World-renowned studio mastering engineer Steve Hoffman is currently working on the re-mastering and re-release of many legendary rock and pop titles including classic Nat King Cole albums on SACD and 45 RPM vinyl for Acoustic Sounds/Analogue Productions and 24 Karat Gold CDs (The Doors, Linda Ronstadt, The Pretenders, Alice Cooper, etc.) for Audio Fidelity (among others).
Well known as an absolute audio perfectionist, Steve has chosen components from McIntosh Laboratory to act as his primary playback system for his projects. With his demanding standards, he knows that McIntosh components will produce neutral playback that is as true to the artist’s original intention as possible.
Steve is also a multi-instrumentalist with a particular fondness for guitars.Â He is a native of Los Angeles and was gracious enough to take some time to talk to Secrets about some of his experiences in the recording industry as a fan and a professional.Â Steve’s love for and dedication to his work was evident throughout our conversation, and he taught me more about the history of recording in 45 minutes than I’d learned in 35 years of living.
JC: Mr. Hoffman, perhaps we could start off with a general description of what it means to master or re-master a recording.Â I suspect there are quite a few folks out there that don’t have a very clear idea of what is involved with that process.
SH: I’m sure you’re right about that.Â I think mastering is probably the most misunderstood concept in all of engineering.Â Mastering is taking a master mix and combining it with other songs on an album whether it be a CD or LP.Â The idea is to get similar sounds on a recording yet maintain their individuality.Â Re-mastering is when you take something that has already been mastered once and you re-work it.Â I have an example I use to help people understand what mastering is: pretend the Louvre has lent you the Mona Lisa and you’re going to invite your friends over to see it.Â Your first inclination is to run right out into direct sunlight to see it, but when you do you see dust and cracks of the ages more so than the painting.Â So, you want to hang that picture and you want to light it in a way that makes it look best.Â That’s what mastering is.Â You take an individual song and do whatever it takes to make it shine.Â In the case of re-mastering old masters, you have 11 or 12 songs that were recorded at separate studios with different engineers & it’s a challenge to get everything to gel as a cohesive whole.
JC: I see.Â What recordings are you re-mastering now?
SH: Oh wow!Â Right this very moment?Â Alice Cooper, and the Pretenders, and the Doors, and Nat “King” Cole, and Billy Idol, and Grand Funk Railroad, and a lot of jazz.Â The list goes on.Â All different kinds of music.Â My main focus has been a massive Nat “King” Cole re-issue project for an audiophile label called Analogue Productions.Â That has taken up a lot of my time for the past six months.Â We’re really re-mastering these from the ground up & it’s been very challenging.Â If you love Nat “King” Cole, it’s gonna be a really great release.
(Here, we went into a brief digression about the trajectory of Nat Cole’s career.Â I observed that Ray Charles, at one point, made recordings that sounded like direct imitations of Cole’s work and SH agreed.)
JC: How do you decide what albums you’re going to work on?Â I mean, there’s a pretty significant difference between Alice Cooper and Nat “King” Cole.
SH: It’s all music.Â I’ve been working for various audiophile labels for a very long time & they choose albums that they know are popular from the past.Â Also, they need to have the potential for improvement over the sound that is presently available in the marketplace.Â We start from the ground up with original master tapes, original artwork, original everything, and – you know – you get what you pay for.Â It’s very authentic.Â If there’s an album from your past that you really love & you want to hear it the best way you possibly can, then you get our versions.
JC: So, why do the companies that you work for choose you to re-master their releases?
SH: Basically, I have a sound that they know they’re going to get when they hire me.Â It’s a very warm, natural sound – even from Alice Cooper.Â They refer to it as the “Hoffman” sound, but basically it’s the sound of music that hasn’t been screwed around with.Â I make sure the instruments sound natural & the voices sound life-like.Â We take great pains to give the audiophile consumer a pure version of the albums that they like out of the past.
JC: How old, generally, are the tapes that you use & how are they stored?
SH: Old, my friend.Â Old.Â Nat “King” Cole for example goes back to around 1956 and they’re stored on hubs and cardboard cartons all safe and sound.Â The storage of the masters isn’t the problem.Â The problem is actually finding the master.Â For example: “Light My Fire,” by the Doors.Â Now, that was a popular song and there are about 30 reels of tape that have “Light My Fire” on them, but only one is the master.Â You’re half-way home after you sift through and eliminate the other 29.Â That’s the hard part.
JC: Have you found that documentation from older eras was shoddy?
SH: Basically, it was careless storage.Â Things get moved around and card files get thrown away.Â That’s just part of the game. Eventually, we unearth everything, and we haven’t really had any disasters yet.Â We know where to look.
JC: What size and type of tape are you working with most commonly?
SH: If you have a mono master or a two-channel master from the ’50’s, ’60’s or ’70’s, it would be quarter-inch.Â The half-inch reels are the four-channel tapes, the one-inch reels are the eight-channel tapes, and the two inchers are either sixteen or twenty four track tapes.Â You pretty much know what to look for depending on the era.Â If there’s a one-inch master of a Nat “King” Cole session, you know it’s not right because he recorded way earlier than anyone had access to a one-inch tape so you immediately know that it’s a copy.
JC: And most of this was done using Ampex recorders?
SH: Always Ampex, yes.Â In some cases we even have the serial numbers of the machines they used.Â Certain machines have certain sound characteristics, and when we find out what machine they used in 1958 we can find a similar machine.Â So when we play back our tape, it sounds like it sounded then.Â There’s no reason that you have to play an old master on a new solid state machine because that would not have been the way that they heard it and ok’d it.Â They would have used a vacuum tube Ampex machine & we have a few of those floating around too.
JC: I’d like to get a look at some of those.
SH: They’re really neat.
JC: What kind of high frequency loss do you encounter in these old tapes, if any?
SH: I’ve never encountered any.Â Now, old recording tape is very resilient, and the only time that I’ve encountered any loss is due to human or operator error, but I’ve never found any high end loss due to the actual tape.
JC: So, the sound holds up completely as long as you handle and package the tape correctly?
SH: It holds up wonderfully.Â It’s like a time machine into the past.
JC: How many tracks were used on the Nat “King” Cole sessions that would be mixed down to two-track stereo for release on LP?
SH: In the old days, meaning the mid-’50’s, there was a trend in the audiophile community to listen to open reel tape recorders at your house.Â If you had an open reel recorder, you could buy manufactured open reel tapes from the record companies.Â RCA sold them as early as 1954.Â They were, like, $18 each which was expensive back then.Â A record company like Capitol records saw this and went “ka-ching!”Â In 1956, they started recording their major artists in true stereo for this open reel market.Â This was years before there were stereo LP’s.Â These recordings only exist because they wanted to make sure they had this open reel tape market covered.Â Ampex had a reel to reel machine that everyone used called the Three-Track, and it had half-inch tape and three channels: left, center, and right.Â They recorded the orchestra in stereo in the left and right channels and saved the center channel for vocalists or the main instruments.Â So, starting in 1956 that’s how all of the Nat “King” Cole records were done.Â These stereo versions were not the actual masters.Â They didn’t think very highly of this technology so if you were to have sat in on a Nat “King” Cole session in 1958, there would have been a master control room, and they would have been recording the songs monaurally.Â Upstairs, they would have had their own Ampex stereo machine with their own microphones, their own engineers, their own everything.Â Nobody cared about that then.Â The focus was on the monos.Â Then, when albums became available in stereo, they said “hey, why don’t we charge a dollar more for these recordings?”Â So they began to see some profit in it.Â Then, they started recording stereo and mono with the same mics.Â You can imagine their joy when they realized they could go back and re-release Nat “King” Cole’s catalog in stereo!Â Everybody wins.
JC: I tend to prefer mono recordings to this day.
JC: Do you have an opinion on it one way or the other?
SH: Well, when you’re talking about something like Nat “King” Cole, you have to understand that the mono version was the version they worked very, very hard on.Â They mic’d the individual instruments and the vocal and they created a final performance vibe. They didn’t do any of that for the stereo version.Â They had one mic in the air on the right, and one on the left to catch the entire orchestra.Â Then, they had one mic for the vocals.Â So, you’re going to hear every instrument the way they wanted you to on the mono version.Â The stereo version is cool because they have this really great sound stage, but then you start noticing that some of the solo instruments are off mic.Â That’s just the way they did it.Â It never occurred to them that they could combine their mono and stereo versions until about 1961.Â The mono versions sound totally different on all the older stuff because they are, basically!
JC: You said that the tapes hold up very well sound-wise over the years.Â I assume that means they hold up well physically too. Do they require any specific conditioning treatment before you work with them?
SH: The recording companies changed their tape formulation from natural lubrication to artificial lubrication in 1973.Â What they didn’t know at that time was that the lubrication wore out or dried up after about eight years rendering those tapes unplayable. So, anything recorded from 1946 to 1973 plays great.Â You need to heat your reels in the oven for anything recorded after that, and then it will play for a certain amount of time before becoming unplayable.Â So, that’s what we do.Â We have a convection oven and we heat up our tapes, and they play for a couple of days.Â Then, they’ll revert.
(Here, we get into a brief discussion about vinyl versus CD sound.Â This has been covered previously on the site so I have omitted this part of the discussion. )
JC: If the original tapes had eight discreet tracks, could you produce a 5.1 SACD, DVD-A, or Blu-Ray music disc?
SH: Sure. Absolutely.Â I’d love to.
JC: I know Neil Young just put some of his archives out on Blu-Ray.
SH: Yeah, he’s only been working on that for about 18 years.Â We are doing a three-channel version on the Nat “King” Cole stuff so Nat’s voice will be in your center channel and the instruments will wrap around.Â It’s going to sound excellent.Â Even an old three-channel tape can sound nice in a surround environment as long as you don’t go too crazy with it.Â The danger is that the consumer’s center channel will be up too loud or not loud enough.Â Or the consumer’s speakers don’t match.Â When I start thinking of that, I wonder how any of this is going to sound in someone’s house.Â You have to hope that everyone’s system will be set up similar to the way mine is.Â That’s the danger with surround music.Â You could move your head in any direction and throw the mix off.Â That’s why Phil Spector wanted to mix in mono.Â That way, no one could screw it up.Â Â Most people are two-channel people.Â Even the people I know with full surround sound DVDs play their music on another stereo.Â I have an endorsement deal with Macintosh and they have kindly allotted me the use of some of their really great gear for all of this.Â I have to give them credit for understanding what we’re trying to do in the audiophile community, and for lending me their equipment to use as my benchmark at home.
JC: How much better is the machinery these days for manufacturing an LP?
SH: I like that question because I have a trick answer.Â There is no new machinery for making LPs.Â They stopped making LPs in the early ’80’s and no new machines have been made.Â It’s like visiting Cuba.Â All the cars there are old, but they’re still running because somebody there is making new parts for them.Â That’s how it is at the record plants.Â Everything is old.Â Other than the quality of the vinyl which is greatly enhanced now.Â It’s virgin vinyl and must be imported from out of the country.Â All of the machines have seen better days.Â There’s a film on the internet called “Command Performance” from 1942 about how they made records at the RCA/Victor plant.Â I watched this film and I was shocked because nothing has changed!Â The only thing that’s changed is the vinyl and the quality of the mastering.Â Certain compromises were made in the mastering during the old days to keep the needle in the groove on these cheap old systems.Â The dynamic range was made less dynamic.Â The bass and treble was shaved off so that the phonographs of the day could track them.Â My old record player, for instance, wouldn’t play the Beatles “White Album.”Â My stylus went all over the record.Â I had to put a dime on it.Â Now, we have the ability to make much better, more life-like recordings.Â We don’t have to make those sonic compromises to accommodate our stereos.