Remastering the Vinyl [part 1 • denoising]
Now that the contents and running order had been mooted, the next, not inconsequential step, was to digitize the vinyl. That turns out to be basically a 2x realtime process. If you’re lucky. Sometimes, levels aren’t optimized one way or the other and after a jump into the red levels, one has to start over. I’ve also learned to play every piece of vinyl that I have at this step in the process due to the appearance of “hidden treasures;” obscure versions and mixes that are not annotated on the sleeve or even in places like Discogs.com. So some playbacks are for naught, depending on how deep one’s collection is. In the case of China Crisis, my collection is somewhat authoritative, but shallow. I only have a few titles in more than one release.
The first record up was something that I was curious about for many years. I bought the Inevitable 1981 7″ of “African + White” some time in the mid-to-late 80s from a mail order catalog but I had not heard it in the 15+ years that I had owned it. A common [if pathetic] tale. Since I also had the 12″ version that Virgin released with Inevitable a bit down the road, and that record touted it as a “remixed extended version” on its sleeve, I was laboring under the assumption that the 7″ was a very different mix to what I was accustomed to. The truth of the matter, was that the 7″ was [as close as my ears could determine] the exact same track that I had been listening to on the group’s debut album for many, many years by this point. Hence its irrelevance to this project.
The B-side was identical to the version that was on the “African + White” 12″ and although the “Collection” B-side disc lacked this track, the finer brains at Virgin included the vintage B-side on the Steve Proctor remix of “African + White” that was re-issued to accompany “Collection.” Better yet, the 1982 vintage 12″ remix of that A-side was also included on the reissue CD single. That saved me at least 90 minutes of work for those two tracks.
The next tracks in my sights were 12″ remixes of the bands early singles. “No More Blue Horizons” was a great single that was one of my favorites from the band’s “Difficult Shapes + Passive Rhythms [Some People Think It’s Fun To Entertain]” album. Looking back with hindsight, I can almost laugh at the touch of Steely Dan present in the song’s arrangement.
Next was one of my favorite songs from the band’s “Working With Fire + Steel [Possible Pop Songs Volume 2]” album. “Tragedy + Mystery” was a delightful arrangement in the band’s patented “boldly demure” stance. The band’s ability to craft a song that was slightly left-of-center in that they avoided easy bravura for sensitive introspection was what made them appealing to me. That they were able to pull off this neat trick while imbuing the final product with an understated passion paradoxical to their introversion made them mandatory listening.
I was not planning on any complications for this set but by the time of the 12″ single of “Working With Fire + Steel” I ran across a snafu that needed some finesse work. I bought the great Canadian New Wave comp “Hardest Hits vol. 5” which was the only way to obtain the remix of “Fire + Steel” in the realm of the digital. When the time came to add the track to the REVO hard drive, I was appalled to discover that the distinctive intro to the song was clipped by several notes on the CD version that was supposed to have been a cakewalk.
This meant that some real production was necessary. I recorded the intro from the vinyl and taking care to match the EQ on the digital version of the track. Then it became a bit of a task to add the missing two notes to the digital copy of the track in as seamless a way as possible in my DAW. I use three different DAW environments, each with their own strengths. Sound Studio is usually my first choice to digitize vinyl in. The application has a killer interpolation filter that makes removing vinyl pops almost easy. Here’s how it works.
You can hear the pop quite clearly. The first step is to open the file in Sound Studio and play the file until a noise is heard. After doing this for as many years as I have, you get really good at locating the point in the waveform while zoomed out almost at 32:1. The screen will show almost 10 seconds of sound in the waveform, which is tightly compressed on the screen.Next you zoom into the wave at 1:1 to see every detail of the sound. At this level of zoom, the entire window only shows a fraction of a second of noise. Scroll left or right until the transient is revealed. Transients look like abrupt jumps in the waveform because that’s exactly what they are.
Highlight the transient starting at just before it happens and continuing to just after it ends. Apply the interpolate filter to the wave and the spike will be flattened out between the start and end points.
Playback the audio and the pop should be gone without any detriment to the music. If there is detriment to the music, then you need to undo the application and finesse the start and end points of the selection again. Possibly employing other arcane techniques which we won’t go into here for the sake of brevity. I suppose I should mention that each song to be remastered has this activity practiced sometimes hundreds of times per song, which means that remastering a super clean piece of vinyl can have minimal [<20] pops to remove in as little as 15-20 minutes. If a track is particularly noisy, imagine performing this task 200-400 times over the course of 2-5 hours. Repeat as necessary. This is truly the path to Monkdom, if you are interested. No chanting necessary.
My 2nd DAW is Peak, which I use for more specialized noise reduction to files that had been recorded in Sound Studio. My NR of choice is the affordable and reasonably discreet Sound Soap. The granularity of control it offers allows me to attack noise while maintaining as much of the music as possible.
My third DAW is Garage Band, which is this only multitrack environment available to me. The other two are strictly two track recording environments that record a stereo or mono file. Garage Band allows a full mixing environment, which is not cogent on the face of it for vinyl restoration, but it will surface later in our story when the time comes for some clever thinking to solve what seems to be an insurmountable problem.
For this intro problem, Bias Peak was the right tool for the task. First I zoomed in on the first three notes and put a marker at the very beginning of the third note. Keep in mind that the CD version of the track began with what was actually the third note. Then I placed another marker at exact same place in the magnified waveform on the CD copy. I switched to the vinyl intro and copied the waveform up to the marker I’d placed before note number three. I next placed my cursor at the marker I’d placed on the CD track and pasted. The first two notes that were missing and the empty space right up to the edit point were pasted onto the CD copy and when I played it back the effect was flawless. [China] Crisis averted.
There were another pair of 12″ remixes that were digitized without incident, but the B-side to the “Hanna Hanna” single included a pair of live tracks. Great live versions of “Here Come A Raincloud” and “African + White” as recorded at Reading University – 31 January 1984. By a strange coincidence, I also owned a BBC Rock Hour live album with a split show between Wang Chung and China Crisis, with five live tracks recorded at, you guessed it, Reading University – 31 January 1984. I had decided that I would just use the BBC album for this box, since the running order replicated the “Hanna Hanna” B-sides. But that was not to be.
As it turned out, after a careful listening to the 12″ B-sides and A/B comparing to the BBC LP it became wildly apparent that the post production applied to the show commercially as opposed for broadcast differed. Wildly. So the executive decision was made to incorporate both recordings. The live B-sides to “Hanna Hanna” are first in the running order, followed by the entire China Crisis side of the BBC Rock Hour disc, with five songs from the same concert as the commercial B-sides. When “African + White” plays just four songs later in the sequencing of disc two, the differences in the post production are dramatic enough to sound like two different performances!
Next came time to finally hear the 7″ version of one of my favorite China Crisis songs. I’d long had the “Animalistic [Day At The Zoo Mix]” extended B-side on many formats: 12 inch single, 3″ CD single *, and CD [“Collection” B-side disc #2]. What I’d never had was the version that wasn’t an 11:40 proto-ambient chillout remix [from 1985!] on 7″ so when I saw the UK 7″ of “Back Man Ray” in a store in 2002, I eagerly snatched it up. I even paid for it. When I played the B-side on the 7″ I was rewarded with the first 4:32 of the “Day At The Zoo Mix” with a fade just before the extended “dub movement” on the 12″ version. At this point, the executive decision was made to not include the 7″ edit of the cut in a practical if not strictly canonical editorial decision.
Staying with the “Black Man Ray” release, the next track remastered was the unlisted B-side “It’s Never Too Late” that was added to a second pressing of the “Black Man Ray” 12″ after Virgin noticed that ZTT had released several versions of a single release on 12″ the previous year. They dug up the song, which sounded like a [great] unreleased track from the sessions for their second album and slapped it on an otherwise identical copy of “Black Man Ray” with only a sleeve sticker to note the change. After I bought this second 12 inch, I ditched the first one I had initially bought.
next: …still more remastering…
* Virgin released a “Black Man Ray” CD-3 in their wave of 12″ singles re-issued on the new format in 1985. The single had three tracks, the A-side, “Animalistic [Day At The Zoo Mix],” and “Hampton Beach” from the “What Price Paradise” album, for some odd reason. I traded this off after getting the “Collection” 2xCD version, which also had the non-LP remix on its running order.