SOUND RESTORATION : HOW FAR SHOULD IT GO?
The Editor invites comments from the experts in the field
Two events have had a momentous impact upon the recording
scene during the past 20 years. First of all the arrival of
the compact disc has resulted in what can only be described
as an explosion in the availability of music at an affordable
price; and secondly (and more recently) advances in digital
sound technology have made it possible to improve the sound
quality of pre-1950s recordings to a degree which once would
have been thought impossible.
In many respects 1950 (give or take a year either way) seems
to have been a watershed in sound reproduction. Until then,
the 78 rpm disc had been the universal carrier of recorded
music, having quickly superseded wax cylinders when sound
recording became possible in the late 1800s. But two important
things happened in the middle of the last century: record
companies started using tape for studio recordings, and the
Long Playing record arrived on the scene.
Both of these developments offered significant improvements
in sound quality, both as to the quality of the actual recordings
which could be faithfully captured for later replay, and in
the elimination of much of the background noise which had
gone hand in hand with 78s.
The familiar sound of frying eggs and bacon - the sizzle
and crackle of 78s - could largely have been eliminated. In
the late 1920s companies such as Columbia in Britain were
issuing 78s pressed in a material which offered a much quieter
surface that their contemporaries. In the last days of 78s
many were pressed in vinyl (the same as LPs) and surely this
could have been introduced much sooner. World War 2 was partly
to blame (shellac was in short supply and recycled material
wasn’t exactly pure) but also a certain amount of ‘grit’ was
added at times to make 78s more durable and last longer.
Whatever the reasons (and cost must have been another consideration),
the material from which most 78s were pressed was noisy, but
strangely the human ear seemed able to filter it out so that
listeners only heard what they wanted to hear. Also, for some
perverse reason, the background noise from acoustic gramophones
(with those incredibly heavy soundboxes) was less noticeable
than from electric record players.
But when LPs (and to a lesser extent 45s) took over, comparisons
with the older 78s highlighted the imperfections, which people
regarded as no longer being acceptable.
This lengthy introduction is all leading up to the point
in the early 1990s when latest developments such as the British
invention CEDAR made it possible (and affordable) for record
companies to start processing old recordings to extract the
music, and leave the unwanted noise behind. The 50-year copyright
rule in Britain also helped, because by the end of the 20th
century virtually all of the 78rpm repertoire was now available
to anyone who wanted to clean up and repackage vintage recordings
from the past.
For the sake of accuracy, it should be mentioned that the
hiss from tape recordings, and the crackles and plops from
well-played LPs, can also benefit from the likes of CEDAR.
The big companies who owned the original recordings were
among the first to embrace the new technology, although their
enthusiasm waned as the 1990s progressed. Today it is largely
the smaller independent companies who are making the running,
and producing some of the best results. I suppose we should
always remember that commercial companies cannot continue
without profits, and their CDs of reissues must appeal to
purchasers. If a touch of reverb can ‘liven up’ a dull recording
and make it more appealing to record buyers, we should hardly
be surprised if producers make this choice. Perhaps it is
a choice between preserving a recording accurately for historical
purposes, or simply making it sound enjoyable for today’s
The technology is progressing at an astonishing rate. Once
it could cost over £100 to process a 3-minute 78rpm disc;
today anyone with a personal computer (and a little basic
technical knowledge) can afford to buy the software which
can process old recordings to an acceptable standard.
We can all remember the vintage LPs from the 1970s, where
the method of ‘improving’ the sound quality of 78s (usually
on dance band recordings) was to reduce the treble to mask
the hiss and crackle. Unfortunately this removed much of the
‘bite’ in the music as well - some records sounded as though
you were hearing them with a cushion stuffed inside your loudspeaker.
Today almost anything is possible ... and now we get to the
real reason for this article.
The big question being asked by those with ears to appreciate
the difference is: how far should today’s sound engineers
go in carrying out the restoration of old records?
Should one merely try to remove some, or all of the background
noise? Should a little echo be added here and there to try
and ‘liven up’ dull, or dry recordings? Pre-war microphones
and studios had their limitations (remember electrical recordings
only arrived in the mid-1920s), and such shortcomings often
become more obvious when background noise is eliminated. And
on the subject of noise, should all hiss and crackle
be completely removed? Sometimes this can distort the music,
and result in an unreal sound from the orchestra and singers.
Through letters and comments to this and other magazines,
I have become increasingly aware that record buyers are now
paying far more attention to the expertise and style of the
top sound engineers. Each and every one of them seem to have
their strong supporters and occasionally their critics. Sometimes
it can depend upon whether you normally listen on headphones
or through loudspeakers. It may sound obvious, but the best
sound reproduction systems can occasionally spoil listening
pleasure, because any shortcomings may become more apparent.
I have therefore invited several of the top sound restorers
from around the world to let me have their comments, for the
benefit of readers of Journal Into Melody, and I am
pleased that several have taken considerable trouble in their
replies. We now print the first two responses that came in
from two respected sound engineers; more will follow in March