This last years projects have brought a new focus on the Four Seasons catalogue for me and several of my dedicated Four Seasons collectors friends. The MONO Archive project started as a result of discussion between top German sound engineer Stefan Wriedt and I, three years ago. My contention that in sound quality terms there was a lot to complain about re the Four Seasons catalogue was echoed by Stefan. And the key objective of preservation of the sounds we got to know on vinyl seems more important than ever today. It started with the question of whether we could find, clean and re-vitalise the original vinyl releases digitally and if these would prove to be a better listening base than the CD compilations we have acquired since 1988, supposedly from the original masters.
The last year has been has been all about re-discovering the 45 and MONO LP mix and how a good MONO mix can match or even surpass STEREO depending on it’s quality. What we grew up with has left a 'stamp mark’ in our brains of how the Four Seasons 45s used to sound on radio and record player during the 60s. This was before the time when most of us had ever heard STEREO....unless it was one of the 'train sound' novelty hi-fi stereo demonstration albums on a rich friend's Dad's radiogram. These included recordings of trains passing with the sound of the train moving across the room from right to left as the Stereo soundstage moved it. There weren’t many STEREO albums around in the UK in the early 60s or STEREO record players
Today our collections on CD and I-pad/phone are a mixture of flat sounding MONO re-masters and a set of so called STEREO that bounces instruments and vocals between our ears in an artificial spatial wilderness that confuses the whole thing in our heads. We maybe don't realise this as we’ve grown used to it but the track can become confused with all kinds of peaks and dips coming from all directions in the stereo image. As soon as we get focused on the strings and bass on the left the harmonies are coming in from the backyard!!! It is just not right.
This is simply the result of our educated ears bringing us full circle. With the CD age we became used to listening to our hi-fi systems and good speakers. Sound bounced around the room and reverberation softened the wideness. We had inherited what was understood as the STEREO sound from back in the early 60s. Peter Vance of Abbey Road Studios commented on this phenomena back in 1997...”......even with the increased usage of 4-track(studio recording) in the mid-60's , the positional restriction of the stereo mixes often left a lot to be desired. You would regularly end up with most of the rhythm on one side, guitar or percussion on the other side and perhaps the vocal in the centre. It wasn't until the arrival of 8-track machines, towards the end of the 60s that the stereo image, on pop recordings, eventually regained respectability. As a matter of interest, this had never been the case with the 4-track "MOR" recordings (e.g., Shirley Bassey, Matt Monro, etc., etc...) where the orchestra was recorded in true stereo on two of the tracks, the vocals on a third track, with one track free for whatever. This method ensured that the stereo 'picture' remained natural and interesting.
The somewhat simplistic approach to recording of pop back then also extended to the layout of the groups and orchestras in the studio itself. This meant that there was only minimal screening of the individual instruments and vocalists. Fortunately, the excellent acoustics of the studios at Abbey Road have always meant that any spill of sound from one microphone to another is always clean and only serves to produce an overall natural and pleasing sound, a situation which, by default, has always been the norm for classical recordings. Ironically, it is these very circumstances and their effect that producers, engineers and artists are finding to their liking once again some 35 years later. This is also true of the old valved microphones and limiters which are regularly in demand, because of the unique quality of the sound that they still produce - it's funny how things tend to go round full circle."
STEREO recording today is not like this, as we said back in 2009 in Chameleon's blog. Today's recordings have a sound stage that represents a 'live' performance with each voice and instrument in good position before the listener. Listen to good masters on good equipment and MONO can sound alot like this. That MONO sound was really all that Bob Crewe focused on....and it is what we knew. Instruments and vocals balanced in the mix separate and coming from a fictitious stage in front of us. The Four Seasons actually backing Frankie Valli.
The Four Seasons 1965 mixes suffer most from this problem whereas the 1967 tracks recorded on 16 track at Mirasound Studios have a much more balanced sound. Today we have educated our ears to want sound in headphones a lot of the time and more sophisticated sounding headphones than we ever had before. We need to have the sound-stage re-balanced. This is not so easy without multi-tracks and it appears it will be some years before the development of spectral analysis produces extracts from the STEREO mix-downs(the ‘Partnerships’ masters) that enables such balanced re-mixes to be done.
So why do we accept this when we can listen to and enjoy the MONO mixes that we knew. Well maybe because there aren't any really good re-masters in MONO of the sound we used to listen to in the analogue age. To appreciate this today you have to listen to the MONO 45s or LP's on a good record player and amplifier . Trying to capture this sound from vinyl and get it into digital form has been a challenging but satisfying exercise for the fan collectors group. Listening to the 'Jersey Beat' box set may be some people’s idea of ‘connecting’ with the MONO mixes but these are NOT the vinyl sound we knew. Re-mastering today can easily fail by adding too much EQ (equalization – a process that enhances elements of the sound.) The balance and intent of Bob Crewe's original MONO mixes can and has for some been lost. If the original MONO mixes have not been preserved then the Four Seasons Partnership have reverted to a mix-down from STEREO to MONO. The problem is that this may be an alternate mix to the MONO 45 and you can lose definition and balance on the instruments and harmony eroding the sound which was optimised by Crewe and his sound engineer in the original mix for vinyl. It is a recognised fact that the 4-track recordings from those days no longer exist so it is not possible to 'fix' any defects in the MONO or STEREO masters. Some of these occurred at the time (using techniques to mix to MONO) or are due to deterioration, lack of care or physical damage to analogue master tapes since.....which makes the vinyl the real source for 'MASTERS'. So if re-mixing from tape is not possible what is the potential of re-mastering from vinyl?.
“Mastering is the essential last step in music production. A mastering engineer takes a mix and makes it sound right for a particular purpose. Typically, the mix is equalized, so it has all the necessary frequencies. Dynamics are then adjusted, to minimize the differences between softer and stronger parts of the recording, and finally compression is added and a limiter is employed to make the overall sound louder, a method that is now very popular.” says Melda Productions. The problem is that over the last 15 years or so making the Four Seasons mixes sound louder has lost the 'feel' originally put into it by Bob Crewe and the group.
What we have done in the MONO Archive is search out the cleanest and most dynamic sounding MONO vinyl versions we can find, digitising them at a higher than CD sampling rate before cleaning to remove noise and crackle. Final versions are mastered to the recommended levels for digital sound but leave the sound essentially the same with the MONO signal optimised.
The result we have found makes it hard to go back to the STEREO CD's to have your head messed up. It is a digital sound that works particularly well on headphones, in-car and on mobile devices. It is the consistent sound of 60s radio with just the right amount of spatial feel. But mainly it is a reference point for the groups sound. It may well be that engineers will with 'modern' digital tools re-shape and 'fix' the STEREO mixes using Spectral Editing and 'Stereo Enhancement' to create NEW mixes that Bob Crewe would have been proud off. It wouldn't be the 'original' sound.....that was MONO....but it might give us a balanced and more realistic 'soundstage'. As Stefan said back in 2009....”What you find is that the sound of a (STEREO)CD often ‘sticks to the speakers’: you’ll hear it coming from the left speaker and from the right speaker but there’s nothing in between – the proverbial ‘hole in the middle’”. But tackling the Stereo is the next step...for now we are making good progress finding the MONO from good vinyl.
Back in 2009 we asked the question as to whether there still existed good ‘Masters’ of the Four Seasons music? It seems now in 2013 we have found the answer......on vinyl. So far we have found and re-mastered/archived some 90% of the 45 catalogue from 1962 to 1968 and we will see it complete this year. More on our efforts and results from the vinyl (.......now in the ‘Archive’), very soon.