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  the first 4 Cocteau Twins albums re-mastered and re-released  
  Cocteau Twins  
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So what, praytell, does it mean to "remaster an album"? I asked around on a few mailing lists that i participate with and i discovered the following.

An album is "mastered" when all of the elements are in place. That is, all of the sounds are in the appropriate location, from backing vocals to guitar solos to backwards masked exhortations. At this point the music if often placed onto one tape, called "the master tape".

One person i talked with likened this to saving a PSD with all the layers properly organized. By likening the somewhat cryptic art of recording to the familiar art of Photoshopping, it made a lot of sense to me. I repeat it here in case it helps you understand.

To "re-master" is to take the master tape and rearrange the volume levels of the various elements. Perhaps that backing vocal needs to be a little louder, or that handclap needs to be quieter. It is, of course, an artistic act comparable with the initial mastering of the album. To return to my Photoshop analogy, it involves changing channels on the various layers, or maybe moving a few layers up or down. It does not, i am led to understand, mean to turn off tracks in the recording (or layers in the PSD). All of the elements remain present. Re-mastering is about re-balancing in the perspecitve of hindsight.

So Robin Guthrie was comissioned by The Beggars Group, who are the new corporate masters of art label 4AD, to remaster his band's first four 4AD releases. This means that Mr. Guthrie went back and made modifications to least three albums that are often spoken of in the hushed tones of reverence.

At first this might be shocking. These albums are well-regarded, and to re-master them seems, well, it seems almost sacreligious. It's not like the albums were poorly recorded in the first place. Not like they were done in mono or whatever. No, these albums were recorded in the 1980's, with full stereo and the benefit of lots of technology.

So why remaster them? Well, i think the whole thing is a plan by The Beggars Group to cash in on the success of their recent purchase (4AD). You see, Cocteau Twins were very well-regarded outside of this country. In fact, i think they even had radio hits in the UK. (Can you imagine!) So re-mastering the discs gets a little bit of publicity for the label, and brings these albums back into the public consciousness.

Which is a good thing, mind you. And i bought them (all 4) to hear the minor differences in the re-mastered as opposed to the original versions. (But then again, i'm a geek....) I think the overall plan is that these albums, long out of print but well regarded, will be made avaialble once more, in an inexpensive format. Good. Cheap is good. Heck, available is good. And yet, on the other hand, i can't help but feel that this is a shameless marketing ploy, and i fell for it. (I hate shameless marketing.)

At any rate, if there is one good thing to come out of this it is that it has forced me to get off my butt and review these albums. So here they are, all 4 of them.

Head Over Heels

It might make sense to read them in order of release. At least, when i wrote this stuff i intended for it to make sense in a linear, chronological sort of way. You can judge for yourself whether or not i succeeded.

One final, sort of overall comment: the re-mastering was really unecessary. Well, except for on Garlands and parts of Head Over Heels. For the most part even a diehard fan like me can't really tell. But, whatever.

However, i do want to know: when is Guthrie going to re-work this stuff into 5.1 surround sound?


Apparently remastering and remixing are difficult concepts. PostLibyan got it wrong above (bad Minion, no biscuit), but Robin Guthrie himself emailed us to offer this clarification:

" just read your review of the Cocteau Twins remasters on EvilSponge... just wanted to clarify something. Your .psd file analogy is wrong, I'm afraid. the process that you describe is re-mixing -- like having access to all of the original layers. What I did with those albums was to remaster them. To follow your Photoshop analogy it'd be like taking a .jpg, perhaps an old one which has been copied often and has digital artefacts (and which is, of course, a single layer), and restoring it to it's original quality. I had no access to the original multi-track tapes to remix and would never have wanted to do so anyway... I worked from the original 2 track stereo analogue master tape and used them as a starting point of reference. The problem with the old versions of the CD's was simply that the old CD's didn't sound true to the original master tapes. For instance, the US versions sounded different from the UK versions as they had been produced from an analogue copy master, etc etc. They were all transferred to digital a long time ago when digital audio was in it's infancy. The equipment used was therefore nowhere near as accurate as modern digital gear and the original CDs seemed pretty poor next to the analogue masters.. The new transfers sound a lot more accurate... So it's not surprising that the mixes didn't sound different -- they were not changed... "

So there you go. If anyone should be able to explain the concept of remastering, it should be Mr. Guthrie, who does remastering work. And now you know.

Related Links:

Stars and Topsoil, a greatest hits compilation that came out in 2000., the label owned by ex-Cocteau's Raymonde and Guthrie. You can get these releases at their online store.


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