Special Features

EMI’s New SACD Remasters

A most exciting SACD reissue project at better pricing and shipping than the Japanese series.

Published on April 3, 2012

EMI’s New SACD Remasters

EMI’s Signature Series SACDs

2012 may well turn out to be a vintage year for releases of classical music in high resolution formats.  EMI’s historic analogue recordings, mostly from the golden age of the late 1950s and 1960s but including justly famous and much-loved ones in mono from earlier times, have already appeared locally in Japan.  The avarice and drooling by fans of this material was sorely tempered by the high purchase price, postage and possible tax and duty, making importing these a rare and luxury item for most.

What good news it is, therefore, that EMI is releasing what I hope will be the first of several batches of SACDs internationally and at highly attractive prices in the new “Signature Collection”, and, judging from pre-release information, in first-class packaging, too. Simon Gibson will be well-known to some readers for his mammoth remastering task for the re-release of the Lyrita catalogue for CD and for EMI’s bumper release of The Beatles’ recordings—to name but two huge projects. A winner of a Gramophone Award for the former and a Grammy for the latter, he, and his colleagues at Abbey Road Studios, were recently awarded a Japanese Academy Award for Special Project of the Year, for their remastering for SACD of EMI’s recordings made by Wilhelm Furtwängler. This was all a good excuse for me to telephone Simon Gibson at Abbey Road Studios to get some further information on the rationale behind the remastering, and I am delighted he agreed not only to answer the questions I put to him, but also to address these in an article for Audiophile Audition which follows below:

Remastering EMI’s Core Catalogue Recordings for SACD

Four Engineers at Abbey Road Studios in London have remastered these historic EMI recordings from their original analogue sources for release on hybrid SACD.  Between them, Simon Gibson, Ian Jones, Andy Walter and Allan Ramsay have many years of experience remastering archive recordings for EMI and other record labels.

Our role in this mammoth SACD project—originally just for EMI Japan, but now seeing a wider release in Europe and internationally as EMI’s ‘Signature’ Series—was to seek out the original source tapes and discs, to work out the best way to remaster at high-resolution and to produce the finished SACD and CD masters for production.  It was not us, the engineers, who decided to issue these recordings on hybrid SACD, but we have been delighted to have the chance to remaster the back catalogue again to a much higher standard than previously achieved.  The project began with Wilhelm Furtwängler’s recordings from the late 1940s and early 1950s, before moving on to include other artists from the whole LP era.

The process always starts with finding all of the records and tapes in EMI’s Archive in London and comparing different sources and any previous CD reissues.  We consult each recording’s job file, which contains notes about the recording sessions made by the engineer and the producer.  For example, these sometimes explain why there are more than one set of tapes to choose from.  The recordings come from 78 rpm records and mono or stereo analogue tapes, made between the 1930s and the 1970s.  If the source tapes were made in France we request the original master tapes from EMI France.  All of the tapes are in good condition and we play them on our Studer A80 1/4-inch tape machine, after careful calibration of its replay characteristics.  The different eras of the tapes require us to use different playback tape heads and internal EQ cards on the machines – one set for mono and another for stereo.  The analogue tape, rather than the LP, is the master for each recording, approved by the artist and producer, and this will always sound closest to what was recorded in the studio – hence the reason we remaster using these tapes.

Why do we remaster to 96 KHz 24 bit PCM, rather than direct to DSD?

We understand that some collectors would love to have the original analogue recordings transferred directly into the DSD domain and then to produce the SACD from that file.  We adopt a different approach, for several reasons.  Firstly, from our long experience of remastering for CD, we know that it is rare for a typical analogue recording to be fault-free and have therefore developed a way of remastering that involves the careful repair of audible tape edits, as well as the reduction or removal of electrical clicks and distortion.  We might also decide to reduce a tape recording’s level of hiss, if we feel it is too intrusive.  With today’s state-of-the-art audio restoration technology, this can be done with extreme sensitivity.  We believe that this method results in the best possible sound for these older recordings, by improving anomalies introduced by the analogue technology.  We use the analogy of an old master painting that is cleaned to reveal the original colours of the picture, as seen by the artist.  In our case, we try to lift away anything that might get in the way of hearing the sound as the artist heard it in the studio.  The different digital tools we use do not exist for DSD audio, so we work in the PCM domain.  This is not the only way to produce SACDs, although it is a
well-proven method of achieving good results and one that enables us to get the best out of these old tapes and discs.

We transfer from analogue to the digital domain at 96 KHz and 24 bit resolution using a Prism ADA-8 converter and capture the audio to our Sadie Digital Audio Workstation.  We then use the CEDAR ‘Cambridge’ audio restoration system to reduce and remove any clicks, pops or hiss that we feel are too intrusive.  Each piece of music is edited together, with ambience added between movements where necessary, in order to keep the aural background consistent.

We then make a final equalised version, using the analogue EQ of our EMI TG12412 and 12414 tone control boxes.  The finished, remastered high-resolution PCM audio is converted to the required CD and DSD formats and the CD and SACD masters are authored for production.

Do these older recordings benefit from a release on SACD?

This is something that will undoubtedly be debated.  It is arguable that some of Furtwängler’s recordings from the early 1950s do not sound significantly better on SACD than they have done on CD.  This is something that the individual has to decide for themselves and, of course, it is the subjective part of the process.  For ourselves, we feel that the process of making a hi-res transfer means that these recordings will sound better than their previous CD versions.  There have been some recordings that we feel have a much improved sound now on SACD, but this sometimes has more to do with the discovery of better-sounding source material than simply a hi-res remastering.  For instance, the RAI Ring Cycle, conducted by Furtwängler, has been remastered this time from a set of analogue tapes that were not used previously, for whatever reason.  These tapes were chosen because they had the clearest and most convincing sound and were most likely the actual tapes supplied to EMI in the 1970s from Italy.  The result is generally a much better digital remaster than on previous versions.  Similarly, for the Brahms violin concerto with Menuhin and Furtwängler, recorded in 1949 in Lucerne, we found in our archive an original analogue master tape that had never been used before.  I used this for the transfer and was amazed at the sound I got from something that was made in August 1949, at the very beginning of EMI’s master recordings onto tape.  It might be argued that the performance is not one of the best musically, but nevertheless, it still sounds quite remarkable for a tape of that vintage.  As for later recordings from our archive, we have done our best to make them sound as good as they possibly can, always working on the principle that the less we have to do in the remastering, the better.  If the original recording sounds fine, then that is how we leave it.  It there are issues that need addressing, often noted by the producer and engineer in the old job file, we try to sort them out.

Analogue 4-track & 8-track masters

The question has been raised about whether EMI should be releasing original Quad analogue recordings on 4-channel SACD?  While we have some of these in the archive, we are yet to make a decision on any future use of them as sources for multi-channel SACD releases.  What we have done on a few of the latest catalogue reissues on SACD, is to use the 1 inch, 8-track analogue master tapes as source material.  Transferring 8 channels at 96k/24-bit before remastering and remixing to stereo has produced some marked benefits in terms of detail and clarity and an overall improvement in the sound.  The recordings made by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra during the mid to late 1970s fall into this bracket and include the two Wagner albums, as well as the Debussy and Ravel discs and the Schubert Symphonies.

Every recording is different and requires different solutions, but I hope that these notes shed some light on the processes that we have adopted in this project and why we take the decisions that we do.  This is the first time that these great recordings have been released in a high resolution format, offering the listener more clarity and detail than ever before.  We hope that you, the listeners, get as much enjoyment out of listening to the SACDs as we have done in creating them.

Simon Gibson – April 2012

First SACD Releases

The first releases are scheduled for April 2012, each release having two or more discs and include many much-loved recordings by Jacqueline Du Pré, including Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Igor Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter in Brahms, Beethoven, Dvorak, Grieg and Schumann, Walter Gieseking in all the Debussy recordings made for EMI, Otto Klemperer in Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schumann, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in a four disc set of Schubert Songs, Giuseppe di Stefano in Neapolitan Songs, Carl Schuricht in Bruckner and Georges Cziffra in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and Transcendental Studies.

Peter Joelson

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