Interview with Steve Hoffman conducted on November 13, 2000  
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By: Douglas Hess, Jr. WLTP Radio News in Parkersburg, WV
2000 Douglas P. Hess, Jr. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction prohibited without expressed written permission except that individuals may download and print for personal use only.  

My goal in conducting this interview was two-fold. First, I selfishly wanted to talk to the man with the magic ears that make me (and thousands of others) happy with the releases from DCC Compact Classics. Second, as a 19-year veteran of radio with the past 9 years as the news director for five stations, it’s my daily job to interview people and then tell people what I have learned. To that end I have transcribed the 30 wonderful minutes I spent with Steve Hoffman so you can know what I know. You will find, however, that one of the things I have learned over the years is to avoid questions people won’t answer anyway. Just as I wouldn’t ask the head of Coca-Cola what the secret ingredients are, I intentionally stayed away from questions involving the specific equipment and techniques Steve uses. I also did not ask his opinion on other mastering engineers. Also, his biographical information is already available. I simply wanted to know the basics of what, why and how he does what he does and I wanted to use my time wisely. He graciously took time to answer my questions and I will now share that interview with you: 

Doug: What process is used at DCC to determine which albums get released in your 24K format?

Steve: Well, it has to be a classic album that someone has fond memories of, it has to be licensable, it has to be something that we can make a big improvement on, and it has to be something that we know will be saleable; but basically it comes down to what we like around here. 

Doug: Now when you say, “We”, who are you referring to? Is it everyone there, a committee or does the owner of DCC hand out the Top Ten list for everyone to look at? 

Steve: The president of the company is Marshall Blonstein, who used to be the president of Ode Records and he worked at Columbia, too.  Essentially we are all music veterans here. That means we know music…we don’t have to look things up in books.  From the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and so on, we know what we like and we put together lists. We don’t go by artist, though, we go by record company. What do they have over at Capital that we would like? What do they have over at Warner Brothers that we would like? What do they have over at Columbia/Sony that we would like? And we put these big, endless lists together and send them over to the companies to see what they think. And they look down the list going, “Yes, No, Yes, No, No, Yes”. Then we say, “Well, why did you say ‘No’ to this one?” Sometimes they say, “Well, we have to go through the artist or their management company…” and we can come back with, “OK, we can do that.” So sometimes a “No” can become “Yes”, but that’s essentially how we do it, but there is no set answer to that. Every great piece of music, almost, is owned by some big label somewhere and we have to deal with them. And we have to make sure they understand what we are trying to do and that we aren’t trying to compete with them. And it usually works. 

Doug: Are some companies, of course we aren’t going to mention any, easier to deal with than others? 

Steve: No. They all honestly want to make money and they are all as cooperative as they can be for big giant corporations. We’re a small, independent record label here in Chatsworth, California. It is a small musical community and the majors know us because we get so much press. So they know us and know what we’re trying to do. But, they are still big record companies and they are dealing with what is happening “now”. What we are dealing with is what was happening “then”.  And for their lawyers to stop what they are doing in working on the most current contracts to go look up some contract in the files from 25 years ago and trying to contact the artist that, perhaps, they owe say $2000 in royalties to is never the first priority for them. But they are good people and are OK with what we want to do—they aren’t always willing to just drop everything. But, they do understand the value of good press and so they try in their own way so we have no complaints. 

Doug: OK. So we’ve picked the label and the album and worked out things with the company and the artist. Now, how do you go about getting the master tape? Do you just call up and say, “OK, send over the tape.” And they drop it in the mail or what? 

Steve: Well, actually sometimes they do just overnight a tape to us like they were shipping anything else. Other times we have to send a currier to hand carry the tape from wherever it is stored to our facilities and back. Sometimes, if we’re lucky enough for the tape to be in Los Angeles, I can just go over and pick it up. It’s just a matter of communicating to them that we need something that belongs to them taken out of storage and sent to us. And that isn’t always easy, although, it is much easier than it was in 1992 when we started with this high-end stuff. It comes down to who we know in the vaults and how nice they are and what “incentives” we might offer that person to help us. Actually the biggest hurdle is getting the actual master tape and not a copy. . For example, Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”. There must be 35 tapes with that title written on them in the Sony vault and they didn’t know which one was the master because they all were not marked correctly. So with that one, it was the process of elimination. They just started sending tapes and I kept saying, “Na, that ain’t it” and so on until they got to the last one and they said, “We don’t have anymore tapes.” And when I said that I still hadn’t gotten the master yet they said, “Well, we have one more reel left that’s marked ‘DO NOT USE’” and I said, “That’s it.” And they argued that it was marked DO NOT USE and I said, “You have to look closer, why is it marked that way?” The person then found that it really said DO NOT USE FOR CUTTING LAQUERS…USE EQ COPY. And I said, “That’s the master, they didn’t want you to use the master for cutting LPs 30 years ago.” And they said, “Oh, OK. Here you go.” So finally we get it. That process took nine months, but we did get it. So that’s what you have to go through. 

Doug: So now that you have the tape, what do you do with it? Actually, I guess I should back up a moment and have you explain something. You are listed on the credits as Mastering or Remastering. What does Mastering mean?  

Steve: Well, mastering is…let me use an analogy that sometimes people can understand and sometimes they can’t. Mastering is sort of like: The Louvre in Paris, France is loaning me the Mona Lisa. OK. So they send me the Mona Lisa and I get excited and decide to invite all of my friends over to see it. Now, am I going to take the Mona Lisa outside and show it in the direct sunlight so it looks all old and crackly? Or am I going to set it up inside with the right kind of lighting. It’s all in the presentation. That’s what I do in mastering. It’s taking the original and polishing it so it can sound the best it can sound. And that involves making sure that the tape is played back correctly on the correct sounding machine. I have to make sure that all of the things on the tape machine are taken care of and that the heads are in alignment and all that boring stuff. And also making sure that when it’s played the levels of the songs are relatively the same, there are no dynamic or impedance problems, and everything is running smooth. And while that stuff may not sound like a lot of fun, getting that stuff right is what actually makes something sound better than it actually has before. And I don’t mean that in the way we were speaking before. [Prior to turning on the tape for the interview, I made reference to some techniques that claimed to be able to take a tape and make it better than the original.--doug] It’s like having a diamond that needs polishing. Basically, that’s what I do.  My tricks, however, are my own little secret!! 

Doug: How different is mastering something new compared to the old stuff? I mean now you probably get a master mixed down to two tracks on a digital audio tape. 

Steve: I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but modern studios, even the very smallest ones in someone’s garage, have all of the equipment that 30 years ago only the biggest studios had. So now many times the tape arrives at the mastering room ready to go with the tracks in order and the levels compressed and EQ’d—probably overly so. And that involves usually a straight transfer into a format to make CD’s from. Now if you go back beyond 10 years, the things that needed to be done were only done by the mastering engineer. In the old days, you couldn’t just cut a record from the master tape or the stylus would just jump right off the record when you tried to play it. So in the old days, mastering was cutting a record so you could play it on an average phonograph. Unlike the CD’s of today with wide dynamic range (difference between the softest and loudest volume), the LPs had a much smaller range so you had to use a compressor to limit that range to an acceptable level. Also you couldn’t load up the bass too much or the stylus would jump off of the record. So you had to use an equalizer to back off on the low end or turn up the high end and you had to ride the levels so it didn’t get too loud. You essentially did what you needed to in order to have the best sound that would fit into the grooves of the record. And that being a very subjective thing--every mastering engineer had their own way of achieving that. In addition, while they were playing the master tape onto a record lacquer for use in making vinyl records, a tape was running to capture this version of the album. That became the EQ Dub or Cutting Master and was then sometimes incorrectly labeled the Master Tape and they put the real master tape away since it didn’t need to be used. So then any time another lacquer needed to be cut, you just pulled out the “LP master” tape. And depending on how long ago the recording was made, there might be a different tape marked master made for reel to reel duping or 8-track tape duping and that led to a lot of confusion when asking for the Master Tape.  

Doug: So when something was supposedly mastered from “The Original Master Tapes”, that can have a lot of different connotations. 

Steve: Yes, it can have many connotations and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might end up with a master tape that is really a tape copy with all of those signal degradations and compromises already built in for LP cutting. We really don’t need to worry about those limitations anymore. Since we can have wider dynamic range and the tone of the original tape on our CD master, we want to avoid those second generation tapes and get the actual master. So mastering used to involve bringing you to as close to what occurred in the studio within the limitations of what you were playing it back on. Now mastering engineers take whatever is on the master tape and compress it so much that there essentially is no dynamic range left and not much tonal quality either. People accept this because they have gotten used to it.  We try to avoid all of those pitfalls here at this company by trying to get the best sound from the old tapes without making them sound like amateur night. 

Doug: Something I have always wondered concerning the old tapes is how well they hold up. For example, even the regular CBS aluminum issue of “Blood, Sweat and Tears Greatest Hits” sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. Everything is so clean and clear, yet other albums recorded just 10 years ago that sound muddy and lifeless. Is that the fault of the tape, the storage, or the engineer who recorded it? 

Steve: It’s always up to the engineer. You know the guy who did those Blood Sweat and Tears albums--he was great, those were wonderfully engineered albums. I remember playing their second album about a month after it first came out on my Zenith portable fold down stereo and I went, “Wow, that sounds really good.” You could hear the hi-hat for the first time and the drums were separated out in stereo and that was the work of a really good engineer. He knew what he wanted and he got it. Another engineer may say, “I hate that sound and I want it to sound brighter or like ‘this’” It’s just the engineer. So when I get a tape like that, if it sounds good, it makes my job easier. If it sounds like crap, then it makes my job harder, but I get it done. 

Doug: When you go into a project, what is your overall goal? You know, a football coach goes into a game wanting his team to win. So with sound, what is your goal? You may get a tape where it sounds a certain way because that was the goal of the engineer since he made it to sound good on albums never looking ahead to new things like CDs.  

Steve: Well, I’m glad you asked me that question, Doug. My goal, and it’s been the same goal that I’ve had since I listened to my grandmother’s Zenith phonograph. I want that “breath of life.”  That’s what I want. If it sounds like a fake approximation of nothing that’s alive—that is not it for me. I want it to sound like, (and it doesn’t matter if it is Buddy Holly or Blood, Sweat and Tears or The Doors)  I want it to sound like they could be standing in the same room where you are listening. Sometimes I succeed more than others, depending on the quality of the original tape, but that’s what I want. I want it to sound ”alive”. 

Doug: With everything else being equal- the master tape, the equipment from the tape machines to the equalizers, what makes a Steve Hoffman mastered CD stand out? Obviously DCC is not the first or only company to sell gold CD’s remastered from the original tapes, and we can assume that all of the companies are trying to achieve the same goal of a super sounding CD, so what set’s yours apart? 

Steve: I tailor everything to sound the way I want it to sound. It has nothing to do with reality; it has to do with how I like it. And fortunately I have a tried and true track record—especially here [DCC], they leave me alone. You know, they never ask me, “Well, why did you do it that way?” It’s just the way I like to hear it. All mastering engineers use the same tools—pretty much. We all have our own little proprietary inventions, but it’s pretty much the same theories in all mastering rooms. Each mastering varies because each engineer has their own idea of how they want it to sound. And so I make it sound they way I want to—and judging by the responses, I must be doing something right!  

Doug: Do you ever get to go to the actual studio where a master tape was made? You know, The Record Plant in New York or Sunset Sound in Los Angeles to do your work? 

Steve: Well, in theory, that would be a great thing—get in a time machine and go back 25 years ago and walk into Sunset Sound and have them still using McIntosh amplifiers and the same Ampex three-track reel to reel tape machines. Unfortunately over time the studios either have upgraded their equipment from what was there when the recording was made or the studio may be closed. So I have to think about what equipment would most likely have been used in that studio at the time the recording was made like a certain brand and model of monitor speaker. If possible, I try and find someone who was either there or knew someone that was there and they may say, “Well, they were using these Altec horns” and that gives me a clue as to why the tape sounds the way it does. Another thing I do is to listening to all of the different original versions of an album. Take the first Doors album as an example. The English pressing may sound different than a Japanese one and so I listen to all of the different one’s I can find and try and figure out the goal they had. Once I figure out the sound they were trying to achieve, then I can pretty much emulate that and improve upon it for the modern era. 

Doug: Have you ever put out a CD and then later heard a Japanese or other pressing of the original album and you went, “Man, I wish I could have made it sound like that!” Have you ever been unhappy with a CD after it has been released and gone back and changed it? 

Steve: Yes. You know, they give me all the time in the world to muck around with it before it’s released, but there comes a time when I’ve got to stop tweaking and mucking and finish it. Otherwise I would never get anything finished because I would never stop playing with it. I have heard an approach before that made me recall a master and then substitute a different technique on the next run of the CD. So there are like 1000 copies of a CD that sound one way and the rest sound another, but that is very, very rare and I usually do my homework ahead of time, which normally keeps that from happening. 

Doug: Anything I’m leaving out? I’m just asking the questions as they pop into my head and I didn’t want to leave anything out. 

Steve: Well, one thing I think is interesting is that not everything we put out comes from some big corporation stored in some climate controlled and secure vault. Sometimes we get things from mom and pop companies for some of the packages we’ve done. And it never ceases to amaze me where some people store their tapes. Ian Anderson is a great example of that. He stored the original Jethro Tull master tapes in his garage.  

Doug: You’ve got to be kidding! That sounds like that Hank Williams song they found in an attic in Texas.

Steve: Yep, just like that only it took seven years to get him to go out to his garage and get the tapes and send them to us. You know, they were sending us the tapes that were stored at Abbey Road which were production masters for England. And when we told them they weren’t the right ones, they would send us an Eq’d copy from New York--- that was used to cut the American albums. And finally after developing a personal rapport with Ian, he finally went out and got the tapes—which were very dusty—and sent them over. And he only allowed us to have the tapes for a week or so, and then we had to have then couriered back, but at least we made all of our transfers and everything came out OK. But you know, I’ve received some tapes that were stored above a shower in a bathroom and the tapes had moss growing on them.  

Doug: Another question involving master tapes involves their condition due to their age. I remember reading the liner notes on Boston’s “Third Stage” and Tom Scholtz was lamenting about the backing on one of his master tapes flaking off as he played it on the machine for mastering. He said he had to use some type of silicone to keep the tape from being ruined until he got it transferred over. Is that an age problem, a particular brand of tape that did that or what? 

Steve: Well it wasn’t really a brand problem. That problem was the result of the energy crisis in the early 70s. Believe it or not, the tape manufactures used to lubricate their tapes with whale oil. That natural lubricant worked so well that you can pull out a tape from 1949 and it will still play and it’s wonderful. After the energy crisis in 1974, the tape manufacturers said they could make a synthetic lubricant that would work just as well. And that is what they did. And every tape from 1974 to around 1986 is made with that synthetic lubricant which starts to break down after about five years and then you can’t play the tapes any more. Now they didn’t know that was going to happen, of course, but that is what happened. So at first they tried to re-lubricate the tapes, which without it is like trying to rub sand paper on a fragile surface without any lubrication—and it didn’t work. So rather than destroy all of these tapes, Ampex Corporation discovered that if you heat up the tapes in a convex oven to a certain temperature, then they will be playable for a short period of time. The other good thing they discovered was that you can heat them again every time you need to play them. I don’t like to think about doing that, although I have had to before, but it’s good to know that you can do that or you might as well throw the tapes in the trash. And our entire musical heritage from about 1974 to 1986 is plagued with this problem. What’s amazing is that the early stuff, recorded on cheaper tapes—that stuff works great still. 

Doug: You mentioned how long it takes sometimes between deciding to get a master and getting the actual tapes. I was wondering. What is the shortest amount of time between getting the master tape and actual CD’s heading out to the stores? 

Steve: The shortest time was with “Night At The Opera” by Queen. I had about five days with that master. I did my homework ahead of time and they were very cooperative. They sent me all of the EQ copies, all of the flat safety copies from around the world and all over the country. That way when the master actually came, to take a line from the TV Show “Soul Train” I already had my moves down. And since the master sounded pretty much like the flat safety copy only a little clearer, it took about a day and half to master. After that it went to the factory and about a week later, Voila! We got the test CD back. 

Doug: OK. How about on the other end of the spectrum. What is the longest time you’ve spent on mastering a project? 

Steve:  The longest? Well, that would be “Robin And The Seven Hoods” soundtrack by Frank Sinatra. I started that in August of 1999 and finished up around a month and a half ago at the beginning of October (2000). Warner Bros Records kept coming up with more and more reels of tape for me. I mean-- you want to hear all you can of these guys in the studio. When you’ve got Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Bing Crosby all sitting around with open mikes and they’re all having a great time—I was fascinated and I wanted to hear all of it. And the Sinatra family allowed us to use some of that studio chatter on the project. I’ll admit it was a labor of love. I could have gotten finished a lot sooner if I had to, but I didn’t want to miss this great stuff in the studio and it took a long time. And it makes it more interesting hearing some of that chatter. It makes them come alive. An era gone by.  I finally mastered “Robin” to disc directly from the three-track session tape.  Great sound quality! 

Doug: I’ve tried to keep from getting personal since we’re interested in what you do for a living rather than what you do away from the office, but I was wondering if you could give me a typical Steve Hoffman day. Do you get up at 5:00am and run a couple miles? 

Steve: First of all, I usually wake up kind of like Bugs Bunny going, “Who, what, when, where, why?” because I have a terrible habit of going over in my mind what I’m going to be doing that day while I’m sleeping. And I do that because when I’m involved in a project I am all encompassed by it. So after waking up I usually go to the office make sure everything is still OK and once that is established, I try and answer as many phone calls as I can. Then I go on the Internet and see what messages have been left for me on the DCC page and try and answer those. Then I eat breakfast. And then I just go in the studio and get to work on whatever project I’m on. For example, today I’m working on The Doors’ “Morrison Hotel” and I just spend time mucking around trying to get the best sound I can for the CD we’re putting out. Sometimes I’ll work on it awhile and then get burned out and go do something else for a while in the afternoon and maybe go back in at night and maybe take another approach. As the day wears on and depending on what is going on, one’s ears can change. Sometimes you get overwhelmed and you have to walk away for a while and come back later. Other days I just relax and recharge listening to my old Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly records and 78s and kind of float along and have fun playing with my vintage equipment.  My wife is at work with a normal day job, so she misses most of this. 

Doug: You mentioned you think about your day while you’re supposed to be sleeping. Have you ever had a nightmare that you lost a master tape or you were working on one and something happened to it where it broke and started running into the trashcan? 

Steve: No, because tape is so good that way. If that happened, you could just re-splice it and roll it back up on the reel and it would be just like it never happened. You must understand, if you take a song like “Hotel California”, the master tape of that song isn’t one continuous piece of tape. Each little section was mixed separately and then it was all spliced together. Actually one of the “work” things I have to do sometimes before listening to a tape is put all of the splices back together. After several years in storage the glue from the splicing tape loses its grip and so when you try and play the tape they come apart. So sometimes I don’t get to hear the tape until I’ve taken the time to fix all of the splices. I hate redoing all of those old splices, but I don’t mind really because if we’re not going to use the master tape then what are we saving it for. You know, here is the sacred recording, but it never gets played. Why even have it?

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