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The Steve Hoffman Interview:
DCC's Vintage Remastering Guru
Sounds Off

by Ken Wait
***
Originally published in the The 910, Volume 6, No. 4. Reprinted with kind permission by the editor.

 


For those irregular readers of the 910 and those living outside the Milky Way, Steve Hoffman is The guy at DCC Compact Classics responsible for bringing that big analog sound and all its warmth to those little gold discs we so look forward to playing.

I heard a Buddy Holly compilation of his more than a decade ago - - I remember it like yesterday, and have wanted to shake his hand ever since. This was the day I finally did it.

******

 

910: Steve, you're about as close as anyone has ever come to being a consistent favorite of the 910, mostly through your work on the solo Beatles catalog. What was it like to take on the responsibility of remastering a classic album like McCartney?

Hoffman: A pain in the butt! But when I finally heard "Every Night" the way I wanted to hear it (applies thick Lawrence Welk-type accent) make-a my life rich and re-war-ding!

910: Do I understand correctly that you had the same model two-track machine that they originally used to mix and master the album?

Hoffman: Yes.

910: A Studer?

Hoffman: Yeah, it's a Studer.

910: Any good stories about other solo Beatle albums?

Hoffman: No, not really. The thing about EMI is they're very zealous about secrets. Sometimes they don't furnish original tape boxes, just the original tapes, because there's little notes scribbled on them. But nothing really interesting, I'm sorry to say.

910: Say you're doing a McCartney title -- what's the process you go through?

Hoffman: I'll retrieve the original English Apple version, original American, and second and third American pressings. The German version. I listen to the 8-track, cassette, their CD, the Columbia CD -- everything to hear what the vision was originally. I've heard every song a million times. I know everything about the album. I've done my homework.

910: When "Rock Show" begins at the end of "Venus And Mars," was there an instruction to turn up the levels?

Hoffman: There was an instruction that you "turn it down" when it got louder. If you ignore that, it sounds great! I don't think anyone else has commented on that.

910: We've read that MPL requires the same track lineup as the aluminum release.

Hoffman: Yes, that's Captiol's insistence.

910: Quite a blessing for fans of Badfinger's Straight Up, which carries all bonus tracks!

Hoffman: That's a good CD. I enjoyed working on it.

910: It's so impressive how you can get an almost analog sounding bass out of something like McCartney, but the other instruments come off spectacularly as well -- on every DCC title. Take the piano in "Love in Song," the woodwinds on "You Gave The Answer" or "Listen To What The Man Said" and the 'hidden' vocal on "Let Me Roll It." During the guitar break -- there's no solo -- you can actually hear the ambient reverb from the original scratch vocal.

Hoffman: Yup. It's all there. You're very observant, young man.

910: How about the remaining solo work? Will we be hearing them on DCC?

Hoffman: Paul McCartney pretty much controls all his solo things. George Harrison's and John Lennon's solo material is controlled by the Beatles committee.

910: Neil Aspinall?

Hoffman: It's a vast group.

910: The same guys who approve things like the EP and singles box.

Hoffman: That was English EMI's idea. I wouldn't have minded except they used the wrong tapes anyway, so what was the point?

910: They used the right "Revolution;" the mono mix, that is.

Hoffman: That's true, but I bought it hoping to hear that gorgeous original Parlophone mono, without all the echo, version of "Ask Me Why/Please Please Me." But instead, they took it off their third generation LP master, which rendered everything else useless and anticlimactic for me. So I took my copy of that and heaved it out the window -- which is what I usually do when I don't like something. On the record: that was a mistake.

910: There's an argument that the vinyl surface noise adds something to the mono "Revolution."

Hoffman: Sure, absolutely. I (also) enjoy the stereo mixes. They're usually less compressed and squashed than the mono mixes. So I enjoy hearing the music and the singing. But I don't enjoy the crappy...(disinterested) you know, like the stereo version of "Can't Buy Me Love." The rhythm track is just way too low. "I Want To Hold Your Hand" -- the same thing: it's just too low. It doesn't matter to me if it's mono or stereo, just which is the best version. And in the case of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" or "A Hard Day's Night," "Revolution" or "Matchbox." "Slow Down" is another great example. The rhythm track is way too low on the stereo version and without that rhythm track, the whole song falls apart. Ever hear "Satisfaction" by the Stones in stereo? What a bummer! It's nice to hear it, but ooh -- what a terrible mix that is! The rhythm track is too quiet and all that acoustic guitar is too loud.

910: They worked so hard on the mono mix of songs like "Blue Jay Way" or "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" with vocals phasing in and out of the guitars.

Hoffman: Or "Your Mother Should Know". However, on Beatles For Sale, the mono version really bites because they worked so hard on it; it's so compressed and harsh sounding. The stereo version, which they were very apathetic on, works to our advantage because they didn't use as much compression, they just turned it up and hit start! And that, to me, sounds more life-like than the mono version of that particular album. Listen to the stereo version of "Honey Don't" on either the MoFi (Mobile Fidelity) box or the original Parlophone LP. Listen to "Honey Don't" for when the drums come in, and then listen to the mono version and how squashed and echoey it is. The stereo version at least has some dynamic range, because they were so apathetic they didn't even patch in all their thingies that, you know, make it sound so squashed. They were in a hurry, so that's why, to us, that's the version that sounds more Hi-Fi -- because now our stereos are so much more sophisticated. That's why the mono version sounds so harsh and honky -- because they wanted it to sound good on a cheapo mono phonograph.

910: Like Brian Wilson loved the way his mono mixes sounded through an AM dashboard.

Hoffman: The only problem that Brian didn't foresee is them not making mono albums after 1968. so his gorgeous Pet Sounds creation became a fake-stereo nightmare!

910: You've been mentioning "Please Please Me," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "Honey Don't"...

Hoffman: I like the earlier Beatle things, when they were still a little bit under the thumb of George Martin.

910: Personally I prefer Rubber Soul and Revolver to the White Album or Let It Be. But I think they really brought something back to the table for Abbey Road.

Hoffman: Well, they brought George Martin back in the saddle.

910: Let's talk about your background.

Hoffman: I was a music minor and a psych major in college. Always been into old music and old records ever since I was kid. I'm equally well versed on jazz from the 1920's as I am on 1960's rock.

910: You got your first gig remastering for MCA, correct?

Hoffman: Yeah, absolutely. The first project (began) in late '80-81. I had compiled it on paper and they sent me a test pressing of it and I said 'this doesn't sound like I remember it. I better get involved in this mysterious thing called mastering.' The first was called Buddy Holly - For The First Time Anywhere. It was basically the undubbed versions of a lot of his early things, It sold incredibly well, so I decided to do one on everyone else I could find there. From Bing Crosby on. That's how the "Vintage Music" thing came out. It's hard to work on an album of the Jaynets' -- "Sally-go-round The Roses" -- because basically that's their only goof song. But I found a really good version of that song and it had to go somewhere, so I created the "Vintage Music" series that I wanted to go as far as it could.

910: You also compiled and remastered Buddy Holly's greatest on the From The Original Master Tapes CD, a piece that sounds as good today as it did back in 1985.

Hoffman: Why wouldn't it?

910: Because so many CDs from the fledgling digital era don't hold up to today's standards...

Hoffman: It's exactly the same technology. Nothing has changed, everything's just gotten more expensive. If you did it correctly, it's going to sound right.

910: Keep it analog 'til the last possible second.

Hoffman: That's right. And when you do make your transfer to digital, don't screw around with it. And make sure you're listening to it on really accurate monitors, so you're not fooling yourself into thinking you're improving it. If I don't play it back on their monitors, how else can I hear what they had it mind?

910: Let's talk about some of your other projects. You did some early Who stuff, right?

Hoffman: Yes.

910: Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy?

Hoffman: I did a version of it.

910: The one with the stereo "Magic Bus"?

Hoffman: Yes, that's the one I did.

910: How about Who's Next?

Hoffman: They had originally mastered it on their own from the mastering lab EQ'd copy and when I found the original master in their vaults I said, "Wait a minute! Let's use the real tape!" So, much to their credit, they scraped all 5,000 copies they had made and we re-did it, which was a good thing.

910: DCC has some extremely impressive Beach Boys releases. Hasn't the running order for Endless Summer been changed?

Hoffman: "Surfin' Safari" and "Surfin' U.S.A." have been reversed.

910: Reason?

Hoffman: I wanted to start with "Surfin' U.S.A." I thought "Surfin' Safari" was a little too primitive to an audiophile listener who maybe never heard the Beach Boys before.

910: Cream's Wheels of Fire was one of the first LPS I owned on vinyl. DCC's strict attention to detail astounds me. The sound and graphics took me way back.

Hoffman: Ours used original dayglo ink in there for the insert and aluminum foil from the same place they used. It was our first gold release. It was twice as much money for the two CD set and we wanted it to be correct even down to the little Atco. It's a very time consuming process to restore the original covers; to get the embossing on The Eagles' Greatest Hits. I mean, we had to create that dye to make that head stick out like that. We're just trying to give the long player experience on a new medium.

910: With all the Creedence Clearwater Revival litigation over the years, I'm surprised Fantasy is not more difficult to work with than someone like EMI.

Hoffman: That's just it. Someone like EMI. What you should say is some 100 people involved at EMI. Fantasy is a small company -- one or two people make the decisions. They're not dependent on the artist, his manager, the producer's manager. It just them. "Do we wanna do this with DCC or no? Yes, okay.." and it's done.

910: What was it like to work with Ray Charles?

Hoffman: Wonderful. We had a very long and fruitful union for many years. We worked together on all the reissues of his original albums, plus his greatest hits. It was wonderful working with Ray. He's very talented.

910: Was it your idea to work together?

Hoffman: Yes, that was our idea. He wasn't sure what he had, you know? He really couldn't see his tapes so we pointed him in the right direction. Then he liked us so much that we decided we would form a little union and just work on all his albums for him.

910: They sound great!

Hoffman: It helped him out and it helped us out, and it was fun working with him. He'd shut the lights out on me and say, "this is what it's like to work blind son! Try to find all the little knobs now!" I said, "I know, but you can, can't you Ray?" We found "Hit The Road, Jack!" -- of the eighty copies he had of that song, only one was the original master. He didn't know which one he pulled out (all his tapes have braille on them). He said, "This one says master on it. I know because someone told me. " I said, "Ray, it says Muntz 4-track Car Stereo Master! That's not the master. It's probably a third or fourth generation copy." He said, "well, hell, what am I gonna do?" I said, "here it is!" He said, "OK, let's hear it." So we threaded it up and I saw his face light up and he said, "that sounds pretty good." I said, "yeah, that sounds very good, Ray!" He said, "I could do the vocal over 'cause I sing it a lot better now. I said, "no Ray, this is how it was then. This is what we need. This is great!" So, slowly I brought him around to remaster his entire catalog.

910: You've always struck me as part of a firm that cared a little more about the finished product than the bottom line.

Hoffman: Yes.

910: And that's what endears audiophiles to you guys, and why publications like The 910 go out of their way to try to make people appreciate what you're doing.

Hoffman: The thing is when a vice-president at a major record company reads in a fanzine that the DCC version of something trashes theirs. It might give them pause to not be as cooperative. You know, it's great to hear all the praise, but there are many people who aren't that happy to hear it.

910: One of the things you do at DCC is to go back to the original masters for greatest hits compilations, unlike the original labels, which often seem to use safety copies, at best.

Hoffman: Have to. Because our credo is to only use the master tape. With a greatest hits album, how could you use the (album) master tape, 'cause there is no master tape.

910: I used to be in favor of remixing until I heard what you're capable of getting from the original master tapes.

Hoffman: Remixing is usually bad.

910: Even George Martin knew better than to remix Revolver.

Hoffman: I think he wanted to. It was just too complicated.

910: How could you remix "Tomorrow Never Knows" without John Lennon's presence?

Hoffman: Well, how could you remix "Norwegian Wood" without it?

910: Touché.

Hoffman: A friend of mine at MCA once told me that anyone who remixes a classic record ought to be shot, and I said, "no, listen to how much louder I can make the drums on this Mama's & Papa's song!" And she rightly argued that the karma of the original mix, no matter how crappy it sounds, is the original mix. Anything else is just jerkin' off. And she's right! Thank you Diana!

910: Unless the original master was stored poorly or has been destroyed, which is sometimes used as an excuse to twiddle knobs.

Hoffman: Yeah, it's usually a self-gratification, power thing. I try to avoid it and have been successful, except in the case of the songs that were never mixed like the bonus tracks on Phoebe Snow's or Leon Russell's CDs. They were never mixed, just an unmarked multi-track tape. "Hey, that sounds like Ringo and Mick Jagger! That sounds like Leon on piano. My God, I'm gonna mix this!" Nonetheless, that's when I'll remix, or mix, if it has never been mixed.

910: How do you feel about the use of noise reduction on vintage recordings?

Hoffman: On the record: the person who invented No-Noise should be drawn and quartered. Noise is like a part of life. We're in this room and we're hearing the air conditioner through the vent. We're hearing the phones. If suddenly all that were gone, we'd go insane...

910: Finally, if there was only one more project you could choose...

Hoffman: Beatles.

910: The rest of your...

Hoffman: Beatles.

910: No doubt about it?

Hoffman: Who else? I like the Beatles more than any other group, so...

910: They're the only band I can hear every day of my life and not become bored.

Hoffman: Me too.

910: And the million dollar question: do you think it's ever going to really happened?

Hoffman: I don't think so...

910: Even when Bill Inglot gets to remaster The Monkees catalog almost on a yearly basis?

Hoffman: They control it.

910: Rhino?

Hoffman: Yeah. That would be like saying, "I'd like to go through that catalog, but I can't." He can because he owns it. If they chose not to have him go through it, no one else would. We're lucky that he can.

910: Even if McCartney hears DCC's work and thinks it's clearly superior to all its predecessors?

Hoffman: He has no say in the matter. I mean, he's our friend, but he's just one of four or eight; it's like Congress, The Supreme Court and The President. They check and balance each other. If they don't agree...They don't need the money, what do they need? Please understand -- Capitol-EMI -- they like us and we like them. It's just very complicated. We requested Badfinger's No Dice three years ago and we're just now getting it! Everyone has a lawyer and the lawyers have to speak to each other. So it's a long, involved process.

910: If you ever did, say, Revolver, would you try to put both mixes on the CD?

Hoffman: Yes, of course. But understand, to them, that's like putting two albums on one CD. That's twice as much everything.

910: So charge us double.

Hoffman: They love The Beatles. Everyone loves The Beatles! Nobody wants to screw around with The Beatles catalog. Basically, they look at us like a specialty company. Why should they spend more than five minutes worrying about us when they have all this other stuff to worry about.

910: I take it you'd like to remain that way.

Hoffman: There's no other way to be. If we had to do more than two or three releases a month, I couldn't spend nine weeks working on Pet Sounds. That's a song a week. The way it is now, I'm swamped.

****

To e-mail or flame Kenny, send all correspondence to:
pakwell@pacbell.net