Written By: Dave-Fi
I purchased my first remastered CD back in 1999. It was Metallica’s Master of Puppets, released by the now defunct reissue label Dunhill Compact Classics, with remastering by Steve Hoffman. Hoffman’s engineering chops are the stuff of legends, and DCC was a label known for its “audiophile grade” reissues, so you would expect great things from such a release. Back then I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that my ‘86 Elektra Records original CD had been played so often (and repeatedly moved from one Case Logic to the next) that it was scratched beyond repair and had to be replaced, and I was enticed by the fancy packaging and shiny, shiny gold.
As it turns out, despite the package’s “From The Original Master Tapes” claim, Elektra had engineer George Marino take another crack at the mastering for Metallica’s early albums through Justice in 1995 (read: make them all louder), and those were the tapes given to Hoffman, not the ‘86 tapes. Hoffman did the best he could, and his work does beat Marino’s remaster, but it’s still a downgrade from the original. Without access to the tapes used to press the original CD, there was simply no way Hoffman could match it, no matter his skills. Since 1995 was just a few years into the Loudness War, Marino only pushed to DR8, (insanely loud remastering would come later) but cutting four points of DR out of his original ’86 master was still enough to do real damage.
Despite being burned once, I hadn’t learned my lesson about buying remasters, and so in 2004, I purchased all of the Megadeth remasters through Youthanasia. I say remasters because that’s how they were described, but in actuality, the 2004 Megadeth reissues were both remixed and remastered. So what’s the difference between mixing and mastering? To put it very simply, the mixing engineer takes each piece of a recording: the guitars, bass, vocals, drums, and any other elements, applies any desired effects to each, and balances them all as he or she sees fit. The fundamental sound of an album is determined by how it is recorded, and how it is mixed. Once the mix is locked down, the job of the mastering engineer is then to apply EQ and additional compression. It’s worth noting that there’s nothing stopping mixing engineers from applying plenty of compression before the mastering engineer ever starts their work. Death Magnetic is case in point; the mastering engineers claim that what they received was already bricked to hell, and there was basically nothing they could do.
Mustaine got the idea to remix and remaster nearly all of his back catalogue after releasing the remastered version Killing Is My Business two years earlier to generally positive acclaim, barring the idiotic inclusion of the bleeped version of “These Boots.” As it turns out, KIMB had already been remastered a decade earlier for an Italian market reissue, and then again in 1999 for a wider EU reissue on Century Media, but I don’t think Mustaine had any direct involvement with either of those.
Mustaine’s remastered KIMB was stupidly loud, but the original CD did completely suck in terms of sound, so I can understand the remaster getting a pass. The original vinyl did not suck, but that’s a story for another day. Unfortunately, with KIMB now blasting at DR6, having his other old albums all at DR10+ just wouldn’t do. Mustaine could’ve just remastered them all and cranked the volume to similar levels, but instead he decided to go all George Lucas (i.e. Han shot first. These are not the guitar parts you’re looking for). Since Mustaine wanted to radically alter, rather than just jack up the volume of his old albums, remastering wasn’t going to cut it. He had to go back to his original mixes, and lo and behold, some very important chunks (solos, guitar and bass parts, and some vocals) were missing, so he opted to re-record them, after all what possible harm could that do?
What Mustaine ended up with were a bunch of Frankenstein monsters with old and new pieces glued together, and of course everything jacked up to hell with clipping as the inevitable result. So glad I bought those. Unfortunately for my wallet, I also purchased the version of Countdown To Extinction released by the audiophile reissue label Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in 2006, and wouldn’t you know it, it was the same story as the DCC version of Master Of Puppets. Yes, despite MFSL’s signature “Original Master Recording” plastered right at the top, what MFSL actually got was Mustaine’s 2004 mess, and as before, their mastering engineer could only do the best with what he was given. The MFSL engineers could very likely turn the original 1992 master tapes into something phenomenal, but we’ll never know.
What’s a shame is that as with Marino’s “louderized” remaster of Master Of Puppets, none of this needed to happen. The original versions of Peace Sells and Rust In Piece both sound great, there was absolutely no need for Mustaine to come in and butcher them. Extinction on the other hand could have used some tweaking, as the original mix is a bit imbalanced, with the guitars too far back, and the cymbals too far forward. Instead, it was also butchered.
As a wise man once said, “fool me…you can’t get fooled again.” When it comes to “special editions” or “anniversary editions” or other ploys to get you to buy remastered reissues of classic metal albums, don’t be fooled. In almost all cases, “remastered” really means “ruined.” Sadly because remastering is sexy from a marketing standpoint, and because old pre-Loudness War metal albums are quiet and that makes everybody uncomfortable, don’t expect this practice to change any time soon.
There are exceptions of course, Noel Summerville for example is doing yeoman’s work with much of Earache’s back catalog for their Full Dynamic Range reissue series, at least in the cases where the originals were brickwalled or otherwise badly produced. The usefulness of some of his retouches is more questionable, but at the very least, I’ve yet to hear an FDR reissue that’s worse than the original, and when it comes to remastering, I call that a win. There are also cases where a dynamic remaster alone is not enough. A prime example of that is And Justice For All. That album’s thin, lifeless guitars and plastic toy drums are simply inherent in the recording. Plenty of engineers including the guys at MFSL have tried to make it better, and no one has succeeded. Newstead’s inaudible bass can be brought up so that you can actually hear it, but that’s as far as anyone has gotten.
Ultimately, the moral of the story is if you are thinking about buying a remastered reissue, at the very least check the Dynamic Range Database, as it just may save you from making the same kind of expensive mistakes I did.