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Classical recordings are frequently remastered and the refurbished product is sold to the customer as an improved version. This is especially common for older, analogue recordings, but even digital recordings are being remastered. For a time, 24 bit/96 kHz remasterings or variants thereof were all the rage, and marketed as such even when released on 16 bit/44.1 kHz CD.

But are these remasterings really an improvement? The case of Günter Wand's Beethoven symphony cycle allows us to easily make comparisons as both the original 1980s releases and the 2001 24/96 remasterings are available on YouTube and Spotify. I also have the CD releases so I'm confident about my conclusions.

Here are playlists for both versions on YouTube, first the original, then the remastering:


I have used my audio software to make direct comparisons, and here is what I hear:
  • The remastered version is about 4 dB louder.
  • Smile EQ has been applied to the remastered version, meaning that the bass and treble have been boosted.
Yes, that's all I hear in this remastering. A volume boost on top of a volume boost. Unfortunately the combination of these changes has introduced distortion in some of the loudest parts of the symphonies. As an example of this, consider the final seconds of the third movement of the fifth symphony, at the end of the transition to the final movement. The original is first, then the remastering:


A telling example is the last 20 seconds of the Finale of the first symphony starting from 5:30 in the links below. Here, the trumpet line sounds less brilliant and somewhat distorted in the remastered version. At 5:34, there is a slibilance artifact in the violins that gets amplified in the remastered version because the treble has been boosted. At 5:39 in the remastered version, there is an unpleasant rumble as the timpanist switches from the C to the G timpani. The timpani sound more even in the original version.


So what are your thoughts? Do you hear the same things that I do in these examples? Do you think that remastering actually improves the sound of old recordings, or is it mostly a marketing gimmick?
 

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To be honest, I would never evaluate sonics based on YouTube audio.

That said, I don't think that one can generalize about remastering. There are times when it does actually improve sonics, and there are other occasions when it results in deterioration of some aspect of the sound. Newer isn't always better. A recent example was BMG's treatment of Bruno Walter's Maher 2 in their cheap "Bruno Walter conducts Mahler" set. The remastered version in that set was inferior to every previous issue of that recording, with a flat, one-dimensional soundstage. OTOH, EMI/Warner's most recent issue of the complete Callas really did represent an improvement.
 

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It's a dark art for sure, it's also very subjective for the mastering engineer. @wkasimer, mastering does not normally involve reverb as that is added (or not) at a mix stage normally, so the one dimensional soundstage you talk of will have already been present in the recordings most likely. A mastering engineer takes a fully mixed track normally and proceeds to polish the sound, maybe EQ, level up the sound and generally prepare the audio for a consistent and optimised playback over different systems and formats.
 

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Classical is mixed and mastered quite differently from rock, jazz, etc. Most notably, classical isn't nearly so low-end focused. Far fewer early digital recordings, or CD transfers of classical sounded bad. Thus didn't/don't require remaster after remaster after remaster.
 

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No one artist’s legacy have been treated worse than that of Maria Callas. Please read “Callas at EMI - Re-mastering and Perception”by Robert E. Seletsky which details the use and abuse of that legacy by the EMI team of recording engineers.

During the digital era, EMI hasn't demonstrated much competence in their handling of their recorded legacy, and not just with respect to Callas. I note, thought, that Seletsky's article predates the last issue of Callas' complete recordings, aka "Callas Remastered".
 

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As I mentioned above, I have the CDs, and I used them to make comparisons. I think the differences between the versions can be heard clearly on YouTube.
I'm sure that they would be if I listened to them through a decent setup. Unfortunately, I usually listen to YT clips on my laptop or tablet, and not necessarily with good headphones. CD's get the benefit of a real audio system.
 

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(Re) mastering is very complicated issue. Full of politics, financial gain, etc. Pop/rock genre is MUCH more susceptible to politics, financial gain, than CM.
About vinyl vs. CD (digital, files, streaming) of original ANALOG recordings... the mastering engineer has a lot of control. Many of the diffs. between vinyl and CD are down to the ART of the CUTTING (mastering) engineer.
 

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During the digital era, EMI hasn't demonstrated much competence in their handling of their recorded legacy, and not just with respect to Callas. I note, thought, that Seletsky's article predates the last issue of Callas' complete recordings, aka "Callas Remastered".
Yes, but TalkClassical had extensive discussions at the time - see link below

 

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Classical recordings are frequently remastered and the refurbished product is sold to the customer as an improved version. This is especially common for older, analogue recordings, but even digital Do you think that remastering actually improves the sound of old recordings, or is it mostly a marketing gimmick?
Not "mostly." In most cases it's ENTIRELY.

As we've discussed elsewhere, unless the remastering engineer has access to original multi-track master tapes -- which is doubtful in 50-year-old classical productions, if they even used more than 2 tracks -- the best a remasterer can do is filter out some tape hiss, apply some compression (the "smile curve" you mention) and boost the overall level.

It's all about reviving dormant catalog.
 

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Classical is mixed and mastered quite differently from rock, jazz, etc. Most notably, classical isn't nearly so low-end focused. Far fewer early digital recordings, or CD transfers of classical sounded bad. Thus didn't/don't require remaster after remaster after remaster.
Another notable difference: classical quite often rides the lower limit of recorded volume (down where the Noise Monster lives) rather than shooting toward 0dB like pop & rock. Therefore, remastering by removing hiss and compressing the quiet parts and raising the overall volume sometimes improves the experience.
 

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A lot of YT videos are 320 Kbps MP3s and they're pretty freaking good.
NoCoPilot - Nice points about marketing, remastering, etc.Also, it's probably true that classical music, by necessity, can ride the LOWER limit of recorded volume ... and no wonder. The entire, GREAT RANGE of the many instruments, in certain recordings, need to be kept within a non-distortional limit. We've seen, on the db meters, that certain recordings can sometimes JUMP into a distortional range, depending on the classical work, itself. Not to sound like a recidivist, but I still like the simple fact that some of the best-engineered recordings of the past, were dubbed at 15 iinch/per/second, on the old medium - open-reel tape, as the master, or "mother". ... Also, nice (it was) that the recording/producing "bright lights" of old RCA, and Mercury ... could produce LP reissues that genuinely-reflected the excellent engineering, musical felicities, etc., of a former age.
 

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The first multi-track recorders were produced in the mid-1950s, and it is indisputable that some mid-century engineers were wizards at pulling out fabulous recordings. I have a 1954 Karl Richter recording that rivals anything produced today (except for the tape hiss).

But technology has advanced in the intervening 80 years, including non-distorting limiters and digital recording with 100x the headroom. There's no reason to use outdated technology anymore.

By the way, "recidivist"?
  1. a convicted criminal who reoffends, especially repeatedly.
I think maybe you meant "revisionist" or "luddite"?
 

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Classical is mixed and mastered quite differently from rock, jazz, etc. Most notably, classical isn't nearly so low-end focused. Far fewer early digital recordings, or CD transfers of classical sounded bad. Thus didn't/don't require remaster after remaster after remaster.
I pretty much gave up on getting new remasterings. While I think that there were a bunch of 1980s CDs that were improved by later remasterings, the results are usually subtle. I distinctly remember two famous recordings where I found a newer remastering clearly superior to a late 1980s CD issue, the Callas/De Sabata Tosca and Klemp's Brahms Requiem. I also think that some CBS CDs of their 60s recordings (before it was taken by Sony) in the late 1980s sounded quite bad, e.g. some of Casadesus/Szell Mozart. The Gould recordings sounded different as well between CBS and Sony but I am not sure which ones sounded better.
I eventually also got more recent issues of some Mahler and Beethoven's Fidelio with Klemperer. I pretty much gave up, however, when I was completely unable to decide in case of some other recordings which one I preferred, one was, I think Furtwängler's Haydn #88 and Schumann #4, another might have been some Fricsay or again Klemperer/EMI because in A-B-comparison I could perceive slight differences but was totally unable to decide which one were sounding better to me.

If a recording from the stereo or digital age was pretty good in the first place and well transferred to CD there are almost no improvements to be had by further remastering, I think.
 

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As we've discussed elsewhere, unless the remastering engineer has access to original multi-track master tapes -- which is doubtful in 50-year-old classical productions, if they even used more than 2 tracks -- the best a remasterer can do is filter out some tape hiss, apply some compression (the "smile curve" you mention) and boost the overall level.
And this assumes that those master tapes were stored in a way that preserved them - which is often not the case. IIRC, the latest remaster of the Solti RING wasn't done from the master tapes because they had deteriorated beyond repair.
 
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