You’ve just heard that your favorite album from your favorite 70’s band has been ‘remastered’ and is about to be re-released. So what exactly does remastering mean, and why should someone spend $60 for a remastered version of an album they already own?

BTW, I am not an audiophile, and I realize that if I am willing to wait a year I can probably pick it up on eBay for less than half the ‘special remastered’ price…

It can mean different things. What it’s supposed to means is that they went back to the original and made a fresh copy to digital, and then mixed it with digital equipment to preserve the best sound quality possible.

What it often means is that they did all of the above, but also cranked the volume way up*, with the idea that “louder is better.” Worse is if they didn’t do anything but take the previous CD version and increase the volume.

*Technically, it’s compressed, not just cranked up. Everything is transformed to be around the same volume. It’s that said volume is “loud.”

So - as Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message.” Different playback media - vinyl LPs, cassettes and CD’s - all impart their artifacts on the thing being played. So when moving a recording mixed for one medium to a different medium, you need to remaster it.

This is an inexact science, at best - CD’s are incredibly bright in their ability to replicate frequencies across a broader spectrum, so toning them down to sound like vinyl leads to a variety of approaches.

As BigT alluded to, there’s no guarantee that remastered versions sound “better” - audiophile forums are full of discussions of which CD (vinyl, etc) version of a particular album is preferred from a sound quality standpoint…sometimes new remastered versions are generally considered to sound better, sometimes they aren’t.

But if you’re looking at something priced at $60, it’s likely not just a new CD, but a set containing bonus audio, video, and/or printed material, fancy packaging, etc.

That’s a good point. I was focusing more on the differences between different CD releases. Basically, a lot of older CDs (especially in the 90s) were either not remastered or remastered poorly. A proper remaster on a digital medium like the CD is all digital, as high quality digital leaves the least amount of artifacts.

But it’s definitely true that remastering is not an objective process. It’s very possible to have two very different yet still high quality remasters. I could see getting one that tones down the highs like vinyl and another one that tries to make sound like it was recorded yesterday. I’d actually guess that most high quality remasters would try for a mixture of both.

My only problem with remasters is when they also make the music louder, as I mentioned, or when they didn’t really remaster it, meaning they just took the previous CD version and altered it.

BTW, if you’re wondering more specifically what remastering is, it involves deciding how loud each instrument is relative to the others, how much is in each speaker, and how loud the highs and lows are, relative to each other. This can only be done by going back to the original recording.

No one has explicitly said it, but hopefully they have access to the multi-track recordings, so they can reprocess each track individually. For drums, they may have several tracks, from a mike for each drum. For each drum, they can digitally edit out the other drums that it also picked up, to get a cleaner track for each drum. For all the tracks, they can do noise suppression to remove hiss. So they can have cleaner copies of each track to work with.

I want it to sound just as if I was sitting in the recording booth. No filtering, no modifications whatsoever. I guess that wouldn’t be remastered… how about unmastered?

In many cases that would be a drum track, followed by a bass track, followed by a guitar track, then a backing vocal track, and a lead vocal track. A lot of music isn’t recorded in a single session. The producer is as much a musician as the folks playing the instruments and singing.

In theory, that’s the goal of mastering.

Even if you had a live band in a studio, the type of microphone you use and their placement will have a huge impact on the recorded sound. That’s the recording engineer’s job.

All those microphones will be recorded separately whether the recording was made live, or as is more common in popular music, one instrument at a time. At the very least the levels of each of these tracks must be adjusted. Depending on whether you’re aiming for realism or not you may want to add some effects like a bit of artificial reverberation and you may want to adjust the equalisation. That’s mixing.

You’re not done yet, though, because although after mixing you should have a stereo recording fit for playback, it’s not really yet. If you’re making a vinyl record, you’re definitely not done yet. One of the problems you have is that mixing is done on a song basis, so at the very least you will have to splice those songs together to make a record. You will have to adjust the levels and EQ of each song so that the record doesn’t go LOUD quiet. On an LP record, because of the spiral shape of the groove, inner tracks will be shorter and thus high frequencies will be dulled out. This must be accounted for. CDs don’t have this problem, but the low noise floor makes small flaws in the original recording more noticeable. If possible, these must be corrected. All of those final touches are mastering.

Nowadays, mastering engineers tend to work on “stems” rather than a monolithic stereo (or mono) mix-down. The mixing engineer will instead take a large number of tracks and mix them to “stems” or groups. You then have, for instance, all the percussion tracks mixed to one stem, and all backing vocals to another, and guitars to another, and so forth. In this sense, mastering engineers now do some of the work that mixing engineers used to do.

Re-masters were, and to some extent are still, important because when everyone moved from vinyl to digital, most CDs were made by playing mint-condition vinyls and just recording that. These records were not properly mastered to take into account the qualities of the new medium and as a result they sound much less good than they could. When you do a re-master, you ideally work from the original magnetic tapes, which have much higher quality than the final vinyls. Hence, the re-masters can be much closer to “how it sounded in the studio.”

By the way, if anyone’s interested in all the tiny details no one ever even imagines that must be taken into account when mastering for vinyl, there is a great article here:

What you describe is (re)mixing, not (re)mastering.

Mastering is the process of taking the finished mixes of songs and making sure that audio levels are fairly regular both within a track and from track to track, that dynamics sound similar from track to track, etc. It is the process of refining a mix thru the use of various tools, including equalization, compression, noise reduction (especially tape hiss in the olden days), etc.

if you got to like an LP then it is possible to not like a remastering that makes it sound different even if it might be better in some respect.

There is a DVD out where Dweezil Zappa dissects his dad’s music (Frank), showing bits of individual tracks in the mix, including Tina Turner’s Dinah Moe Hum from Over-nite Sensation. It’s the closest you can get to your ideal for right now.

The time is coming – mark my words – when multitrack data will be available to the consumer. The high-end audiophile, musician-nerd consumer, but it will allow him to do the mix himself. Once a financial and technical impossibility, now relatively affordable.

I’m sure there will be opposition from the copyright holders, but someone will break through and make their tracks available and the rest may follow. It’s the logical progression, especially for old catalog material that isn’t bringing in much anyway and could benefit from a fan boost.

This is already happening for a royalty-free music site that I subscribe to,* Narrator Tracks* ( – yeah, this is a plug, but not my own product). Not only is all the music professionally produced, but subscribers have access to the raw multitrack data and are allowed, even encouraged, to mix it themselves in any way they like, including adding new material of their own. It’s a mashup maker’s dream!

I see you are correct. In my defense, a “remixed” song on a CD tends to mean a much bigger change to the original, often including new content thrown in. And a good remastering of anything analog needs a proper remix from the originals to be any good, as remastering is necessarily lossy, so you want to start with the highest quality possible. So I guess I tend to see them as being two parts of the same process.

It means, “Guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again.”