Masters and Sound Quality

Finding The Four Seasons Masters 2018 to 2021

Finding the Four Seasons Master has been a four year task to ensure the Snapper Music Box Set contains all that has survived in the FSP Archive of Tapes.

Back in the early 60s tape recorders started to appear and my father’s obsession with new technology meant we were amongst the first people in Liverpool to own a Grundig TK5 reel to reel tape recorder in 1961. The Four Seasons plus many 1960s artists were recorded from radio by a teenage music lover......ME. The Germans invented the tape recorder during the Second World War and by the late 50s and early 60s it had taken over from the acetate as the primary recording medium for popular music and the basis for most of our records. Across the Atlantic the creators of the hits where squeezing every trick out of the sound engineers to give us our MONO singles using the most advanced tape recorders available from makers like AMPEX.

As a Four Seasons Appreciation Society Music Historian my interest is based on research by the late German Sound Engineer Stefan Wriedt  in to Sound Engineering Quality and our aim was always to find the original Masters and have them properly re-mastered and issued in MONO and ‘good’ Stereo. Stefan and I started to critique the poor STEREO of much of the 6os period so I am always asking if we have the best possible recordings from the studios back then when 'Sherry' and the early hits were created by Bob Crewe?.  As we have just had access to the Four Seasons Archive of Analogue Tapes with new digital transfers from 1962 to 1986 from the Partnership storage, we will soon hear what has been salvaged from those tapes for the Snapper Music Box Set for release next year. All the MONO and STEREO catalogue has been found and will be re-mastered to 2021 sound technology standards from new digital transfers by Bill Inglot's Studio with Mastering by Peter Reynolds of Reynolds Mastering on to CD.

Wikipedia tells us.....”Ideally, because of their high resolution, a CD or DVD (or other) release should come from the best source possible, with the most care taken during its transfer. This does not always happen. The earliest days of the CD era found record companies using whatever tapes they had lying around to create their CDs, with frequently underwhelming results. An nth-generation tape equalized for vinyl frequency response might be deemed perfectly acceptable by a record company, and (importantly) might be much easier to locate than the "original" source master. Additionally, the earliest days of the CD era found digital technology in its infancy, which also aided often poor sounding digital transfers marked by dropouts, under-utilization of Signal-To-Noise Ratio, etc. When the first CD re-masters turned out to bestsellers companies soon realized that new editions of bare-bones back catalogue items could compete with new releases as a source of revenue. Back catalogue values skyrocketed, and today it is not unusual to see expanded and re-mastered editions of fairly modern albums.

Theoretically, digital re-mastering should solve some of these problems. Original master tapes, or something close to them, can be used to make CD releases. Better processing choices can be used. Better prints can be utilized, with sound elements remixed to DES or 5.1 and obvious print flaws digitally corrected. The modern era gives content providers almost unlimited ways to touch up, doctor, and "improve" their creations and products, and as each release promises .......improved sound....”

In this Box Set many of those potential problems will be tackled and we will all hear 'what has survived' of those iconic vinyl releases. I wanted to ask a sound engineer from the 60s about the process and to understand why we often don’t have the quality today from the early 60s recordings that we would like on CD's in the 'digital era'.  Fortunately I got the chance to ask not just any sound engineer but one that worked with Bob Crewe and The Four Seasons. George Schowerer was a sound engineer who worked with Bob Crewe in the early sixties and, after a break in the army, again in the latter part of the decade as technology advances changed the quality of recordings.

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George confirmed what Wikipaedia says and gave some reasons why we can’t always be sure that what we hear is closely related to the original recordings…….”When the old Rhino 25th Anniversary CD box set came out, I complained bitterly about the quality of the mixes I had done. They were not equivalent to the mixes that left Mirasound. Eventually, in conversation with Bill Inglot, the engineer responsible for both the Rhino 25th Anniversary set and the current [then 2007] ‘Jersey Beat’ box-set, he acknowledged that in some cases, the record company involved would not release the original tapes...only a copy...and depending on who made the copy, you got whatever you got at that time. Now, when I chided Rhino about the quality of some of my mixes, I quoted a CD I had (in my library) manufactured by Ace Records from England(CDCHD538) 'Solo/Timeless' by Frankie Valli in which the transfer were the best I've ever heard of my material from Mirasound... so I know that good transfers do exist! Bill Inglot indicated to me that the reason for the earlier Rhino 25th Anniversary CD album sounds (which were distorted) were due to the quality of what the record companies supplied to him.[in the FSP archive?]. He said that in many cases, the record companies destroyed the multi-tracks to avoid misuse...remixes etc. I think that's crazy, but I haven't lived their life problems with cover records in that era. I remember that the business was ripe with copy records which cut into sales of the original discs. And then there was plain bad re-mastering. I remember  when the first CD of Bread came out, I thought it was a "cover" record! The classic "sound" wasn't there...it was replaced by a very "sterile" mix sans echo...and it was obvious that someone had gone back to the multi-track masters and started mixing them over again without ever listening to the original releases that made them hits! I don't know what I would have done, if I was responsible for master tapes... but then again, I'm one of those people who saves everything (much to my wife's distress).

Crewe indicated to me in April this year [2007] that he had lost some of the multi-tracks due to a studio going out of business (Crewe Records) and others by just being thrown out as well as some studios not doing a proper search for the parties who owned various recordings. I have heard many engineers say that when libraries were full to the brim, studios would notify the various "owners" as to the need for retrieving their tapes. When no one appeared to come for those tapes, studios would then dump them, because they needed the space. Most studios in those days didn't charge for storage and the various companies took advantage of that fact! While I don't have the reasons they sat so long in the studio libraries, I do remember many people not showing interest in picking up their stuff. I guess the original people must have felt that it was now the problem of whomever they sold the masters to. It was a case of the cost. It sure is different now that original masters are so highly valued.. But money is money...in whatever  form it is created.”  

A very true comment and perhaps saving money on storage all those decades ago means now there may be 'limits' [sound wise] to what they have on analogue tape and what can be achieved from the FSP archive. BUT 'money' is also the driver that has made this project possible as with such a high price box set, the research and HQ 2020 transfers have been possible. What we have found from this research of the FSP storage is that the tapes are ALL Safety Copies of the original albums as issued in MONO and STEREO with some copies of tracks from the Studios as DEMO mixes. So far the quality of these new transfers appears good and will be the best achievable as that is WHAT HAS SURVIVED.

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I asked George if it was true that there was 'distortion' on some Four Seasons recordings…………” Up to and including 4 track,( to an extent) records were in essence a representation of a performance.” This approach was used by Bob Crewe at both Olmstead and Stea-Phillips in a focus totally on the MONO mix for 45 and album. George had his own approach when the group moved to Mirasound due to distortion problems [according to Charles Calello] that they were having in late 1966 at Stea Philips………. “Many of the Season's recordings that came out of Sound Centre in New York had distortion due to the many numbers of overdubs that were a trademark of Bob Crewe's work. I believe the reason for the distortion was the fact that in those days, the playback quality in the "sync" position (in order to add tracks while remaining in sync), was god-awful! So were the consoles used in many of the famous hit records. That's why I pioneered the use of normal playback during the addition of tracks. This was because of Bob's penchant for multiple tracks at any given session...the number never consistent, but could reach 20! In other words the small section strings might be overdubbed three times in the course of the session...same for the horns, etc. The only problem with that method is that all tracks would have to be overdubbed to maintain sync overall. But the quality remained first rate. The only track (or tracks not "bounced") were the final vocals, since playing back all the music tracks in sync position was only for the benefit of Frankie's headphones.” 

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“Now in my earlier days with Bob Crewe(59-61) done at Allegro Studios featuring Freddie Cannon, Billie & Lillie, the Rays, and the Shepard Sisters, we had only two mono Ampex recorders which were used. You can imagine how much bouncing was done this way! Other sessions at Allegro (not for Bob),were He's so Fine (Chiffons) and Mickey and Sylvia/Kitty, The Tokens,  etc. Most of those sessions used only two Ampex four channel mixers combined to a MONO output..only by 61/62 did we get into STEREO at Allegro. Keep in mind that none of the works in the early to mid sixties had anything but a single 45 rpm record in mind. That's why the STEREO mixes coming from those days have such a 'ping-pong' stereo balance. We didn't have the availability of the equipment used today. Following that period in Jan.62, when I was drafted into the US army till Jan 64, I was not active in the studios. When Bob found that I had returned, we connected again at Mirasound in 67..the rest is history.”

For most of the STEREO mixes up to 1965 the Four Seasons appear separated from Frankie in the right channel with all of the Drums in the left channel and instrumentation split in the right channel as a result of the limits of 3 and 4 track mixing possible in the studios at that time. It was the tape technology of the day. Motown and Atlantic had 8 track recording and the group were able to take advantage of that in November 1964 when they recorded 'Dawn' and 'No Surfin' Today' with master engineer Tom Dowd at Atlantic before signing to Philips and then back to 4 track and eventually 8 track.

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 So I asked George if our expectations of sound quality today from these 60s recording are too high?. Though the  process of 'bouncing' is degenerative to sound purity and clarity, Spector used it as a key element in his "Wall Of Sound". George told us…….“As for the aspect of why many of those recordings cannot produce a current expectation of today’s mixes is very simple. Take "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" for example, by the time the overdubbing was bounced so many times, the mix of strings is down to one track of a multitrack ( 8 track master in this case). Same for each section of the orchestra. So. this prevents a nice spread of the orchestra in STEREO...  The Mirasound mixing board had just twelve inputs and four output buses! That's why my  photos at Mirasound show additional mixers. During the initial session, we used all inputs, sometimes even used the outboard mixers! Then, during overdubs, I switched the use of the console, using eight of the input faders to monitor (in STEREO, since I loved STEREO ahead of its time) the eight channels of the recorder in use. I used the other four inputs on the console (and sometimes the outboard mixers as well) in order to feed the eight track Ampex with the newly overdubbed material.

When you work with Bob, there were several channels of handclaps and tambourines alone [ on many songs, like 'Beggin'], which were all mixed together and "bounced" to one channel. I have no idea what was coming next on the sessions until Bob decided on the spot what to add...so trying to keep the overall picture was quite challenging. But I know what left the studio was clean because of the use of my playback method.    

I hope this gives you some needed answers to the many questions about resurrecting the old material. The MONO stuff is set in stone, while the eight track stuff will be ‘stiff’…....and the only thing that would allow for a good STEREO mix is perhaps the 16 track stuff. I was fortunate to be the first mixer to use 16 tracks..the very first session on that machine was "With This Ring" by the Platters, produced by Luther Dixon. 

As for the method used on the Seasons Sessions, we would record the basic session onto 7 of the 8 tracks available. Then the process of clearing room would start. Multiple channels of drums, horns, or strings would be mixed together (each group separately) and "bounced" to a single track. This would free-up several channels for overdubbing. Any further additions of strings (for instance), would be mixed again to a new channel so that, once again, all strings were relegated to a single channel...and so  on! This is why the tapes of this era cannot make satisfactory updates, when the original intention did not allow for STEREO spread of any string or horn group (rhythm included). Since we only had one 8 track machine, this was the only way everything could be mixed for a mono hit record. If we had had two machines, then you could go back to earlier generations and recover material in a straight-forward manner. We didn't have those options back then. I had pretty much imagined what Bob Crewe would want as a final product, and always kept that image in my mind while overdubbing the brains out the music. In many cases, he graciously let me do the compilation at hand and I know he felt comfortable with my work. I still cringe when I hear some of the Season's stuff (which was not my work) that was turned into STEREO and the resultant selection of where they placed some tracks in the mix (when STEREO was never the intention of the original producer).” 

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Many aspects of such mixing will in the near future be able to be corrected by the use of DES [Digitally Extracted Stereo] which uses advanced software to extract individual instruments and vocals into 'stems' [another name for music tracks] and then they can be remixed to create a true STEREO soundstage. BUT without the Producer alive how do you know where he would place them?. [We will return to this subject in a future blog asking.....'Is the Future 60s Sound UPMIXING?]  Bob Crewe did go back to the surviving multi-tracks in 1967 and corrected tracks re placement in the mix which was the sound he wanted with the Seasons and Frankie together with a spread of instruments across the sound stage. These mixes saw release on the ALL STEREO 'Edizione D'Oro' Double LP in 1969. George was also achieving this with the 16 track recordings from 1967.

George again commented about the frustration of Bob Crewe adding to mixes before their final pressing to vinyl.......“The fact that Mirasound only kept a Gotham/Grampian/Scully acetate cutting lathe to basically do dubs (not the most sophisticated system), it did prompt Crewe to take his final mixes to Bell Sound  for acetate cutting and that engineer at times would talk Bob into adding echo, etc. which I deplored. Bell had a particular "sound" to their chamber (live), and I certainly didn't like it at all! To this day, I can immediately identify a song mix that came out of Bell Sound.  The funny thing is that at Mirasound, I used a mix of straight and delayed echo feeds to the Emt plate...giving a sort of Columbia sound to the echo. If you listen to some of Frankie Valli's songs, you can clearly hear the two different types of echo on some of the mixes. Bell Sound had their own live chambers, and as such, I can, even today, tell that the session was done at Bell Sound..” 

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So did bouncing still really reduce the quality of Frankie's and the Four Seasons recordings as this time was now 1967?...... “To help everyone understand the bouncing of tracks, let's use an example... The original session with musicians was recorded onto a maximum of six channels of an Ampex AG-300-8 recorder. The individual channels were perhaps ,1-drums, 2-bass, 3-guitar/s, 4-horns, 5-strings, 6-vocal (usually for reference, but sometimes final). Now after the musicians left...(a standard session for the union musician was four songs in three hours), the strings let's say returned a half hour later to avoid running into the union rep! They would  lay down another string part (to build-up the sound of the strings - don't forget, in those days we didn't have emulators and computers to multiply the sound of  four strings). So now we have strings overdubbed on track 7. We now must combine channels 5 from the original session strings and the overdub strings on 7. That combination mix will be "bounced" over to channel 8. Once the producer is happy with the "string sound" on channel 8, we canrecord over tracks 5 & 7, add perhaps more horns, or guitars, and so on...further mixing those added channels to an available track (5 or 7). This pattern continues until we have loaded 7 channels (in the case of Bob Crewe and the Season's sessions, this might have included extra overdubs of hand claps, tambourines, foot stomping, background voices, and more.... so you now have an idea of what it took to plan where you were going to place these items (and whatever else they managed to "cook up") on 8 measly tracks to make a "final" finished song. Any thoughts of STEREO were remote at best [until mid 1967]. Getting the MONO sound right was the only priority in all the bouncing. Remember that in my system of "bouncing", I couldn't use the sync position on playback because of the lack of fidelity off the Ampex unit. So each "bounce" placed the new mix, out of sync with everything else on the tape. That's why all tracks eventually had to be "bounced" and brought into syncronization with each other. For the final vocal track, there was no reason to have to "bounce" it...because all tracks (1 thru7 ),were already in sync, and at that point the vocal artist could care less about the fidelity in his headphones of those tracks, so we used the sync position of the sel-sync for playback...and the newly placed vocal would already be in sync. Understand that this way of working meant that all instrumentals portions of the tape were at least one generation away from the original session, if not more, when so much was added later. This called for meticulous levels, and absolute quality control during the many steps used, to ensure the final product was clear andwith a wide-range in fidelity. On the ACE dual album disc to which I compared the quality with the tapes that left my sessions with the CD quality, it clearly shows this was done with care.

I didn't do all the songs on that disc, however, I'm satisfied with my section of the works selected. That disc contains 6 or 7 different studios (at least), and each has a different audio character to their sound...the later material [Late 67] was recorded with higher quality consoles that featured an abundance of pan pots, and features used to record 16 or more channels, giving the engineer a wider array of channels to work with. As you could well imagine, once we got the first 16 track Ampex into the studio, we could offer even better sound by not having to "bounce" the living daylights out of the song/s. As I mentioned, the first session on the 16 track recorder was "With This Ring" by the Platters, which actually was done completely "live" with no overdubbing, a welcome change to the way we could now work. Add to that, we never had auto faders with memory for mixing. At Mira, I also used (at times on Frankie) the Columbia style of chamber, which was a mix of delay and direct echo...which helped the strings in those days, since the strings were usually never more than 4 strings (orig session) and 4 strings (overdubbed). I was pleased to note that at least one other engineer of the later dates used the same delay on Frankie's voice, which I thought gave him a classier sound.

Working the way it did really meant that you had to always be alert and consider what the final mix will sound like because one mistake and your  screwed. Once the 16 track Ampex came into the studio, we could then take into account the idea of STEREO spread on the final mix and the sound improvement was quite obvious.” 

George would move on in late 1967 as would the group to record Genuine Imitation Life Gazette at Mercury Sound Studios, 110 W 57th Street in NYC but this snapshot of how they recorded all of their hits [and particularly as technology changed between 1966 and 1967] is the only record we have been able to find of their recording methodology and the equipment used with Bob Crewe. The descriptions re alternative echo and instrumentation spread will be audible on Discs 11 to 14 of the new Box Set as these cover Atlantic, Stea-Philips and Mirasound Studios and the [added] overdubs Bob Crewe did at Bell Sound as these vary from the album MONO and STEREO versions but are preserved as Bonus Tracks. This Box Set will enable fans to hear the evolution of the recording approach and how good the MONO mixes really were, and also how even in the late 60s the MONO and STEREO mixes have their own distinctive character. This is one of the most outstanding aspects of this Box Set not captured before in previous issues by the group. By 1971 at MoWest Frankie and the Four Seasons were working with some of the best recording and mixing technology and the most legendary engineers [e.g. Russ Terrana] and the Motown STEREO mixes in this Box Set are 'arguably' the best in their catalogue.

 Ken Charmer 

[All photos are courtesy of George Schowerer and our thanks go to him for his feedback re the recording process and his amazing results]


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Four Seasons UK Appreciation Society

Dr. George Ingram...Newsletter Editor: Ray Nichol—Record Researcher: Lynn Boleyn—Secretary; Ken Charmer—Webmaster/Researcher

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