"(I picked) the ones that people might be a little scared of," Hoffman said. "I feel that these titles might have been overlooked by people who wanted The Eagles or Cream or The Doors. If something sounds good and I feel it's worthy of talking about, then I'll mention it, even if I know full well that most audiophiles and collectors have possibly never heard of the titles. I'm trying to expose them to some music that they might not have been exposed to otherwise." To those well-versed in audiophile-industry fame, it's common knowledge that there is no one who knows the DCC catalog and its pits and cherries better than Hoffman. From 1987 to 2000, when DCC closed its doors, Hoffman was the mastering engineer for several hundred DCC reissues on both LP and Gold CD. And he teamed with DCC Owner Marshall Blonstein for nearly-exclusive power to choose what that collectable label would release.
"Basically, Marshall Blonstein and I had to agree that this was a good one, this was not a good one," Hoffman recalled. "Certain albums were obvious; other albums, not so obvious." And there were certain albums (usually the not-soobvious) that were Hoffman's babies, the ones for which he had to lobby a bit to bring to production. Those, for the most part, are the titles listed here. They are some of Hoffman's personal treasures. "Like that Pee Wee Russell, Portrait of Pee Wee album. I mean, that tape just sounded so great, and it was sitting for so many years, lost," Hoffman said. "I wanted to do that one, and it was relatively inexpensive, so that helped." Of course none of the DCC titles stray too far from the mainstream, as the goal in the end was to sell records. But DCC carved out a famous niche by bringing life to previously-damp classics and by mixing in some less-known sonic gems. That DCC niche and the trademark of all of Hoffman's projects can best be labeled, according to Hoffman, by his favorite catch phrase, "Breath of Life." "If it sounds like there could be a person here, that it's not a recording but actually happening, that's the ultimate for me," he said. "If it sounds like the real thing then your ears will think that it possibly might BE the real thing. Once you hear that, it's kind of hard to go back."
And so Hoffman only goes forward. He's driven, no question, and has been chasing sound maybe since childhood. Through his parents' record collection, Hoffman became a music nut. His early passion was for Big Band Jazz and other stuff of his parents' taste. Subconsciously, he may have then begun to develop an audiophile ear. "I gravitated towards older stuff that was all done live," Hoffman said. "Like a Ray Charles album with a giant orchestra and backup singers and him. And they had like four hours to do eight songs, you know. And they got it done right, live. I always admired that." Unfortunately for him, by the time he hit the music business, that live, warm, real sound was on the way out, slowly fading in favor of synthesizers and overdubs.
"As the 1980s wore on, all of the sudden real instruments started vanishing from music, and it would drive me crazy," Hoffman said. Modern technical mucking was also spoiling some of the reissues for Hoffman, this when he was pushing pencils on the administrative side of MCA Records. "I kept noticing that several of the albums coming back from the engineers didn't sound right," he said. "You know, (I'd think) 'why does that song have echo on it? It's from 1938. There should be no echo on there. They didn't use echo then.' So that's when I started nosing my way into the engineering side." He was not welcome.
"In those days, the engineers engineered and the administrators administrated. I was basically an administrator," Hoffman said. Fortunately for today's audiophile community, Hoffman didn't mind being annoying. His engineering break came when he unearthed some unissued Buddy Holly tapes, mastered them and handed MCA a hit. Still, he was a pest with his only technical training coming from radio work in and following college. He wasn't taken seriously as a mastering engineer though Hoffman had found what he truly wanted to do.
"But then I hooked up with Marshall Blonstein and DCC," he said. "That was a totally different ball game. He trusted my instincts and gave me cart blanche to do anything I wanted. So, from that moment on, and that was in 1987, I was a happy camper." As DCC joined the very small crowd at the pinnacle of audiophile reissue labels, Hoffman jumped ahead of most everyone to become one of the most-coveted and in-demand mastering engineers in the expansive reissue industry. Atop the hill he still sits, though for now DCC is out of business with its future uncertain and its out-of-print titles skyrocketing in price. But Hoffman's days haven't slowed any. His reputation keeps the freelance gigs coming steady from labels like Analogue Productions, which recently commissioned he and mastering and cutting engineer Kevin Gray to remaster all seven of the Creedence Clearwater Revival studio titles, with Gray cutting those classics on 180-gram vinyl.
Gray and Hoffman met in 1982 at MCA, where Gray was an established engineer and maybe one of the guys Hoffman annoyed. Still, they became friends based on their mutual love for music and pristine sound. Hoffman credits Gray, who is now part owner of AcousTech Mastering, with helping him become a mastering engineer. "He taught me a lot," Hoffman said of Gray. "He gave me some of his secrets that I've carried on. We always work together when we can. He is the only one that I will trust to do a record cut. He's a great guy." Hoffman also had high praise for AcousTech Mastering and the room that Gray has built.
"Kevin is the guy who knows everything," Hoffman said. "He knows what to do, and he's made sure that his room is absolutely state-ofthe-art. And I don't mean that in an audiophile sort of way. I mean that everything is neutral in there. The sound is neutral. The tonality of his cutting lathe is neutral. And that's what we need because we feed into the system what we want the music to sound like, and that's what it ends up like. When you listen to the Creedence LPs you hear that it sounds pretty damned close to the master tapes, and that's what I wanted. I don't think I could have done that anywhere else, and I wouldn't have wanted to do it anywhere else."
And Hoffman plans to keep Gray plenty busy through his latest venture, S&P Records. Hoffman recently launched the audiophile label along with Bill Straw of Blix Street Records (that's where the "S" comes from) and Sam Passamano of DCC (hence the "P"). "S&P is hopefully going to be the new DCC," Hoffman said. "That's pretty much going to dominate my existence from now on. Of course, I'll still do other freelance work for deserving labels like Chad's (Kassem and his Analogue Productions label). Also, if DCC gets up and running, we're there, but we can't be waiting around for that stuff to happen." Hoffman declined an offer to reveal specific titles that S&P will be reissuing, saying licensing was still pending. He did say that the label would offer a wide breadth of material including Rock, Jazz and Vocal classics. S&P plans to release titles on all of the prevalent audiophile formats, those being LP, Gold CD, Super Audio CD and DVD Audio. Hoffman said he planned to use Gray exclusively for the vinyl cutting. And fans can expect to hear that classic Hoffman vacuum tube sound in all of S&P's releases. Hoffman will always use tubes over solid state equipment when everything else is equal.
"They have the breath of life," he said, reverting to his favorite phrase. "They have a palpability of realism that solid state devices can have but usually don't. They just have amazing tonality with the realism that you can't get anywhere else. Vacuum tubes just sound more like live music, like living and breathing people. Solid state amps might have more slam in the bass, they might have a more-extended top end, but the magic of the music is in the midrange. If you don't get that right, everything else is just like a car radio to me. Magic midrange is a must. Once you have that, you're totally spoiled." Apparently, Hoffman has "spoiled" quite a few fans through his reissues. His website, www.stevehoffman.tv, has become a popular nest for audiophile surfers.
"We've had almost 7,000,000 hits since February 2002 with no advertising or anything," he said. The site includes bio information on Hoffman and his career as well as his complete discography. But the most-popular feature has been the open forum, where audiophiles have flocked to comment on records, to praise Hoffman's work, to recommend equipment to each other or just to chat. "It's a place where music lovers feel safe enough to go and unburden themselves," Hoffman said. "They can say, you know, 'I really like Alvin and the Chipmunks,' and no one's going to jump on them. The rule is no personal attacks. It's so much unlike most of the other audiophile sites out there. Most people, if they have an album that they love, they don't want to be hearing someone else saying, 'That album is crappy, and therefore, you're crappy for liking it.'" And Hoffman himself is a regular poster on the site. In fact, he said he takes the feedback and desires of his fans very seriously. "In many instances, it has resulted in actual releases of product," he said. There's even a place on his forum called "Wish Lists," where fans can post titles they'd like to see reissued. Hoffman's showing no signs of slowing down, and if S&P Records takes off and his website continues to grow, he may have to speed up. So be it, he said.
"I enjoy my work. It's like another person's hobby is my career. That's always a good thing. I've been very lucky that I've been able to choose my projects. I mean if I was a mastering engineer working in Hollywood somewhere, right now I would be working on rap albums about 95 percent of the time, day in and day out," Hoffman said, then pausing. "Yeah, I'm lucky."