Interview with Steve Hoffman conducted on December 23, 2002  
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By: Douglas Hess, Jr. 
2002 Douglas P. Hess, Jr. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction prohibited without expressed written permission except that individuals may download and print for personal use only.    

DH: So, it's been since November 2000 since we last spoke and there have been quite a few changes that have taken place. What has been happening with your old employer DCC Compact Classics and whom do you work for now?

SH: Basically I'm freelancing now. DCC is dormant for the moment. While that is sad, the good news is that most of the former employees are working with each other trying to give it a go under the S&P banner and the Audio Fidelity banner.

DH: How is S&P doing so far? It took some time for DCC to build up to the level of titles it offered, did S&P pick up with ZZ TOP where DCC left off or what market are they aiming for?

SH: Well, weíre licensing what we can, but now that there is a high resolution format like SACD or DVD-A, the major labels see a potential gold mine for re-releases and are reluctant to license some of their masters to us. In the past, well after MFSL and DCC had their 24 Karat Gold Disc series, the major labels tried it ( MCA, Atlantic, RCA and SONY), but didn't find it profitable like their normal titles. That lack of success allowed DCC to be able to continue making the case that our re-mastering and re-releasing their titles was not competing with the mainstream audience they were after so we weren't taking money out of their pockets. Now that they have the new SACD's and we want to make SACD's from their masters, they see us as direct competition. If anyone is going to make High Rez SACDís or DVD-A's of their titles, they want it to be them, first. So now we're going to have to wait for a while before we can come along and license some of their major label product. One of the ironies to the situation is that Mobile Fidelity and DCC kind of created our own monster by showing them the success we had and now they want to cash in. Understandable, but itís the mastering that makes something sound good, not the higher resolution of the new formats. They donít quite get that.

DH: So people like you blazed the trail and now they want to come along and put major traffic on that trail.

SH: That's pretty much it. Heck, they aren't marketing to the same group. The general population doesnít really care that much about sound quality. They just want it LOUD! To me, it doesn't matter what format the music is released in if the mastering isn't done right in the first place. You could have a perfect reproduction system that is ten times greater than SACD, DVD-A, etc. and it would still only sound as good as what was put into it. 

DH: So a hamburger made with regular ground beef rather than black angus ground chuck isn't going to be any better simply because it is served on a corn dusted home made bun-- it's the quality of the meat that makes the difference.

SH: That's right, so we'll have to essentially wait until they lose interest and start licensing to us again before we can get some of the titles we want. Hopefully it wonít be long. RCA and Atlantic and everyone else jumped into the Gold CD market, but when they only sold 5000 units a title, they lost interest and stopped it. The good thing is that while 5000 units may not mean much to a big company, that can be just fine for us on the release of a jazz title. In fact a steady flow of releases each selling 5000 units would be bread and butter to us.

DH: Despite the lack of a bunch of titles to license, it's not like you and Kevin haven't been busy doing project for Chad Kassem. And what's this about cutting vinyl? Kids nowadays don't even know what those are.

SH: You know it's scary that kids today don't know what life was like without pagers and cell phones and all of that stuff that we thought was miraculous when they first came out. In fact just before you called me I was sitting here typing a message on the internet and thinking, "Sheesh, this is being read by someone in Malaysia or Switzerland or other people around the world instantly after I finish it." Kids just take it for granted. Thatís the way it goes in life, of course. So kids today don't know the experience of buying and playing a record. Although, there is a kind of vinyl renaissance going on. Part of it is being triggered by the club DJ's who do the beat mixing and scratching on vinyl. So at least in that way the idea of playing music from a record is not totally lost on the young crowd. On the other hand, audiophiles are feeling nostalgic and once you get a $10,000 turntable, you need something to play on it. And that is where Chad Kassem and Acoustic Soundsí "Analogue Productions" label comes in; to fulfill that need. Marshall Blonstein at Audio Fidelity and Sam Passamano at S&P are also working on vinyl titles at the moment. And since the releases are on vinyl, not SACD or DVD-A, that's like licensing for an Edison cylinder to the major records companies-- they don't care. So, they are likely to make titles available to us that otherwise they wouldn't if we were going head to head with an SACD release.

DH: Are the LPs you and Kevin are putting out really much different from what was available when vinyl was at its peak? I was wondering what kind of "magic" you two were implementing to make these vinyl titles sound the best they can?

SH: Well, there are major advantages to modern LPs if they are mastered correctly. First of all, Kevin and I know how to master an LP without compromising the beautiful sound of the master tape. In the old days, the engineers didn't want to bother learning every nuance of a Steve Miller band or Miles Davis recording, for example. They just put the tape on the machine, turned on their safety compressor just like a radio station and let her rip. You know, side one done, side two done...on to the next project. Now, since most of the stuff Kevin and I cut we can literally hum in our sleep, we know where all the mastering moves are and where it gets loud and soft, etc. And that allows us to make it sound natural and very high rez like. The second part of the equation is going to the right pressing plant that only uses virgin vinyl.

DH: None of that re-ground, recycled garbage they were using during the 70s to make records with...

SH: That's right. I remember pulling out Elton Johnís "Madman Across The Water" a bunch of years ago. It was about 1972 and I remember putting on the song "Tiny Dancer" and thinking "Has the song started yet?" because I couldn't HEAR the opening piano over the surface noise of the record. And it was a brand new copy. Now, we have a record plant like Record Technology Inc. in Camarillo, California that presses only virgin vinyl and can make a really dead quiet 180 gram pressing. So if you have a turntable, expensive or merely modest, it will sound great.

DH: Now is this something totally new or are we going back to good vinyl? I know people who tell me they can pull out their original 1960s "Meet the Beatles" and even though it has been played and played still sounds great while some of their newer records didn't last like that. So are we returning to the old way when records would last through more than a couple of playings?

SH: No, I don't believe they ever used virgin vinyl until JVC and Mobile Fidelity started using the JVC plant in Japan to press their titles in the late 70s. I think when someone pulls out their old 1964 Capitol "Something New" album by the Beatles, puts it on and loves the sound; I think they are rebelling against the sound of really badly mastered "modern" sounding discs. Analog to analog just has a smooth sound that is more natural to the ears. So even on a scratchy old record, the sound is going to have more "emotion" than what is out there on a modern digital disc. And the key to helping that sound come through even more is in the mastering. So this is not simply a format debate where I'm saying vinyl is just better. When you master your album, there are certain rules you have to follow. With CDs you don't. You can turn the treble all the way up to ear splitting volume, or do other stuff that you can't do when you cut a record. You can't have too much bass or too much treble on a record or it wonít play or even press correctly-- you pretty much have to be in the "pleasing" ballpark or it won't work. So even the worst albums still have a sound that is quite nice.

DH: But now wait a minute. Are you guys then bending those rules? Without revealing any super trade secret, how are you and Kevin able to make your LPs sound so much better while still staying in those same rules and guidelines that kept the old engineers from getting too far out of line? I mean, you can't just let the master tape roll without any compression or EQ or you would get outside the limits, wouldn't you? Are you hand riding the levels? Are you using half-speed mastering or anything goofy like that?

SH: No, no, no, we donít compress AT ALL. It is simply taking the time to listen to the tape before cutting. You make notes of where it gets loud, where it gets quiet and you find the loudest part of each side and set the volume level accordingly so you aren't compromising the dynamics and let the rest fall in wherever it does. Then you put on the tape and let it roll for a test run to make sure it will fit. Once you make sure the groove is the right width and depth and make everything is set the way it needs to be, you back up the tape and begin cutting. They key to it all is taking the time to run down everything correctly. I think it's kind of like making a cassette tape recording of an album. Like we used to do in the good old days? You look at the LP and see where the loudest part of the groove is and you play that part to set the levels on your tape deck just below 0 on your vu meters and let everything else fall into place. There is no real magic to it other than the time it takes to pay attention to all of those details. In record cutting Kevin and I listen to each side of the album 5 to 10 times while taking notes. Iím sure most engineers simply canít take time to do that-- so they make their little compromises with dynamics and tonality. But the extra time we spend per project really justifies charging $50 for a jazz title cut on two discs at 45 RPM. 

DH: This is like buying a hand crafted Rolls Royce versus an assembly line car. You pay for the extra attention and time put into hand building the Rolls Royce. Thus if people want to hear an album where the time has been spent to do it properly, they have to pay for that extra time.

SH: That's right. And in the old days, who knows what mastering source they used? We start with only the original two-track master tape. So when you put the record on and you thread up the master tape and listen side by side- they match. And that's the name of the game.

DH: So you guys have put the "art" back into the process. It's kind of like reading the label on a loaf of white bread made by a big company. Unlike the water, flour and yeast and the simple recipe your mom or grandmother would use, their label has a bunch of additives and preservatives and extra stuff put in there.

SH: Exactly, and we have actually SIMPLIFIED the signal path between the master tape and the LP. We've removed the compressor and the limiter and the old-fashioned safeguards that would have been used in the past to allow the engineers to get the job done without too much hassle and we're actually flying by the seat of our pants sometimes. It's like taking off your parachute before jumping from the plane.

DH: You said you listen to the master tape 5 to 10 times to make notes, is there a concern you'll wear out the tape?

SH: Well, let me let you in on a little secret. The first thing I do is make a tape copy and we do all of our mastering moves and note taking and rehearsing while listening to the copy. Then after everything is set up just right, we thread up the real master and start cutting with one pass for each side. So there is no danger to the master. 

DH: So if stored and used properly, a master tape should not have been played very many times by the time you guys get it. I have read where some master tapes have been lost due to over playing. Is that the main way they get lost?

SH: Not really. Most of it comes back to the tape stock they used. If you remember from one of our earlier interviews, recording tapes made after 1973 didn't use the same natural lubrication as before so after about 5 to 8 years they dry out pretty badly and wonít play anymore. That's why we have to "bake" the masters and they will play for about a week before it going back to being dead. The sad thing is bunch of great albums were made during the late 70s and early 80s when that tape problem was most prevalent. I actually have things I worked on just 8 years ago that now won't play after they supposedly fixed the tape formulation problem. And that's kind of depressing.

DH: Are you where you want to be at this stage in your life? I'm sure you didn't have a crystal ball that would tell you that you would work for MCA for awhile and then DCC and then it would fold, etc. but having realized anything in the music business if not stable-- are you happy where you are now doing what you do?

SH: What I really want to do is go on stage with an ABBA revival show... but other than that, yes. I am doing what I want to do. I'm lucky, you know, because I'm involved with the very music that I loved all my life. Most recording engineers are not too happy right now because they don't exactly dig the music that they are working on. I canít really blame them for the most part.

DH: I wanted to bring up a topic that comes up on the Forum once in awhile. How do you see yourself in all of this? There seems to be some differences of opinion on you. One group says that you're just a regular guy on the same level as a house painter who happens to master CDs and LPs for a living. And that the sound you like-- others happen to like it too. And so you are successful based on the work you do. Others think you are some attention seeking guy who thinks that if you didn't master it then it must suck and that you are better than anyone else in the business. A few people seem to get bent out of shape by the Forum posts that seem to worship the great STEVE and treating you like someone with a limo and body guards. They DONíT agree that if you didn't master it, then the CD must suck. Where do you see yourself in all of this? Especially since you personally pay out the money for the forum where these comments have been made-- so it's like people are bashing you and your guests in your own living room.

SH: Well, first of all I take to heart the comments people make about me. Iím sensitive about it of course. Who wouldnít be? Posting something on the Internet is not exactly like having a reasonable one on one conversation in person. People write things they would never say in person. That is just the nature of the beast. Regarding other discs out there sounding good or bad, of course there is a ton of stuff that sounds good. There are a few mastering engineers out there who do great work, but THERE COULD BE MORE! Record companies want LOUD now, and most engineers weep when they have to squash dynamic range on their releases. They follow orders though. Iím very lucky: I donít have to! As to negative comments, there are only a few bashers. Most comments though are positive and Forum members feel passion about the music they love, and the guy who makes their music sound the best he can. So they love the music, not me (although Iím sure they would like me just fine). They show their gratitude by praising my work. And I love reading it. It makes me feel like Iím not just working in a vacuum, alone in my little mastering suite. It helps me get through each day.

DH: But it's not like you're really seeking notoriety or anything.

SH: Some people probably think that I am because of the website. After all, it's not Ed Jones' website, it's MY website. And I really try not to toot my own horn on there, but I tell you what happens...I want people to hear the best sounding Nat King Cole or the best sounding this or that and I happen to think that my versions sound the best--obviously, or I wouldn't have engineered them to sound that way in the first place! So I really like to toot the horn of the music that I master and I get a little fallout over that. I canít stand a lot of the new "remasters" that compress the sound and screw up tonality and dynamics. I HATE that sound; it gives me a headache and makes my ears feel like they are bleeding. Not my style at all. I want people to hear the "music of their life" in the best, most natural sounding way they possibly can. It doesnít matter what format I work in! Basically I make the music sound the way I've wanted it to my whole life. I have this sound in my head that I like and one that I've been striving to reproduce with thousands of releases. The "breath of life" I call it, and out of everything I've released I've gotten thousands and thousands of compliments and maybe 20 non-compliments. So I know I'm on the right track. My work makes people happy, and that makes ME happy. Basically that's what keeps me going. Obviously the best place for me to communicate with music lovers is my Forum. It really is the best place on the Internet to talk about music, recording techniques and equipment; 1,600 educated and entertaining members!

DH: And for the last question, let's look in to Steve's crystal ball see where you are going. Tell me what is on the way for 2003? Are we going to finally get ZZ Top to let you have the original masters? 

SH: I hope so! There will be a lot more neat releases from S&P, Analogue Productions and Audio Fidelity. And I believe once the majors loosen up a bit, we'll be able to license what we like. Things will get even more interesting as the year goes on. Stay tuned!

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