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Should we clean up old recordings, or keep their noise and distortion in all their glory?

We think we know everything these days. But are we getting a little too clever? Perhaps people in an earlier age of recording knew something that we don't.

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Back in the 1930's and 40's my great-uncle, Robert MacGimsey, recorded hundreds of Negro spirituals on his Louisiana plantation, using a portable disc recorder and lacquered aluminum discs. I had the recordings dubbed off on 1/4" reel-to-reel tape in 1968 to preserve them, and of course today none of the old discs are playable.

About twelve years ago I began digitizing these recordings and cleaning them up with PC software: All of the clicks, over 90% of the turntable rumble and other background noise, etc., were removed successfully, and I went further to do "micro-surgery" on all other aspects of the songs, including diction and articulation, EQ, time-stretching, even adding a stereo effect, until the recordings were just sparkling clean and clear.

It was my intention to release a series of CD's which would be suitable for radio broadcast and would play well in home stereo units and car CD players. Well, they weren't very well received. Many folks didn't believe that they were actually old recordings, because they sounded so clean and sparkling, so modern. Others were incensed that I had in any way changed the musical content, or the medium by which it was created. These were VINTAGE recordings, and people wanted to hear them they way they would have sounded on a Victrola!

The project still resides on my old hard drive and on numerous DVD's. And in all of this, I re-learned a valuable life lesson: People love antiques, whether they be visual, physical, or audio; and I seemed to have destroyed that illusion for them, in my quest for "perfection."

There are stories of well-intentioned individuals who have taken a genuine old Stradivarius apart, scooped out the back and top much thinner than it was originally, or maybe even made a new top for it and threw the original away, and actually re-varnished the whole, thinking they had done a great service of some sort. What they did was to destroy almost the entire value of that priceless artwork, when leaving it in its now imperfect, but original, condition would have today brought perhaps two or three million dollars at the auction block at Sotheby's.

Can we improve upon Leonarda da Vinci's Mona Lisa by adding mascara, eye shadow, highlighted cheeks and perhaps some nice earrings and a gold necklace to her? Or could we 'correct' Michaelangelo's David or Madonna and Child with a little chipping here, and a little grinding there? Maybe rewriting Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to read, "Romeo, dude, where the **ll are ya?!" Reworking an original, vintage work rarely results in any kind of an improvement, just like using modern mastering on an old (or maybe even bad) song to produce a 'Masteringpiece.

Consider what modern electronics have done to 'improve' the great studio recordings of the past, when played on an MP3 or an iPod. If you can't hear the sonic difference, then my point is well stated: We have lost the 'golden ears' of our parents and grandparents, who listened to all genres of music on their big, stereo music systems, whether they were reel-to-reel tape or LP's.

I well remember my old uncle's Fisher machine, which consisted of separate, heavy cabinets for each of the channels, housing high-quality 15" woofers and various other sized, and warming the house with too many tubes to remember. And the sound was out of this world: Operatic singers were present in your living room, violinists and string quartets were alive and breathing, symphony orchestras surrounded you and blasted out their might on those forte passages, and Elvis Presley and John Gary and Bing Crosby sounded better then than I have ever heard them sound on digital equipment.

So, perhaps in summation, my thoughts would be, if it's vintage, leave it vintage. It it's poor, old or new, modern mastering isn't going to make it wonderful. Great music isn't created in the mastering room, it's created in the recording studio. I'm 65, by the way, and my hearing is still worlds ahead of any young person I know today.

Perhaps we're even doing a great disservice to our younger generation by giving them super-loud music that grievously lacks in quality? When I dine, I have to admit that, sometimes, quantity is quality. But not so with music. Forget 'in with the new and out with the old'. That works great for New Year's celebrations, but not always for music.

We should leave vintage recordings the way they were originally, and let the historians of future generations have something to enjoy in its purity.

By Glen Stockton Saturday June 16, 2012
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