Frequently Asked Questions
Concerning the music and mastering of Steve Hoffman.
It is not copyrighted in and of itself, however, the information was derived from many sources some copyrighted, and some not. This is purely for the non-commercial use of people who want to know about DCC without having to ask the same common questions that have already been asked and answered before. One more thing. You get what you pay for. This is free and not to be sold and while efforts have been made to ensure the information is accurate, no warranties or guarantee is being given or implied in any way, shape or form as to the information provided here. Most of the answers are direct from Steve Hoffman being interviewed for various magazines.
|The Company and the Discs
Who or what was DCC Compact Classics?
DCC is an offshoot of the old Dunhill Records. The founder of the company, Marshall Blonstein, was the President of Island Records and of Ode Records and he formed this company, DCC Compact Classics, formerly Dunhill Compact Classics, in 1986, for the purpose of re-issuing things that had been long unavailable, kinda like Rhino Records but a little more, er, serious-minded.
[NOTE: Marshall left DCC and started Audio Fidelity]
When it was running, how did DCC decide which CD’s to put out?
Well, it has to be a classic album that someone has fond memories of, it has to be licensable, it has to be something that we can make a big improvement on, and it has to be something that we know will be saleable; but basically it comes down to what we like around here. And we put these big, endless lists together and send them over to the companies to see what they think. And they look down the list going, "Yes, No, Yes, No, No, Yes". Then we say, "Well, why did you say ‘No’ to this one?" Sometimes they say, "Well, we have to go through the artist or their management company..." and we can come back with, "OK, we can do that." So sometimes a "No" can become "Yes", but that’s essentially how we do it, but there is no set answer to that. Every great piece of music, almost, is owned by some big label somewhere and we have to deal with them. And we have to make sure they understand what we are trying to do and that we aren’t trying to compete with them. And it usually works.
What was the first CD you ever mastered?
The first was called "Buddy Holly - For The First Time Anywhere". It was basically the un-dubbed versions of a lot of his early things, It sold incredibly well, so I decided to do one on everyone else I could find there. From Bing Crosby on.
Of course, that wasn't your first ever mastering project ever - just for CD on MCA. What's the earliest recording you have worked on mastering wise?
Good question. Deanna Durbin "Memories" 1982. Those albums in the "1500" series on my discography pages are the first batch I ever did. Mainly from pre-tape sources. I remember the first album that I actually CHANGED MY CAREER OBJECTIVE on was an "Ames Bros." album. The mastering engineer had actually mastered the album with the tape INSIDE OUT, because it was "A" wound back in the 1950's (with the oxide out) and it never occurred to him to reverse it. After that, I learned how to master. Back to the Buddy Holly CD for a moment I understand that was the easiest to master as well. It took me just four hours to master that disc. No EQ or tricks of any kind needed, just level adjusts, and that great Norman Petty sound poured out of the speakers. Of course, it took me two years and three months to find all of the tapes, but that's another story...
How come you don’t just put out what you want?
Can’t always get permission.
How come some labels like K-Tel and Time-Life, etc. get to put stuff out that DCC doesn't?
K-Tel actually owns a lot of famous oldies. The rest of the stuff is licensed by them with ease, because they can sell a million copies at one time, so they can "bribe" (not a good word, but I can't think of another before dinner) the record companies with a goodly amount of dough. Simple. DCC could do it too, but we can't sell as much... We would lose profits if we licensed 20 songs that way! In the case of Time-Life, they have a HUGE mailing list; is it 30 million addresses? Something like that. They could sell the phone book. Also, they put it in writing in their contracts to the record companies that they will ONLY sell their CD's MAIL ORDER, and not in retail stores. It is much easier to license product that way. No conflicts with already existing retail albums.
When will the albums you have been able to license be out?
It all depends on the record label and what they want. On more than one occasion the entire process was going fine and then permission was either withdrawn or a request was made to hold off on releasing something for several days, weeks and even months.
How come some DCC titles go out of print?
We have a three-year contract for each title. Sometimes an option for two more, which we will take advantage of if the title is a big seller.
How much money does it cost to put out a Gold CD?
More than it did when we started over 10 years ago, but not as much as it will in the future since prices always go up.
Why do the discs cost so much?
The extra time and expense in only using the original master tapes and then making them sound the best they possibly can without changing that sound.
Why are they gold?
Gold does not oxidize like aluminum and it has a smoother surface for the laser of the CD player to bounce off of.
Why are DCC CD’s and Vinyl Records different from others?
No mastering engineer at any major record label has enough time. I spent five weeks on Joni Mitchell's Blue. It was a complicated one. But that's DCC they let me. A major label like Warner issues 35 titles a month. They don't have time to muck around.
What do the artists think about DCC versions of their music?
Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker all heard Wheels Of Fire, Fresh Cream, and really loved them. Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger (from The Doors) were very enthused about the Gold CD's we did.
The Master Tape
Let’s start with the Master Tape. What is that?
With few exceptions like special recordings made with only two microphones, the music released on CD by DCC Compact Classics was originally recorded on a multi-track tape machine. Instead of the traditional left and right channel like on a stereo, it began with two and three tracks in the 50s to up to 48 or more in the 80s. Each instrument or group of instruments is recorded onto separate tracks many times on different days or in different locations around the world. Those separate tracks are then mastered down to two tracks like on a stereo. This first generation mix-down tape is the actual original master tape of the album.
So why didn't the record companies use these master tapes to begin with?
In the old days, you couldn’t just cut a record from the master tape or the stylus would just jump right off the record when you tried to play it. So in the old days, mastering was cutting a record so you could play it on an average phonograph. Unlike the CD’s of today with wide dynamic range (difference between the softest and loudest volume), the LPs had a much smaller range so you had to use a compressor to limit that range to an acceptable level. Also you couldn’t load up the bass too much or the stylus would jump off of the record. So you had to use an equalizer to back off on the low end or turn up the high end and you had to ride the levels so it didn’t get too loud. You essentially did what you needed to in order to have the best sound that would fit into the grooves of the record. And that being a very subjective thing - every mastering engineer had their own way of achieving that. In addition, while they were playing the master tape onto a record lacquer for use in making vinyl records, a tape was running to capture this version of the album. That became the EQ Dub or Cutting Master and was then sometimes incorrectly labeled the Master Tape and they put the real master tape away since it didn’t need to be used. So then any time another lacquer needed to be cut, you just pulled out the "LP master" tape. And depending on how long ago the recording was made, there might be a different tape marked master made for reel to reel duping or 8-track tape duping and that led to a lot of confusion when asking for the Master Tape.
What's this about "baking" master tapes so you can use them?
Believe it or not, the tape manufacturers used to lubricate their tapes with whale oil. That natural lubricant worked so well that you can pull out a tape from 1949 and it will still play and it's wonderful. After the energy crisis in 1974, the tape manufacturers said they could make a synthetic lubricant that would work just as well. And that is what they did. And every tape from 1974 to around 1986 is made with that synthetic lubricant which starts to break down after about five years and then you can't play the tapes any more. Now they didn't know that was going to happen, of course, but that is what happened. So at first they tried to re-lubricate the tapes, which without it is like trying to rub sand paper on a fragile surface without any lubrication - and it didn't work. So rather than destroy all of these tapes, Ampex Corporation discovered that if you heat up the tapes in a convex oven to a certain temperature, then they will be playable for a short period of time. The other good thing they discovered was that you can heat them again every time you need to play them. I don't like to think about doing that, although I have had to before, but it's good to know that you can do that or you might as well throw the tapes in the trash. And our entire musical heritage from about 1974 to 1986 is plagued with this problem. What’s amazing is that the early stuff, recorded on cheaper tapes - that stuff works great still.
From what I understand it seems like as time goes on, it will get harder and harder to find the original working mix, because tapes are added to the vaults periodically. Different mixes, copies of copies, layer upon layer. An analogy comes to mind. Digging up fossils and dinosaurs. How to know which species came first. I've heard you had to go through hundreds of tapes to finally get to the master. Well, what do you think it will be like 30 years from now, with remixes and different generation copies coming at us right and left all the time. Eventually it will probably be like finding a needle in a haystack. It's good to know that the Doors have their masters organized, but tell me Steve is there a label or an artist besides Dylan, that was just a hellish experience in locating the right tape? And did you offer them advice on keeping the master from the rest of the heap after you returned it?
You know I won't say what is chaos and what isn't out there, but I think most Record Companies now realize that their vault means $$$ to them and will try to get organized in the end. The best I ever saw was Capitol Records LA. PolyGram has it together as well. Atlantic, Elektra, Warner/Reprise all have fantastic vaults, with the possibility of finding the correct tape at a MOMENT'S notice. Other companies are (with the help of their Special Markets departments) making "Cosmos out of Chaos" (as an old professor of mine used to say).
Specific Question on Baking Tapes from the stevehoffman.tv Forum
Great board you have here! I have a question regarding mastering 1/4 tapes to a computer and then onto CD. My mom has been recording throughout her career in her home studio and she has a ton of 1/4 tapes that badly need to go onto CD before they disentegrate on her. They have been stored in a dry basement at about 60 degrees in their 1/4 tape cases for 10-20 years. But obviously they have gone through some wear since they haven't been stored in the proper conditions. So my question for you is if these tapes can be saved with equipment she has. She has Paris Ensoniq computer software (DAW) and these tapes are 1/4 inch Ampex 456 tapes that are 10-20 years old. Her 1/4 inch player has new rollers, etc. What does she need to do to master these onto CD. She knows how to run her computer software but she needs to know how to play her tapes w/o losing the sound quality when running them through the computer software. Does she need to bake the tapes, etc. Any advice is greatly appreciated!! Thanks!!
Ampex 456, eh? Yeah, needs to be baked. Read this first:
Baking Magnetic Recording Tape to temporarily restore old tape for playback.
Over time, magnetic recording tape becomes unplayable because the binder used to adhere the magnetic material to the backing or a chemical added to the binder becomes unstable. Tapes in this condition will leave a gooey residue on the tape transport. This residue is comprised mostly of the magnetic material, and playing a tape in this condition will destroy the recording without accurately playing the recorded audio.
There are many individual recipes for baking tapes. For the most part, they are all similar in their process in that they are used to dry the tape at low heat. Once a tape has been baked, it should be dubbed within 24 hours. In most cases it is possible to re-bake a tape as necessary to retrieve the audio, but this should not be a substitute for copying the material, preferably to a digital format that will preserve the audio in its highest possible quality.
Stored tape should always have a smooth wrap. Tapes stored tails out after being played will naturally have this. Tapes that have been rewound at high speed typically do not have a smooth wrap. If the tape to be baked does not have a smooth wrap, try to rewrap the tape by transferring it from one reel to another without running it through the tape guides. This is not easy to do on most tape machines. You may have to do your best with what you have and rewrap the tape after baking it.
Several methods are listed here for your reference. BE Radio makes no claim as to the suitability of any of these methods, nor is BE Radio responsible for any loss resulting from the use of these methods.
So now we have the Master Tape then we need to Master it. What’s that?
Well, mastering is... let me use an analogy that sometimes people can understand and sometimes they can't. Mastering is sort of like: The Louvre in Paris, France is loaning me the Mona Lisa. OK. So they send me the Mona Lisa and I get excited and decide to invite all of my friends over to see it. Now, am I going to take the Mona Lisa outside and show it in the direct sunlight so it looks all old and crackly? Or am I going to set it up inside with the right kind of lighting. It's all in the presentation. That's what I do in mastering. It's taking the original and polishing it so it can sound the best it can sound. And that involves making sure that the tape is played back correctly on the correct sounding machine. I have to make sure that all of the things on the tape machine are taken care of and that the heads are in alignment and all that boring stuff. And also making sure that when it's played the levels of the songs are relatively the same, there are no dynamic or impedance problems, and everything is running smooth. And while that stuff may not sound like a lot of fun, getting that stuff right is what actually makes something sound better than it actually has before.
[The following came up on the DCC forum concerning master tapes since the original Bob Seger "Night Moves" CD was essentially a flat transfer of the two track master tape with no alteration. Steve altered it for the DCC release so I asked:]
What is the purpose of that two track master tape? Isn't that the one with the "karma" so that is what we should all want copies of just the way it is? (provided it hasn't been damaged over time so it needs restored to the way it originally sounded) Or is that simply the storage mechanism that regardless of the sound is later mastered for whatever playback medium will be sold in stores.
Using "Night Moves" LP master tape as an example: The original Capitol CD's were mastered "flat" from the original tapes. Now, for me, that's great, because I can fix them up the way I like, with no nasty Digital EQ/No Noise to try and undo. In other words, I can "play" (like a kid in a sandbox).
I realize that for most of you, that ain't what you want to do. OK. Now, as you know, the actual master tape of "Night Moves" is mucho dull. So, even though it is the master tape, I don't like the way it sounds. They must have mixed that very, very loud, or on monitors very, very bright. Get me?
On the DCC Gold CD version of "Night Moves", I just made this rather dull original tape sound more like I felt it should. Still very important to use the actual master, but of itself, it is not always the best it can be...
Then another person on the forum followed with:
So...your first impulse would be to find out what gear/monitors the tape was mixed to, hook them up and go from there? Or do you just like you said, "play" until you get what you like? If the latter happens it means that you are giving us your subjective opinion. So, all these DCC fans like what all of your work sounds like JUST because you did it. Now, if I say I don't like the sound of the DCC "Elton John Greatest Hits", my subjective opinion differs from yours. So, is your opinion more right than mine?
But you must realize that mastering (as well as engineering) is totally subjective. I do it as part of my job (Senior VP of A&R). I also do it because I think I can improve the sound of recorded music that an engineer or producer might not have been able to originally, due to a number of reasons. Essentially, most folks like my efforts. There could be some who don't, but I doubt he or she would post on the DCC Forum.
"So... your first impulse would be to find out what gear/monitors the tape was mixed to, hook them up and go from there? Or do you just like you said, "play" until you get what you like?"
Grant, that IS playing for me. I call it playing when I do it for fun, not work, but the idea is the same. I don't try and change someone else's' work, I just polish it to the degree of shine that I like. Most folks seem to like it too. If someone doesn't agree, well, it's a free country of course!
You mentioned that when you mastered the recent Bob Marley compilation that you bypassed the mastering console. In another thread you said it would be best to bypass that mastering console in the case of the Beatles albums. So this is two-part question:
1. What is a mastering console and what does it do?
2. When would you want to use it and when wouldn't you?
I realize in your case we would be talking about an analog console and not some Sonic Solutions console or some other DAW.
Well I'm certainly not Steve, but this is a fairly straight ahead question. A mastering console is basically like a recording console but smaller and designed for mastering. It's basic function is to control and process the source material before presenting it to the master recording device, whether digital or analog. For stereo analog mastering, there would generally be a couple of faders to control the incoming level of the signal, as well as equalization, possibly compression, and sends and returns for outboard processors. One can bypass the console to eliminate it's effect on the signal if desired. To do this means that the signal may have to be controlled by other means. For example, supposed the level of the master tape is deemed too low. Since the console is bypassed, there is no easy way to increase the level, so the output of the playback tape deck might have to be increased. Generally the input and output levels of studio equipment is pre aligned and not varied. Of course, this is not a rule etched in stone. The same would go for eq. If eq is deemed necessary by the mastering engineer, you either have to go through the console or patch in an outboard equalizer.
This is the same concept as bypassing the recording console in search of better sound. Many people will take a microphone, run it through an external preamp, and hook it right up to the tape deck, hence bypassing the recording console. While this eliminates a lot of options for control, it also bypasses a lot of electronic circuitry which can have a degrading effect on the signal. Of course one has to go through the console for mixing. When you look at a signal flow schematic for a recording console you'd be surprised how many active components you go through. Some consoles might have 20 amplifiers or more between mic and tape recorder. Many audiophiles would cringe at adding 1 extra amplifier to their systems, so you can see why the premise of console bypass has appeal.
Doug is right. Although the mastering console I use is very purist in approach, if I don't need it, I don't use it. In the below picture you see a bunch of stuff on the console. Normally I don't use most of it but in the below right part you see (by Kevin's arm) four big knobs, green and red. That is the main mastering console; left and right level controls set up in an "A&B" configuration for easy switching between two different volume set ups.
When I mastered the "Who's Next" that everyone seems to love here, I bypassed the console at Bruce Botnick's DIGITAL MAGNETICS studio and used the analog playback tape machine itself to set the correct levels of the songs and I also used it to fix a few EQ problems. So, I could get a "level corrected" and EQ'd signal directly to the A to D converter without any other sonic manipulations. It's a pain but the end result is sometimes worth it!
Please note that the mastering console at AcousTech sounds really wonderful and it's just the purist in me that wants to bypass it at all. How good does this mastering console really sound? Well, every LP and 45 RPM lacquer I've ever cut with Kevin Gray at AcousTech uses this mastering console and I think you will agree that the disks sound pretty amazing!
If there was only one artist Steve would like to be able to master…it would be?
That said, and knowing you like all kinds of music, does it matter to you what you are mastering? In other words, are you objective or do you take a different approach when mastering an artist you like as opposed to one you don't?
In the case of a favorite group, I'll take the mix that sounds the best to me, mono or stereo. Example: "Can't Buy Me Love", or "I Want To Hold Your Hand". Both stereo mixes are very weak. The mono's however, really kick ass. Amazing difference. I do find, however, that whether I like the artist when I begin, after listening to their work over and over, I always find SOMETHING to like about them.
I approach mastering everything in the same way, actually. Music is music, and it must sound the best it can (to me). What I do make a choice on, is what is the actual (IMO) most important element of the song. The drums, bass, vocal, strings, etc. I concentrate on giving the breath of life to one thing, and, if I'm lucky, other things start to fall into place. If I'm not lucky, I pick what I think is the most important thing and try to work with that alone...Example: Creedence. Impossible to get the vocals lifelike and the music lifelike because of the way most of the things were mixed. Since the Fantasy folks chose to "crisp up" the music/drums on their regular CD's, I chose on the DCC stuff to make the vocals less harsh and more lifelike. To me it works, but the percussion suffers. Oh well...
What about when you do independent projects for other companies (like Razor & Tie), do you take whatever tape they hand you or do you only do it the Steve Hoffman way?
I never use "whatever tape they give me". I always request exactly what I want. Whether they send me the original, or I get a DAT or an analog safety, it's always the version that I request. Never had a problem, but I've had to send stuff back many times before I received the correct version...
One quick example: The Razor & Tie "Don Covay & The Goodtimes" CD. Cliff and Mike gave me about two weeks to master it. A DAT was sent to me from Razor & Tie that they had received from Atlantic. Atlantic got some of it right, but some of the mono stuff was an obvious "echo'd" dub. No way I'm going to use those - Don Covay deserved better. So, I got an extension (they held back the release date), and I got Atlantic to do some more research. Rather than waste time, they just sent me a big pile of original tapes to go through, mono and stereo. Took about a week, but I did the mastering and that was it. It came out great, something to be proud of, and I could sleep at night. I just wanted to do right by the artist, ya know? Razor & Tie were always very good about that; allowing me my time. Geez, I didn't do those CD's to get rich. I didn't get paid extra on the Don Covay, nor would I have demanded it. I just did it to help the music and the artist, or their kids.
Heck, Razor & Tie even let me pick some songs for The Beach Boys disc... That's how "Little Saint Nick" got on there! Neat folks.
On some projects, you can't get the actual masters, but a good copy. What kind of copy have you used before?
Sometimes, for one reason or another, the true first generation tape isn't available. For some Razor & Tie stuff I used the next best thing. "Flat 30 IPS non dolby 1/2" NAB transfers of the master tapes."
This means a tape made from the master tape.
The tape is one half inch wide instead of one quarter like most tapes.
NAB is the EQ for North America.
Non-Dolby means no signal processing.
Flat means machine to machine.
30 IPS is the speed of the transfer, faster for better signal to noise.
Of course the actual master is the best, but this is high on the list and workable.
When you’re mastering, what constitutes the official length of a song? Invariably when I listen to a song on CD (LP or single versions), the time never matches the time listed on the label. Is there a standard or is the time listed just an arbitrary one picked somewhere along the line between multi-track and final product?
Well, the length of a song could change every time the song is faded out, (a little sooner, a little later), or the written label copy is copied from the tape box incorrectly, etc. The "official" length of a song used to be (in the days before album long versions), the length of the single mix, exactly on the lacquer fadeout. If the single mix was reissued later, or an earlier version of the mix was found with a longer fade, it was kept in sometimes, to give us whacko more of our favorite song. Thereby throwing off the official "time". When album versions came in, things changed. What is the "official version" of a hit song? Let's say "Light My Fire" by The Doors. The 45 edit was the actual hit. The album version is the version that most people heard later, after the song hit the radio. So, which is it? I'm thankful it's not up to me....
I'm wondering what you do as far as getting tapes played back at the right speed. And rather than let you off easy, and have you say you match the original LP, let's say you have two versions of an LP and they are slightly off from each other. What do you do?
Tape speed is tricky. Did the engineers mean to speed something up or was it an accident? That's the main issue. I have been going through some Dobie Gray master tapes. When I got to The 'In' Crowd" and songs like that, I saw notes in the tape boxes in engineer Larry Levine's handwriting:
"One wrap", or "Two wraps", or "Three wraps".
What the heck did that mean? So, I asked him. He looked at me blankly for a second and then his engineering partner Stan Ross chimed in:
You remember, Larry. Masking tape!
Ah, yes. One wrap of masking tape on the cap and pinch roller sped it up a smidgen, two wraps sped it up more, etc. So, in THAT case, I did the same, 'cause the three-tracks were all at normal speed; too slow. In another case, where the tape is just off due to a crappy machine, I MIGHT correct it, if we aren't all used to hearing it that way for 30 years. I always do it with classical or jazz recordings. I use a piano I have upstairs, or a electric pitch checker... If I have two LP's that are slightly off, I just adjust to the actual key the music is supposed to be in. In the case of mastering engineers adjusting speeds, that hardly ever happens. Once in a while. It's the mixing engineer that gets the speed the way the client wants it. Tape machines are always off from each other. Can't be helped. In the case of the Dylan, I would have used the stereo straight, and then I would have tried to figure out why the mono was off. If they wanted it that way, so be it. If not, I would have fixed it. Remember, you have a first generation tape to start with. That is mixed once, and the speed goes off. A dub is made of that on another machine, and the speed of the dub is off. If a dub is made of THAT copy, well, you get the idea...
Speaking of the record companies... when it comes to requesting master tapes for projects, are they hard to work with?
No. They all honestly want to make money and they are all as cooperative as they can be for big giant corporations. We're a small, independent record label here in Chatsworth, California. It is a small musical community and the majors know us because we get so much press. So they know us and know what we're trying to do. But, they are still big record companies and they are dealing with what is happening "now". What we are dealing with is what was happening "then". And for their lawyers to stop what they are doing in working on the most current contracts to go look up some contract in the files from 25 years ago and trying to contact the artist that, perhaps, they owe say $2000 in royalties to is never the first priority for them. But they are good people and are OK with what we want to do they aren't always willing to just drop everything. But, they do understand the value of good press and so they try in their own way so we have no complaints.