An interview with
Steve Hoffman (2011)
By Beppe Colli
June 28, 2011
I have to confess that things haven't always
been great between me and lovers of Hi-Fi. Maybe it's just a matter of
bad luck, but the majority of audiophiles I've met were of the kind that
are slaves to audio fads and go crazy about things whose usefulness I consider
to be, at best, dubious (and let's not talk about cables, please...). When
it came to music things were even worse: from Ottorino Respighi and his
Pines of Rome to Tomita to the Puppini Sisters, the lag between those monster
Hi-Fi sets and music that was... well, let's call it unremarkable, was
impossible to ignore.
However, becoming aware of the fact that
two different pressings of what was - apparently - the same LP sounded
very different; that a CD of an LP album that was dear to me didn't necessarily
feature "the same music"; that a fantastic-sounding CD could
be reborn as a squashed, compressed monstrosity; all made me investigate
the way recorded music is produced.
One of the (very few) (re)mastering engineers
whose work is held in high esteem all over the world, Steve Hoffman sports
a CV that's literally immense. While quite a few interviews he's given
in the course of the last fifteen years have taught me quite a bit about
many topics, lately it's the Forum the lives under the umbrella of his
website (stevehoffman.tv) that has given me surprises every day. I'd like
to stress the fact that it's an ad-free Forum I'm talking about, which
lives thanks to voluntary donations; and that one can visit and read the
threads even if one is not a registered member.
Steve Hoffmann kindly accepted my proposal
to answer a few written questions, which were sent to him, via e-mail,
sure you've already answered this question a million times, I'd like
to know if your background was initially music, or a technical one? I
mean, by the time you started your engineering practice, were you coming
from a musician's perspective - i.e., somebody who played an instrument
with a certain degree of proficiency - or, say, as a listener who liked
both music and electronics?
I never had a technical background
at all. It was always music. The technical stuff happened because I needed
to know how to do it so I could fix the music I love.
Do you remember
the time when you first became aware of the difference in sound between
different LP editions? If I remember correctly, in a thread that appeared
in your Forum about the recent mono CD edition of Younger Than Yesterday
by The Byrds that you remastered, you said that, at the time of the album's
original release, after listening to those tracks in mono all the time,
the stereo version you heard in somebody's home sounded "wrong".
You mean between editions of
the same album, in stereo, I assume. It was 1976 and I took a job at a radio
automation company making tapes of music for radio stations. The song was
Uncle Albert by McCartney. The library gave me 2 albums of Ram to work with,
the original US Apple, and a new 1976 recutting. I was shocked at how different
they were. I hadn't noticed changes like that because I never had two of
the same album at home but cut at different times. The new issue sounded
worse than the old Apple version but it had cleaner vinyl so I used it. From
then on I was aware of differences in mastering.
I assume that
when Younger Than Yesterday was originally released you were quite young.
As a listener, were you aware, at the time, of
"progress" in recorded sound? And did some records struck you as
having a "different" sound, a "sonic fingerprint"? (Such
as: UK vs. USA, or Stax vs. Motown, or Olympic vs. EMI, or...)
I thought Younger Than Yesterday
sounded pretty bad on my little Zenith portable stereo. The drums were faint,
there was no bass and the recording sounded
"distant". Compared to the Dave Clark Five Glad All Over where
the drums were up close and full and the bass was very strong and low. But,
the music came first and I tried to ignore the changes in sound. I could
tell a Motown song vs. a Stax song, etc. but everyone could back then although
we didn't put it into words. Do you understand? Hard to explain...
I assume that
when doing a remaster one has to ponder some heavy philological matters
- besides the technical issues concerning the actual remastering process.
When you remastered Laura Nyro's "best of" CD - Time And Love:
The Essential Masters - you actually took the time to go back to the
original master tapes. And (again: provided I remember correctly) it
seems to me that when you talked about your recent remaster of James
Taylor's One Man Dog you stressed the fact that from song to song the
sound now changes, instead of all the songs having the same "tonality" as
it was on a previously released CD edition. Would you mind elaborating?
Well, I just want the listening
experience to be nice. I don't want to tamper with the sound of the old mixes
even if some of them sound better or worse than another song on the album.
I do not however want to startle the listener out of the mood by ignoring
blatant changes in sound. Is that what you mean?
A CD re-release of an old
LP offers the chance to "better", to
"improve", the original, and I think that, time and time again,
quite a few remastering engineers have gladly accepted this responsibility
- for instance, I own a 24bit remastered version of Creedence Clearwater
Revival's Bayou Country where Stu Cook sounds a lot like Jaco Pastorious!
But I'd like to know if - besides obvious factors such as budget constraints,
sheer laziness or carelessness, the "loudness wars", etc. - a lot
of mastering engineers nowadays actually know how a group such as Creedence
really sounded back in the day, or what a Marshall top + Marshall bottom,
4x12, combination actually sounds like in a room. Or, indeed, that a certain
piece of equipment - say, a digital reverb - had not been invented yet at
the time album x was recorded. What's your take on this?
Well, most mastering engineers
today have never even seen an analog tape machine let alone know how to work
one. Letís face it, the stuff I work with is really old and most engineers
work on newer stuff (which I would be lost at).
Still, I would expect any engineer
to know the basic sound of real life instruments and voices but you would
be surprised at how many of them don't care. These engineers want to leave
THEIR mark on the music which of course to me is totally wrong, wrong, wrong.
Quite a few times one has
to face "the devil's alternative", i.e., whether to buy an old
CD mastered from high-generation tapes, unfutzed; or, a recently remastered
CD, purportedly "off the original master tapes", with strong doses
of added signal processing of a modern kind. Is there a better way to proceed
than a "case-by-case" basis?
No, not really. It depends on
the label, the date of issue and who was in charge. Frustrating, isn't it?
Unlike boomers, young consumers/music
listeners have grown up in an age when music isn't necessarily sold on a
physical support - nor it is customary for them to pay for the music they
listen to. Judging from those heated discussions I happen to read all over
the Web, most music listeners are quite indifferent to the financial well-being
of musicians, engineers, studio owners, and the like, all of whom are often
condemned under the umbrella name "the industry". As an engineer,
do you see a decline in the standards of sound recording, now that most great
studios of the past have closed their doors?
Well, yes, of course. The old
studios are mainly gone and so is the sound. Problem is, no one really cares,
it seems. Not the musicians, not the label and not the consumer so what can
one do? Not much...
Though the "reissue
industry" has so far benefited from a resurgence of interest in many
things past, it seems to me that most music writers and, judging from my
personal experience, many music buyers are totally indifferent to the actual
quality of the re-released items, with both sub-par editions - when it comes
to source tape, remastering and (vinyl) pressing - and excellent editions
receiving similar degrees of applause. Do you think that nowadays music is
just another item in the parade of the fashion industry?
I think that historically, reviewers,
artists and producers donít much care about sound quality the way audiophiles
do. I've seen many homes of music stars and they have really bad playback
systems. I mean, like a portable boom box or something. Shocking to me but
if they want to hear themselves in great sound, all they have to do is to
sing or play!
Talking about "classic
rock", I have a weakness for the sound of Simon Kirke's drums on Bad
Company's first album. I recently got to know that you remastered said album,
which quickly went out of print. So now I have two alternatives: a) downloading
the album from "somewhere" (a no-no for me); b) buying the album
for $xxx on eBay (which I'd never do). Being a simple man, I ask: Why a "superior-sounding" version
is allowed to go out of print, and all we are left with is an inferior, squashed-sounding
You must understand, the producers,
labels, artists, etc. think the inferior squashed-sounding CD sounds REALLY
GOOD and my version does not. They like that bad sound. What can one do in
the face of that? Sometimes they humor us audiophiles, but mostly they just
laugh at us...
to add? (Ha! What about "the Cloud"?)
For me, any music delivery device is ok as long as it has
some semblance of high fidelity. I mean, some of my favorite music of all
time was recorded in the early 20th Century before Hi-Fi was invented or
even imagined. Still wonderful to listen to. There are always people who
just accept what they hear on the radio or whatever as the only way to listen
to music. But, there are always people in every generation who want to listen
to all kinds of music, delivered in many different ways. That's fine with
me. As long as a young kid is discovering the Beatles or Jelly Roll Morton,
the music lives on!
© Beppe Colli 2011
CloudsandClocks.net | June 28,