In a room on the second floor of the cylindrical Capitol Records building is a beige, boxy convection oven that could pass for a droid R2-D2 might "swipe right" for on Tinder. This type of Lindberg/Blue convection oven is primarily used in laboratories and for product testing. At Capitol, it's used to resurrect priceless analog tapes containing some of popular music's most landmark recordings.
One floor below, down a hallway lined with black-and-white photos of such Capitol Records artists as Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Glen Campbell, these tapes are stored in a high-ceilinged room, its walls lined with industrial metal shelving. From several steps back, it almost looks like a roomful of old Yellow Pages phone books. But move closer and you see that the shelves contain rows and rows of vertically stored analog audio tapes, labeled in black marker on yellow spines.
The shelves' contents will blow a music fan's mind. A row of Beatles master tapes for The White Album. Masters for John Coltrane's Blue Train, filed next to Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool. Billy Idol's Rebel Yell masters on the same shelf as a fleet of Frank Sinatra tapes.
A master tape is the final mix from a recording session, often on quarter-inch or half-inch two-track tape. The Capitol production library also contains some multitrack recordings from which masters are typically mixed, as well as digital sources. If an album was recorded earlier than about 1994, it was likely cut on tape.
But analog tapes are subject to physical decay, especially if they're stored incorrectly or have absorbed moisture. And ironically, while older tapes from the '50s and '60s generally remain robust and pristine-sounding, some tapes from later eras, particularly the mid-'70s to mid-'80s, are of inferior quality and much more susceptible to breaking down. So now, labels like Capitol are in a race to make sure that all of their master tapes get digitally transferred before they eventually become unusable.
"They've changed the formulation of tapes several times over the years, and all those things age," says Dave McEowen, a Capitol Records archive transfer engineer for 22 years. "They're organic compounds. And they will continue to age. And these assets will get to the point where they will be unplayable."
Capitol's archives are well-cataloged and well-preserved, but in other cases, analog tapes can be surprisingly hard to track down — or so poorly stored that, even once found, they're impossible to restore. Ownership of a band's master tapes can change hands many times over a period of several decades, and the tapes don't always spend all that time in a humidity-free vault.
Daniel Lanois has produced beautiful-sounding albums for artists including U2 and Emmylou Harris. "I had Steven Tyler here last year," Lanois says, speaking by phone from his Silver Lake home studio, "and he says, 'We're going through the process of finding all our old multitracks,' and I said to him, 'Make no assumptions.' I hope Aerosmith finds all their old masters."
On a recent morning, McEowen is seated at a table inside Capitol's climate-controlled production library, some reels from a vintage Beach Boys concert in Long Beach in front of him. New tapes come into the archives all the time from various sources and go into his digital transfer queue.
The biggest challenge McEowen faces as an archivist? "The condition of the tapes, because they've been stored for so long," he says. With his glasses, gray ponytail and beard, he looks both professorial and like a longtime Allman Brothers fan. "Some of them are 40 years old or so. They may have absorbed moisture if they haven't been stored correctly. And that requires baking, in an oven at 120 degrees for six hours. Oxide loss off the tapes creates dropouts; sounds will either completely go away or it will fade out and come back.
"The other thing would be edits in the tapes," he continues. "A lot of these songs come from multiple takes, so they will splice individual parts, like the chorus from one in with the verse from another. And if the splicing tape has dried out, those will just come apart on you, so lots of times you'll have to go back and replace them all."
McEowen revels in the details of his job. "How can I get this tape to play back absolutely perfectly?" he says. "It's very challenging to get a perfect [digital] recording that is as true to the original analog tape as we can possibly get. And the challenge in that, I find very satisfying."
Handling legendary tapes is a regular part of the work. But every once in a while McEowen will have, say, the original Abbey Road master in his hands and think to himself, "Shit. The LP I listened to when I was 12 was probably made from this tape."
Capitol's chief archivist, Jack Arenas, selects the tapes that McEowen will be working on each day; lately his queue has included masters from The Beatles, Nat King Cole, Sinatra and Dean Martin. McEowen takes those tapes over to the Gogerty Building, which neighbors the Capitol Building. Once there, he puts the tape on a Studer, a Swiss-made tape machine known for its reliability and for being very gentle on tapes. McEowen uses test tones on the tape to align machine and tape correctly and maximize fidelity.
The Studer is hooked up to a desktop computer running Pro Tools. McEowen plays a tune through, noting the peaks, and adjusts his analog-to-digital converter, a hugely important line in the digital-conversion chain. The hi-res digital copies are extremely detailed, 192 kHz/24-bit, meaning the sound is sampled 192,000 times per second. (Commercial CDs, by comparison, sample at a rate of 44.1 kHz/16-bit.)
In the archiving business, they refer to quarter-inch master tapes as "assets." Assets that have not been under Capitol's care often have a lot more problems, McEowen says. "I've had tapes where you open up the box and it's just a pile of loose tape, just like spaghetti, all tangled up together."
Aside from improper storage, analog tapes can suffer from sticky shed syndrome, a condition resulting from tape binder deterioration, causing gummy residue to collect on tape heads during playback. If you put a tape with sticky shed on a machine without treating it first, you'll literally rub the information right off the tape. This is where baking comes in — but only in a convection oven, as a regular oven will melt the tape. Baking analog tape correctly reconstitutes the tape's binder, giving engineers a 24- to 48-hour window to work with the tape without ruining it — but tapes with sticky shed, particularly those made after the mid-'70s, are at greater risk of becoming unplayable.
Getting engineers and archivists to acknowledge which titles are most at risk from sticky shed and other factors is nearly impossible. No one wants to "out" artists whose catalogs are marred by lost or damaged masters. More than once, sources interviewed for this story declined to name which artists' recordings were involved in the tape mishaps they recounted, instead referring vaguely to a "'70s rock artist" with mold issues on their privately stored tapes, or "pop from the 1980s" where the tape had dried out to the point that it was flaking off, or a "giant group" working on reissues whose tapes from the 2000s (to this day, a small percentage of bands still record on analog tape) were already afflicted with sticky shed.
Universal Music Group, which purchased Capitol Records in 2012, has literally millions of tapes. Around 2,000 or so are in the Capitol Building library, mostly in-demand artists and titles used most frequently for remastering, hi-res digital transfers, restoration or research. But like much of the recording industry, Universal keeps most of its tapes in rural western Pennsylvania, more than 200 feet underground in a former limestone mine owned by Iron Mountain, a data storage and records management company.
Many of the masters for jazz giant Blue Note Records are stored by Iron Mountain at a separate facility in Hollywood. Don Was, known for his work as a producer with artists including The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer and Lucinda Williams, became president of Blue Note in 2012. Was has a lot of confidence in the durability of older tapes and doesn't "feel tremendous pressure to get things over" to digital, saying that converting Blue Note masters to hi-res digital is "really for the listener" (though he acknowledges that he's seen his share of sticky shed syndrome in '80s-era tapes).
Blue Note, which also is owned by Universal and does its transfers at the Capitol Records building, keeps a library of original vinyl pressings to reference when digitally transferring and remastering analog tape. It has about 80 percent of its titles in-house and reaches out to a collector known as "Mr. Blue Note" for the few it's missing. Was would even occasionally seek counsel from legendary jazz audio engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who recorded many Blue Note classics by Coltrane, Miles, Thelonious Monk and others before his death in August at the age of 91.
"As mediums change, people make attempts to improve upon the original," Was explains. "Over the years it shifts — not through any kind of evil-spirited moves, people just reinterpret things. But the question becomes: If you have a classic piece of music that everyone has known and loved for years, should you editorialize it at all, even if technology allows you the opportunity to do so? And in our case, we decided you shouldn't. You should stick with the thing that everyone was excited about when they released the record. Even if it's got some artifacts that might go against the precepts of high fidelity. Sometimes distortion is desirable; sometimes distortion has a character that is inseparable from the music."
That kind of attention to detail hasn't always been part of the digital remastering process. Was recalls working with The Rolling Stones in the '90s, remastering the band's post–Sticky Fingers catalog.
"Even after we approved a mastered sound, we'd play back CDs and they didn't sound the same as the test CDs," Was says. "And when we looked into it, we found that quality control at that time consisted of making sure there was data on the CD. But no one was listening to it. As long as there was something printed on it, it was acceptable."
Was fears what might happen to some of the records he's produced, such as Raitt's Grammy-winning Nick of Time, if they're reissued many years from now. "I know how much work we put in to getting everything just right, and I don't want to think about some guy that I don't know, that doesn't have any connection to the records I've made or any of the artists I've worked with, making some decision after we're all dead and adding more treble to something."
Just a few blocks from Capitol on Gower Street stands a green, modern-minimalist building that houses Bernie Grundman Mastering. From the front door, there's a nice view of the Hollywood Sign. The space's interior is airy and decorated with modern art — one wall is covered with platinum records from artists including Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder. The records Grundman has mastered, which include Purple Rain, Thriller and The Chronic, have played a large role in defining the sound of popular music in the last 30-plus years.
Mastering is the crucial final step of fine-tuning and polishing a recording before commercial consumption. The goal is to make the release sound as vibrant, cohesive and impactful as possible, however it's listened to, whether it's an MP3 on earbuds, streaming audio on a crappy car radio, or 180-gram vinyl on a high-end home stereo. And as playback technology and consumer habits continue to evolve, remastering — the art of taking a previously mastered record and reshaping it to sound just as good in a newer format — has become an equally important part of the business.
On a recent afternoon, Bernie Grundman is sitting inside a red-walled mastering studio in front of a customized console that looks like a set piece from a classic sci-fi film. In this acoustically balanced space, even silence sounds better. Wearing tasteful oval glasses, button-up shirt and slacks, Grundman resembles a seasoned CEO more than a dude who gets name-checked by Janelle Monáe (on 2013's "Q.U.E.E.N.": "Mixing masterminds like your name Bernie Grundman").
Grundman's studio masters or remasters around 250 albums a year. Analog tapes from Beck, ZZ Top, Counting Crows and Neil Young are among the many in his queue. He's not an archivist per se, but he's been working with analog tape for 50 years and is very confident about its durability when properly cared for.
"Analog has the information spread out over a really big area, so it can withstand deterioration better," he explains. "The problem with digital is when it goes bad, you lose it; it drops out and it actually shuts off because it can't form a signal or it gets real staticky. When it goes bad, it goes bad in a bad way. Whereas analog tape is a gradual thing, and if it's going to go bad, you might get a little more noise from losing these particles, but it usually plays OK and then you catch it and make a copy."
As durable as classic, well-cared-for analog masters can be, they can get worn out, especially if they're of popular titles. In the analog era, master tapes also were used to make "safety copies," for remastering, reissues and other purposes. Engineers weren't yet able to make a digital copy to work from, so most tasks involved running tapes on a machine, which results in wear.
Because of this, Grundman sometimes has to work from digital sources during remastering to cover trouble areas. He recalls working on a reissue of an album by jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins in which parts of the master were in rough condition; he had to do radical equalization on a previous CD release of the same title to get it to sound like tape, then edit it back into the analog source material in a way that was undetectable. It took him about a week's worth of work to accomplish this, but as a huge Rollins fan, he was glad to do it. "I wanted to have a finished tape that would be their master and the only one in existence."
Grundman always prefers to work with an original master. "There's nothing you can do except go back to the original, if you're a real die-hard audiophile and you want the absolute best quality."
Grundman's friend Bob Ludwig, a veteran engineer who mastered classic albums for Jimi Hendrix, Queen, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin, also would much rather work with an original master, but these days he doesn't always get the chance. Record companies have become increasingly reluctant to ship original masters to his Gateway Mastering Studios in Portland, Maine, so about 80 percent of the time now, he estimates, he's given access to hi-res direct stream digital copies instead of the actual tapes. This was how he remastered the recent early Rolling Stones records in mono, which have drawn raves.
"We're an independent business, and we're hired to do what we are and we work with what we're sent," Ludwig says. "Sometimes I know what kind of machine they used to do the transfer. And there are good times when they will do a transfer and they used just the machine I would have, and other times [they don't]. It's luck of the draw sometimes."
When it comes to remastering, Ludwig is less of a purist than Don Was. To remaster a recent multi-album set of Bruce Springsteen reissues (he jokes that he's probably remastered Born to Run five times by now), Ludwig used something called the Plangent Processes Playback System, a hybrid of analog and digital technology that can correct some of the natural distortion present on many analog tapes.
"If you have the original master tape," Ludwig explains, "this guy Jamie Howarth, who invented [Plangent], has a way of using special electronics that completely lowers the distortion on recording tape. If the tape machine was not as up to snuff as they could be then, it could really behoove you to use the Plangent Process on those master tapes. It removes the wow and flutter from the recording. In the case of those early Bruce Springsteen recordings, like Greetings From Asbury Park or The Wild, the Innocent [& the E Street Shuffle], if you hear these new reissues that are out now, you'll be shocked hearing how much clearer they are. I've known these [records] my whole life; to hear the extra detail that can be gotten out of those old tapes was really quite amazing."
For Ludwig, Howarth's invention is a reminder of the importance of preserving analog master tapes. "Something else in the future we're not even thinking of could be invented, and amazing things could be done from those original masters yet again."
Storing analog tapes takes up significant space, and transferring those tapes to hi-res digital formats costs thousands of dollars per record. Although Universal and Capitol have been actively archiving and making digital transfers for decades, they have decades to go before they've addressed all their tapes. For an industry that has seen its revenues plummet over the past 15 years, the storage and transfer costs of analog can be daunting.
"I think the worst-case scenario would be a world where people think music should be free, and as a result there's not the kind of investment capital there to sustain our rich history," says Barak Moffitt, Universal's executive vice president of content strategy and operations, speaking by phone from the company's Santa Monica corporate headquarters. "People don't think about that. People think a lot about current artists, but our history is in the middle of this paradigm shift from ownership to consumption as well."
Moffitt's awakening to the power of original analog masters happened inside Capitol's Studio A. He was listening to playback directly from the three-track master for Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely in the same room where the album was cut almost 60 years ago. "I was just blown away at the breadth of the stereo field, the depth of the stereo image," Moffitt says. "And the presence of a lot of emotional information that over the years, and over the consumer formats that were available, were not translated with the kind of fidelity the original master was imparting to me at that moment." He also marveled at hearing the between-song banter and outtakes, all preserved on tape. Moffitt says there's a solid amount of that sort of unreleased material for many legendary Capitol and Universal artists, along with video footage, marketing materials and other ephemera.
Universal's tape database is searchable by artist, song title, release number, songwriter, recording engineer and year. The database also includes photographs of individual tape boxes to further help ID assets. The Capitol library houses not just Capitol and Universal artists but also tapes by third-party clients who work at Capitol's recording studios, as those projects are completed and released.
Not all tapes throughout the history of the music business have been this closely tracked, however — or even kept at all. Bob Ludwig says that during the early days of CDs and the "perfect sound forever" that then-new digital medium promised, "some A&R people wanted to clean their shelves of their old analog tape, [so] they transferred it to DAT machines and then threw out the master tapes."
For many years, original studio multitrack tapes were even less well-preserved than the masters. The general feeling in the '60s, '70s and '80s was: Once a song was mixed, why would anyone ever go back to the multitracks? But when the video game Guitar Hero came along in 2005, offering players the chance to play and sing the individual parts of popular rock songs, the industry went looking for those two-inch reels containing isolated vocals, drums and guitar parts — and freaked out when, very often, it couldn't find them.
Patrick Kraus, Universal's senior vice president of studio, production and archive services, remembers the Guitar Hero scramble as a turning point for industry archivists. "Lots of stories about deals being done: 'Yes, we're going to do this whole album on Guitar Hero. Amazing! Hey vault, give me the multitracks.' 'We don't have them.' And there's nothing you can do. But it was great from an archivist perspective, because suddenly industrywide people started to recognize, 'Wait a minute. This stuff in the vaults is really, really valuable.'"
Like Grundman, Kraus, who began his career as a recording engineer and later worked as an executive at Sony and Warner Elektra Atlantic, is very confident in the durability of well-cared-for, non–sticky-shed-era original masters. He's more worried about the longevity of the hardware and specialized skills needed to maintain them.
"The thing that concerns me the most about analog tape preservation," Kraus says, "is that we lose the expertise and the machinery and all the peripheral equipment that is necessary for analog tape to work. Leader tape. Splicing tape. Tape heads. Resistors. All those little things that go into the transfer, there's not a whole lot of incentive for people to continue to make those materials because it's such a tiny little market."
Universal owns about 30 tape machines, including several at the Capitol Building. They cannibalize some of the machines for parts for repairs. Universal's strategy going forward is to continue to acquire tape machines, seek out expertise and train new engineers to handle tape and the machines properly.
"We at Universal are going to make sure we aren't going to be in trouble," Kraus says, "but I think people who aren't necessarily thinking about it right now will be in trouble in 10 years, for sure."
Because of The Grateful Dead's vast catalog of live recordings from their 30-year career, the pioneering jam band boasts one of the largest analog archives of any recording artist in history. Their tape archives were relocated from the Bay Area in 2006 and are now housed in a nondescript warehouse in the San Fernando Valley. The climate-controlled and highly secure facility features two shell-like layers constructed into it, for protection from the elements and other hazards. Inside, in the central area, it's shelves upon shelves of tapes, dating back to the mid-'60s, organized chronologically by format.
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"It looks like the last scene of Citizen Kane," says Dead archivist David Lemieux, who's based in British Columbia. A fan and former amateur taper who recorded around 50 Dead shows from the audience between 1989 and 1991, Lemieux has been the band's official archivist for 17 years now. He's the man behind the Grateful Dead's Dave's Picks live archive release series, taking over where late Dead archivist Dick Latvala's Dick's Picks left off.
There are still reels in the archive that blow Lemieux's mind, like the more than 75 reels of tape recorded for what became the landmark Dead concert LP Europe '72. Perhaps even more mind-blowing is that the collection's many tapes that were once stored in less-than-ideal conditions still sound pretty good — like the 1971 reels found on former Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux's parents' houseboat, or the missing 1969 and 1970 tapes a former crew member found and returned, after they'd been stored for years in his garage in the balmy South. "We've always been able to bake a tape to get the proper play out of it to do the hi-res backup and the CD production," Lemieux says.
With so many superfans still eager to hear and purchase their concert recordings, the Dead have a huge commercial interest in maintaining their archives. But Lemieux says it's more than that. He sees these reels as holy relics.
"That is the original document that has the provenance of having actually been at that Grateful Dead show," Lemieux says. "It would be similar to a photographer. Ansel Adams' archive probably has these fantastic negatives from which they've made as high-resolution of a scan as you could do, but they would never get rid of the originals. Because that's the original document."