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In Search of the Holy Hi-Fi Grail

Larry Appelbaum
Steve Hoffman

How lucky we are as humans to so often unlock the mysteries of history. The Rosetta Stone was the key that unlocked the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics, while the skull of Lucy, an unknown woman from ancient Ethiopia, has helped us learn important details about our earliest ancestors. Digging around remote places for unknown treasures has yielded some astonishing milestones for archeologists and anthropologists, whose work helps us understand who we are and how we’ve developed.

In the world of jazz, a handful of equally curious souls do a similar sort of digging through the detritus of record vaults and library collections. Their excavations often lead to the preservation, restoration and research of revealing artifacts from recording sessions of decades past.

The most famous recent find, of course, is the spectacular Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane’s At Carnegie Hall tapes discovered in the Library of Congress by JT contributor Larry Appelbaum.

Noting the importance of the find, Michael Cuscuna, co-producer of the session’s release for Blue Note, employs anthropological terminology. “I don’t think we’ll ever find anything else that will have the kind of impact that disc had,” says Cuscuna. “It was such a missing link in the music. The sound of that group with Monk and Coltrane was fabled after being together so long, but there was no real documented evidence. This helps fill in that gap.”

Appelbaum, Supervisor and Senior Studio Engineer with the Library of Congress and the serendipitous audio archeologist, put the discovery in perhaps more human terms. “I’ve said that my heart started to race when I realized what we’d found,” he says. “I love the music of both Monk and Coltrane, so as the story unfolded and the recordings gradually made their way to release, I was very happy for everyone who has ever been touched by their music. It’s nice to know that good music can survive in the commercial marketplace. I smile when I think of all the young musicians whose parents bought this for them.”

Will more unmined gems such as this appear in the future? With a tremendous wealth of musical riches at hand in the Library of Congress, Appelbaum is hopeful of more discoveries. “Of course everyone who does this sort of work knows there is always more. It’s one reason why we do what we do. You never know when you’ll find that Buddy Bolden cylinder,” he says, referring to the legendary lost tome by that pioneer of American jazz. “The Library has nearly three million items of audio materials, but we do not store or shelve by genre. However, jazz is an especially important American art form and jazz in our collections runs deep,” Appelbaum proclaims.

For his part, multiple Grammy-award-winner Cuscuna has been involved in nearly 2,000 reissue projects since getting into the recording business nearly 36 years ago. He co-founded Mosaic Records in 1981 with the intention of compiling boxed set LP releases of otherwise ignored sessions by artists like Monk, Nat Cole, Clifford Brown and countless others, while still finding time to do freelance production gigs for Blue Note and Impulse!

Yet with all the spectacular titles he’s reissued, it still comes down to something very personal when he chooses favorites. “One of the projects that has given me the most joy was uncovering all the John Coltrane Impulse! recordings from those Village Vanguard dates in ’61. Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard really changed my life when it came out originally-it just changed everything. So that particular session held a lot of curiosity and affection for me,” Cuscuna admits.

“I’d heard there were eight people onstage for those dates and always wondered what the other music sounded like. I was hoping the tapes were there, I assumed they were there, but it wasn’t until I got into the Impulse! vaults that I knew for sure…those sessions were one of the few Coltrane projects we were able to totally reconstruct. On some later Coltrane albums, especially from ’62, ’63, ’64, the session reels are missing, which is really frustrating,” Cuscuna moans, repeating a lament heard far too often in this field of historical reconstruction.

So what happens when an ancient tape or disc turns up and seems ready to fall apart, or perhaps is already doing so? Appelbaum outlines his approach to saving musical treasures: “You have to assess condition and know the best way to capture sound from whatever carrier. That means first you need to have well-maintained machines to play back obsolete formats. Remember that we’ve got everything from the earliest cylinders and Berliner discs, through lacquer, shellac, aluminum discs and every manifestation of magnetic tape. If you try to play these sorts of materials without proper methods, you can easily destroy them. You’ll want to transfer the materials by capturing the most usable signal with the least amount of distortion. It really comes down to combining equipment, tools, knowledge, skills and experience.”

Appelbaum then sums up the LOC philosophy: “In general, we do preservation, not restoration. We know that the restoration tools improve every year, so we’d rather capture ‘flat’ at highest resolution and let others apply their subjective aesthetic for later clean-up.”

That’s where someone like Steve Hoffman enters the picture. Hoffman, perhaps best known for his former reissue company DCC, has worked on, according to his estimate, 1,900 recording and mastering projects including hundreds of jazz titles, and is often credited with coining the term “remastering.” Much of his work with jazz focuses on the classics from the Prestige/Riverside/Contemporary group now owned by Concord. His experience offers some interesting insight into what many consider to be the golden age of recorded jazz.

“It was the era of the independent jazz label,” asserts Hoffman, “and these small labels like Prestige couldn’t afford to use someplace big-league like Capitol studios, so they had to improvise. Prestige used an East Coast engineer named Rudy Van Gelder for almost everything, and he had his own vacuum-tube sound; while my favorite guy on the West Coast was Roy DuNann, who did many of the albums on Contemporary like Art Pepper + Eleven and Shelly Manne’s Modern Jazz Performances of Songs From My Fair Lady. He worked wonders with three microphones and a vacuum tube Ampex tape recorder in the mailroom of Contemporary Records-that was their recording studio. It fascinates the hell out of me that they were able to get such a great sound with such minimal gear. I love that. It makes my job a lot easier because it already sounds so good. It just needs a little polishing.

“What I’m looking for as the final goal hasn’t changed in my entire career,” he elaborates, “and it’s what I call the ‘breath of life.’ I want to hear something in the recording that sounds lifelike. I’m an amateur drummer, guitarist [and] piano player, and I know what a cymbal should sound like, what a sax should sound like. I tailor all my mastering to sound as lifelike as possible. For example, Van Gelder recorded everything a tad hot, and a little sharp in the top end, which translated perfectly in a 1950s LP cutting because everybody’s playback equipment was lacking. So when you play a straight Van Gelder tape, it sounds a little bright and a little lacking in the low end, so I just correct that a little bit so the cymbals don’t sound like they are shrieking, so that they have natural overtones. Then when that hits, all of a sudden the saxes, the trumpets and everything else start to sound a little bit more natural.

“But the exact opposite has to happen with the Hollywood stuff from Contemporary which was done straight to the Ampex, a machine which was always a little soft. What Van Gelder did was equalize the sound as he was recording, to have a little more punch. But what they did at Contemporary was to record the music straight, then they punched it up in the cutting of the disc. So that sound is not built into the masters, and you have to add a little bit-add a little shimmer to the drums-or else it sounds too dead. Two opposite approaches in making music sound natural and lifelike, but they both work for me,” Hoffman states.

In achieving just the right sound, Hoffman stresses that his pursuit of naturalness is paramount. “I usually find the main instrument,” he says. “If it’s a vocal recording like, say, Ella Fitzgerald, then obviously the main instrument is her voice, and I master to that and everything else just has to fall into place. I don’t care what the drums sound like on an Ella Fitzgerald recording because if her voice doesn’t sound natural, like she’s standing there, what’s the point of the record?”

Cuscuna’s overall approach to the jewels he polishes is similar to Hoffman’s. “I look for the warmest and most full-range sound possible and that’s why I try to go to the original tapes,” says Cuscuna. “I started out as a producer in the studio and I know what the music should sound like and so did the original engineers in those old studios. I go for the most open, uncompressed sound, and strive for bass that comes out at you but is not flabby. I will use EQ to shape a flabby bass response or to take off very, very shrill high end, but basically I like to stick to the original intent of the original engineer because that’s usually right. Back when I used to win Grammys for my reissue packages, I used to tell people that you get recognized or rewarded for not fucking up the sound. All you have to do is work your way back to the original source, and not fuck it up like everybody else did. If you do that, you’re fine.”

Many so-called audiophiles swear that nothing sounds better than the old, original pressings of jazz, classical and even rock LPs. But both Hoffman and Cuscuna agree that this is not necessarily so, at least with jazz classics. “I totally do not agree with that opinion,” Hoffman says, sounding a bit flustered. “But every case is totally different. For example, take a Rudy Van Gelder Prestige LP, Miles Davis’ Cookin’. Here’s an album that’s very dynamic, very lifelike in its tonality. Now, the original LP that was cut by Van Gelder has been compressed two-to-one. In other words, the dynamic range has been cut in half. There’s been a giant presence boost around 5,000 cycles; there are high and low cutoffs at around 10,000 cycles and around 50 cycles. It’s not a natural sound at all; it’s completely fake. However, the original tape sounds nothing like that, and my version would sound nothing like that. I want my masters to sound natural. If a 1958 Prestige LP sounds really good on your stereo, then your stereo is not set up correctly, and you can quote me on that.”

Cuscuna concurs, citing his own reasoning for straying from that older LP paradigm when working on his reissues. “I do not necessarily honor the sound of the original LP because there were several things operating,” he says. “For one, producers and artists rarely went to the mastering sessions, so it’s not like the project has their sanction or their desires soundwise. And number two, to get the music on an LP side when cutting, you have to keep the gain down, you have to keep the bass response down, and what they tended to do in the ’60s was to tweak the highs so the disc sounded artificially bright. Plus they used a lot of reverb, which was the style of the day. Simply put, many of the accommodations that were made for LPs were made for the pressing plant and they were not that good for the ultimate sound. What I do is try to go back to the most unequalized, driest [with the least amount of reverb] tape that came out of the recording studio. I look for the recording engineer’s original sound of the music that he achieved when those guys on the other side of the glass were playing it in front of him.”

Cuscuna finishes by commenting on the evolution of sound recording. “I will say that through the years, from solid-state into digital, the music has been delivered in such a way that-the only way I can explain it-is that it brings on a kind of ear fatigue that you don’t get with a warm, tube analog system.”

Hoffman guardedly and concisely describes his technique for working his remastering magic: “If I tell you all my secrets I will have to kill you. But basically, if it’s an old tape, I’ll start it out on an Ampex ATR, a modern machine, but with a vacuum-tube line stage in the chain so I can hear what it sounded like on an old-style Ampex. I always play back something that was recorded on a vacuum-tube tape recorder. There is nothing that mucks up the sound more than playing a tape from 50 years ago on a modern solid-state machine. The tonality changes. But if it makes it too muddy, then I’ll change over to a proprietary solid-state playback amp, and then I make a determination of how much I need to correct the levels and so on, because if I don’t have to do stuff like that, then I will bypass all the mastering gear completely, and go right into making a record or making a CD. I like to use as little stuff as possible. The gear is not complicated: you control your levels, left and right, you add a little EQ. Then other mastering engineers will add compression to make their job easier, and others, whose names I will not mention, even add echo to make their version unique. I would never do that in a hundred thousand years, adding echo. It obscures the detail and obscures the music. I have all the tools that other mastering engineers have, but my little trick is knowing when not to use them, because I will gladly not use them to keep the faithful sound of the original tape.

“The basic assumption,” Hoffman continues, “is that you’re interested in hearing the natural sound of an acoustic instrument unless you’re Jean-Luc Ponty or something. There’s only one way a saxophone can sound. Yeah, it’s going to change when it’s Coleman Hawkins or Ornette Coleman, but we’ve heard enough acoustic music in our life to know the truth when we hear it. Our ears are going to go, ‘That’s the reedy sound of a saxophone.’ If it’s screeching or squawking, or it’s too bright, then the ears say, ‘That’s a recording of a saxophone.’ If you pay 40 bucks for a reissue LP, you want your ears to go, ‘Oh! They could be standing there playing!’ Who wouldn’t want that? You don’t want ’em to go, ‘Oh! This is a recording of people who were standing there a long time ago.'”

Hoffman summarizes the ultimate goal of work like his, Cuscuna’s, Appelbaum’s and others determined to mine jazz history for the lessons to be learned therein: “What we do is called resurrecting the dead.”

Originally Published