vinyl recordings would be created. Often these interim recordings were referred to as Mother Tapes. All vinyl records would derive from one of the master recordings.
Thus, mastering refers to the process of creating a master. This might be as simple as copying a tape for further duplication purposes, or might include the actual equalization and processing steps used to fine-tune material for release. The latter example usually requires the work of mastering engineers.
With the advent of digital recording in the late 1970s, many mastering ideas changed. Previously, creating new masters meant incurring an analogue generational loss; in other words, copying a tape to a tape meant reducing the signal-to-noise ratio. This means how much of the original intended "good" information is recorded against faults added to the recording as a result of the technical limitations of the equipment used (noise, e.g. tape hiss, static, etc.) Although noise reduction techniques exist, they also increase other audio distortions such as azimuth shift, wow and flutter, print-through and stereo image shift.
With digital recording, masters could be created and duplicated without incurring the usual generational loss. As CDs were a digital format, digital masters created from original analog recordings became a necessity.
Remastering is the process of making a new master for an album, movie, or any other creation. It tends to refer to the process of porting a recording from an analogue medium to a digital one, but this is not always the case.
For example, a vinyl LP originally pressed from a worn-out pressing master many tape generations removed from the "original" master recording could be remastered and re-pressed from a better-condition tape. All CDs created from analogue sources are technically digitally remastered.
The process of creating a digital transfer of an analogue tape remasters the material in the digital domain, even if no equalization, compression, or other processing is done to the material. Ideally, because of their high resolution, a CD or DVD (or other) release should come from the best source possible, with the most care taken during its transfer.
Additionally, the earliest days of the CD era found digital technology in its infancy, which sometimes resulted in poor-sounding digital transfers. The earliest days of the DVD era were not much different, with early DVD copies of movies frequently being produced from worn prints, with low bitrates and muffled audio. When the first CD remasters turned out to be bestsellers, companies soon realized that new editions of back-catalogue items could compete with new releases as a source of revenue. Back-catalogue values skyrocketed, and today it is not unusual to see expanded and remastered editions of fairly modern albums.
Master tapes, or something close to them, can be used to make CD releases. Better processing choices can be used. Better prints can be utilized, with sound elements remixed to 5.1 surround sound and obvious print flaws digitally corrected. The modern era gives publishers almost unlimited ways to touch up, doctor, and "improve" their media, and as each release promises improved sound, video, extras and others, producers hope these upgrades will entice people into making a purchase.
While digitally remastered films are generally accepted as having improved image quality, remastered audio has been the subject of criticism. Many remastered CDs from the late 1990s onwards have become casualties of the loudness war, where the average volume of the recording is increased at the expense of clarity and dynamic range, making the remastered version sound louder at regular listening volume than an uncompressed version. Some have also criticised the overuse of noise reduction in the remastering process, as it affects not only the noise, but the signal too, and can leave audible artifacts. Equalization can change the character of a recording noticeably. As EQ decisions are a matter of taste to some degree, they are often the subject of criticism.
- Levine, Robert (December 26, 2007). "The Death of High Fidelity:In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on December 30, 2007.
- Interview with Steve Wilson in Preston 53 Degrees venue, date 20/4/07.