Tuesday, October 31, 2000
For CD guru, masters are his domain
By Fred Shuster
Music Writer L.A.Times
Some people have the best jobs.
There's the chocolate chip cookie dough ice-cream tester at Ben & Jerry's. There's David E. Kelley, the TV producer who eats breakfast with Michelle Pfeiffer each morning. And there's Steve Hoffman, the guy who gets to listen to the original tapes of classic albums and then remaster them to gold CD.
Unless you're an audiophile, the head of a major label or simply a stickler for the fine print on your records, you might never have heard of him. But it's Hoffman's job to improve on such classic recordings as Joni Mitchell's "Blue," Judy Garland's "Judy at Carnegie Hall," the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" by picking apart the original master tapes, making the sound sparkle and turning it into a 24-karat gold compact disc. It's a process that can take anywhere from a few days to several months of intensive listening and knob-twiddling.
Steve Hoffman of Digital Compact Classics.
(Gus Ruelas / Daily News)
Hoffman's artfully remastered CDs for Chatsworth-based DCC Compact Classics, the label that issues the best-sounding CDs in the business, are porno for audiophiles. Costing around $27 for single discs and $46 for double albums, the gold discs are known for their warm, lifelike sound and perfectly reproduced packaging.
"For the money we charge, we have to have something that will blow people away -- the original master tapes, the original artwork, the inserts, even the original record label. Whatever was in the original package, we reproduce exactly," says Hoffman, senior vice president of a&r/engineering at DCC, who made crucial contacts in the record business in college as a DJ and engineer at California State University, Northridge, radio station KCSN-FM (88.5).
DCC was founded in 1986 by Marshall Blonstein, ex-president of the Island and Ode labels, for the purpose of reissuing music that had long been unavailable.
"Sort of like Rhino but a little more serious-minded," Hoffman explained. "We felt no other company was releasing the albums we were interested in. I mean, I wanted to hear the Doors. I wanted to hear Bob Dylan. It was our goal to issue everything on CD you couldn't get. Rhino had the same idea and five times the staff."
DCC's gold discs enjoy a strong reputation among buyers, while Hoffman is one of the few engineers many music fans know by name, said Pete Howard, editor and publisher of Ice, the highly respected monthly CD magazine.
"He's one of the most popular mastering engineers among consumers of reissues in America today," Howard said. "When our readers see his name on a CD, the first reaction is, 'It must be good.' They (DCC's discs) really do sound marvelous."
Initially, it took some convincing in the executive suites. If you were the head of a record company, would you lend your master tape of, say, the Eagles' "Hotel California" to someone who wanted to "make it sound better"?
But Hoffman was well-established. After college and various radio gigs, he had landed at MCA Records, where he, as he puts it, "mucked around" in the catalog putting together compilations and reissues of acts like Buddy Holly.
"I went to Tower one day and bought $5,000 worth of CDs -- every great album ever made -- and we sat down and listened to them, and there was big room for improvement," Hoffman said. "We thought if we could just get the majors to understand that we're not impinging on their sales. They could still sell theirs for the usual amount, and we could sell to the audiophile."
When the CD came along in the mid-'80s, the labels were slow to realize the potential. To them, the compact disc was an off-shoot of vinyl, and rather than issue classic albums from the vaults, they focused on new music.
"So we went about trying to license stuff that they wouldn't get around to for at least five years," Hoffman said. "I mean, Capitol wasn't going to get around to Nat King Cole while they're converting their top acts (to CD). Then, when everyone started getting into the act by 1992, we decided to make CDs that sounded better than anybody else's by licensing full albums from the majors and lavishing time and attention on them."
Since 1986, Hoffman has remastered about 1,000 titles, including 500 gold discs. Sales figures can range from 15,000 to 50,000 per disc or 100,000 for general-interest acts like Paul McCartney or Elvis Presley.
"Metallica took off like crazy," said Hoffman, who is in his 40s. "You just never know."
DCC's future releases include the Doors titles "Morrison Hotel," "The Soft Parade," "Absolutely Live" and "Greatest Hits," all due at the beginning of the year. They join the Doors' self-titled first album, plus "Strange Days" and "L.A. Woman," in the DCC catalog.
"I'm very hands-on about the Doors reissues," explained Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. "Steve does a beautiful job making them sound lifelike on those discs. There's an art to the process. You're not remixing the tracks, but you are giving them a broader dynamic range. They have a kind of glow."
Along with gold and aluminum CDs, DCC also offers a line of LPs on virgin vinyl, also carefully remastered from the original master tapes.
"Vinyl is a small business but a crucial one because audiophiles have $8,000 turntables sunk on a concrete slab in the middle of their living rooms and they want to play LPs," Hoffman said during an interview at Future Disc Systems, a Hollywood studio where he was remastering Mitchell's "Blue" for vinyl. "Vinyl records sound really magical even after all these years because of the quality of this vinyl we use."
DCC's catalog includes everything from Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jackson Browne, Cream and Frank Sinatra. Hoffman's work on, among other titles, "Pet Sounds," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blue" drew special notice from collectors all over the world.
"The sound I was striving for was the sound of your original LPs but much better," Hoffman explained. "No harshness, no thin bass, no top end that could make your ears bleed. And the way to do that is to loan us the master tape and create something that you pop in your CD player and you go, 'Whoa, this sounds a lot better.' And basically, that's in the remastering."
To accomplish this goal with Mitchell's 1971 "Blue," for instance, the label dug out the two-track master tape, stored in a battered pen- scrawled cardboard box and insured for $1 million. Hoffman spent a month giving the gold disc what can only be described as a warm, rosy glow.
"I wanted it to sound like she's standing there, but I didn't want her to sound like she's in Technicolor because that wasn't her aim on the album," Hoffman said as the first notes of the album's opening song, "All I Want," rang out. "I call it the breath of life."
It isn't always easy to find the right tape, either. When Hoffman began work on Dylan's "Highway 61," Sony ended up sending over some 40 different tape reels over five long months until Hoffman hit on the actual master.
"Without the original master, it's like cutting an LP from a fax," he said. "Those 40 reels included copies made for Columbia's cutting operations in L.A., San Francisco, New York. There were engineering copies; there were backup copies of backup copies. But there's only one master. So, finally, they ran out of reels and there's only one left. They said, 'We can't send you this. It says "Do Not Use" on it.' We said, 'That's the one!' "
It was even harder getting the right sound for the "Hotel California" reissue. When Hoffman received the master tapes, they couldn't even be played until he had baked them in an oven, which reconstituted the moldy tape for three weeks' use.
"Then, when you played it, all you heard was this horrible muffled sound," Hoffman recalled. "I called the original engineer on the sessions, and he said, 'You have to know how to play it back.' "
Over the years, Hoffman has found that some artists, while happy their old albums are being given the audiophile treatment, don't really care to dwell on the reissue process.
"Some don't want to hear it, no matter how good it sounds," he said. "It's old hat to them. They're more concerned with what they're doing now. We asked Elton John if he wanted to hear our version of his 'Greatest Hits,' and his response was basically, 'Why would I want to hear "Crocodile Rock" again?' But I know from the feedback I've gotten that I'm on the right track."
Hoffman says many audiophiles he meets are waiting rather impatiently for remasters of the Beatles catalog, which has never been touched.
"It's not that the remaining Beatles don't want to do it," he said. "It's just so complicated. There are so many sets of lawyers. Everybody has a lawyer, and their lawyers have lawyers. And we're talking about two countries. I mean, we waited seven years to do Jethro Tull's 'Aqualung.' "