[SOUNDSTAGE!] Marc Mickelson is the
Editor-in-Chief of SoundStage!
Please send comments to
Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
July 2006

DIY Remastering

One of the traits of the audiophile personality is a strong sense of personal empiricism. Most of us are willing to give all manner of products and theories a try, but they don't gain traction, or places in our audio systems and lives, unless they actually work -- produce a discernible improvement in sound.

Earlier this year, I had another brush with my own personal empiricism. After CES, Doug Schneider, John Crossett and I did what guys with a free day in Las Vegas do: We went music shopping. We eventually made it to Zia Record Exchange on Eastern Avenue, a great store that sells new and used CDs, DVDs and vinyl. It's a big barn of a place with lots of overflowing bins -- perfect for browsing while hoping to find some rare out-of-print treasure at a used price. We were in temporary heaven.

As we shopped, we heard some interesting music playing over the store's audio system. After hearing a couple of songs, we realized that they were some of David Bowie's best-known early works, but we couldn't recognize the singer or his language. We listened some more, loved the music, and decided to buy whatever it was.

It turned out to be The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions Featuring Seu Jorge [Hollywood Records 2061-62576-2], a collection of Bowie songs sung in Portuguese. None of us understood Portuguese, but it didn't matter. We knew the songs well, and hearing them in a different language -- and in Seu Jorge's stripped-down versions -- gave them a newfound beauty. We bought the last copies of the CD the store had in stock.

But we weren't alone. At the same store, we ran into Jody Hickson and Ken Wilson from Globe Audio Marketing, Canadian distributors of many products, including WLM speakers, Audio Aero Electronics, and the Audiodesksysteme Gläss CD lathe. Ken and Jody also liked the Seu Jorge CD, and they both bought copies.

After we returned home and recovered from CES, Jody and I traded some e-mail about things we discussed in the store, including the idea of making each other CD-R copies of The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions to compare sonically. For years I had been making my own CD-R samplers for demo use, and people had remarked that they often sounded very good. I did nothing special. I used the software -- ironically named SonicStage -- that came with my Sony Vaio laptop and whatever CD-Rs I could get cheap at Costco.

Jody, on the other hand, did things differently. Here is the note that arrived with the CD-R he made for me:

"Here is a copy for you. I used a black disc and trimmed the edge with the Audiodesksysteme sound improver, cleaned the original and blank with the Audiodesksysteme disc cleaner, then used the infamous Reality Check to duplicate it. That was a mouthful. Let me know what you think."

I knew about the Audiodesksysteme products and had heard somewhere that black CD-Rs make better-sounding copies, but I had not heard about the Reality Check duplicator at that point. A few weeks later, I talked to George Louis, the man behind the Reality Check, about an unrelated issue and realized that his duplicator was what Jody used.

Af first, I listened casually to Jody's CD-R, then closely, comparing the original CD, a copy I made on my laptop, and the black CD-R. I compared many tracks with various players that sometimes were and sometimes were not level matched. I made sure to play each disc in each player I had on hand. I aspired to rigor, but not fanaticism.

Here is my e-mail to Jody after hearing Seu Jorge's singing and playing more times than I cared to:

"Well, I've listened to your 'remastered' version of the Seu Jorge CD. There's no question that it sounds better than the original, which is somewhat ragged around the edges in comparison. Your copy sounds more pure and focused, as though a level of grunge has been removed. Good work!"

I will not speculate on what exactly made Jody's disc sound obviously better than either of the others. I haven't done any research beyond listening to all three versions of The Life Aquatic Sessions that I have, and this doesn't qualify as a true experiment. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the black CD-R sounded best.

A few months later, I'm still not sure where this information will lead me. Part of me wants to go all out and buy everything that Jody used and "remaster" my entire CD collection. Another part wants to be cautious and do more testing in order to discover why Jody's CD-R sounds the way it does. Yet another part recognizes the little non-audio time I have and doesn’t want to bother with any of it.

Bits are bits be damned, and personal empiricism be praised -- or something like that.

...Marc Mickelson

Copyright © SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved