A few weeks back in a very posh hotel suite over a very nice breakfast, I was chatting to Joel Bernstein - or rather, characteristically, he was chatting at me. Joel's spent most of the last two or three years locked in a recording studio, up to and over his ears in hundreds of reels of Neil Young tapes, experimenting with all sorts of black boxes and different kinds of cabling and interconnects and so on, in a once-and-for-all (or at least for the time being) effort to devise state-of-the-art ways of transforming the sounds on the ancient analogue spools into digitally delightful form, as part of the ongoing Neil Young historically definitive archival project, the labours of which will be put out eventually as some sort of multi-CD compilation. Anyway, that's almost beside the point, except for the fact that Joel probably knows as much as anyone about the problems and pitfalls of working with old tapes and about how to produce something from them that's worthwhile.
As I picked at my pancakes and Joel chewed on his toast, the talk turned, as it usually does when munching is in progress, to Bob Dylan, to his dusty old tapes, and to what really should be going on behind the scenes to ensure that whatever's left in the vaults is preserved as carefully and as appropriately as possible for future generations to wonder at. Then Joel asked me if I'd heard, or heard about, the recent release of a 24-karat gold-plated compact disc of Highway 61 Revisited by the Californian re-issues label, DCC Compact Classics. I said, yes, I had heard about it, but no, I hadn't heard it. You should do, Joel said, because it's just terrific.
Well, if he says so, then I believe him, so I went to snap up a copy. I remember that they had them for a while, shortly after the CD was released last summer, in HMV at around £25 a time. They still have them in the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street for about £33. While I was in New York, however, I was able to pick one up for about $25 and I've been playing it for the last couple of weeks on a very nice stereo system which I've been fortunate enough to have the loan of for a while. And you know what? It's just terrific. Possibly the best-sounding Bob Dylan CD ever. "Remastered by Steve Hoffman" it says on the back of the sleeve, so, ever mindful of my responsibilities as The Telegraph's editor, I called Steve up and asked him to tell me all about his wonderful golden CD.
Could you tell me a little bit about DCC Compact Classics, Steve?
DCC is an offshoot of the old Dunhill Records. The founder of the company, Marshall Blomstein, was the President of Island Records and of Ode Records and he formed this company, DCC Compact Classics, formerly Dunhill Compact Classics, in 1986, for the purpose of re-issuing things that had been long unavailable, kinda like Rhino Records but a little more, er, serious-minded. We initiated our Gold series earlier this year because we felt that Mobile Fidelity, the other company working along these same lines, were not releasing the albums that we were interested in. I mean, I wanted to hear The Doors, I wanted to hear Bob Dylan . . . It was a purely selfish thing. I wanted to remaster all my favourite albums! Hahaha! Fortunately, all the record companies seem to like us and they've all cooperated with us pretty well.
Including Columbia/Sony . . .
Well, Highway 61 Revisited was probably right at the top of the list of my favourite Bob Dylan albums, but I'd never liked the way the CD sounded. I thought it was unnecessarily . . . er . . . weak-sounding. It was a little harsh, it was a little shrill, there was no low end, no bass on it whatsoever. It was nothing like what I had always been used to hearing on my old original LP. So when we initiated our Gold CD series, Highway 61 Revisited was very much one of the records I wanted to work on. So, I called CBS/Sony about it and we discussed the possibilities and I got a very tentative OK to go ahead and do it. And that's where the story begins! Hahaha!
Originally, our idea was to release the album in a revised form, with lots of extra pictures on the sleeve, outtakes from the original photo sessions . . .
Did that mean dealing with Daniel Kramer?
Yes. He just wanted money. I mean, that's OK. I can understand that, and even though it was very expensive, I could probably have paid him his fee, and he was certainly willing to share his outtakes, but then Dylan's people said no, they didn't want any other photographs to be used. It wasn't Columbia Records who were against it, it was someone in Dylan's management who said no. So what could I do? I don't think Bob was ever asked personally about it. Probably someone just said, I don't want to be bothered with this. That's what I think.
I also wanted to do both the stereo album and the mono album and to also include some of the outtake tracks, but they squashed all that too. They said that if I were to do it at all, it must be exactly the same way the original LP was. I wanted to put Positively 4th Street on there, a couple of other things, but they wouldn't have any of that.
Anyway, at least I was able to restore the original cover. They'd messed it up on the CD, but I reproduced it exactly as it was when it was first released, even with the little Columbia Stereo 360 Sound logo on the top of the front cover. They didn't even want me to put that on there at first. They refused to deal with me on any of that stuff. They didn't seem to understand really what I wanted to do in my efforts to produce something worthy. They wanted me just to use the ordinary CD artwork - what was the problem with it? Well, I managed to restore both the front and back covers and I continued to struggle along trying to talk to the people at CBS. Then one day we discovered the original master tapes.
How did that happen?
We, er . . . hum . . . Through diplomatic channels, I managed to get someone in the Columbia vaults to pull out every single copy of the LP masters, and there were lots of them. There were copies of copies and there were copies of copies of copies, but the originals were discovered too. They had actually been found just a month or two earlier, but the Columbia executives didn't even know that. I guess no-one had told them. Even Bob Dylan's people had told me that there were no original masters for Highway 61 Revisited. But anyway, they were there. And they were the tapes that I was able to use. And as soon as I played them, I immediately could hear the difference. It was like night and day. Bob's voice was smoother and yet more punchy; there was a nice low end; you could even hear the bass drum on all of the songs! It was great!
Could you explain the difference between that tape and the other so-called master tapes - the tapes that had been used to make the regular CD?
Well, even the original LP and all subsequent releases of Highway 61 Revisited were made, according to standard practice at the time, by taking the original tapes and transferring them, adding equalisation and adding compression, to make what's called the "cutting master". That means that the records were actually cut from a copy of the original master tapes. If they had tried to cut the record using the original tapes, the cutting stylus would not have been able to track all the information, so the cutting master usually would have the low end chopped off and the high end chopped off and the mid-range exaggerated. But then that cutting master tape would be labelled "Master", because in their eyes it was the tape that was used to make the records. So afterwards, any time anyone asked for the Highway 61 Revisited master tape - or, in fact, for any CBS master tape - that's what they got: the second-generation cutting master.
Now I, of course, knew that I wanted to use the original master tapes, the ones with the original mixes, that hadn't been EQ'd and compressed and all that. But it was hard to explain to the people who I had to deal with at Columbia. It's kind of a terminology problem. Anyway, eventually we figured out that of all the various tapes labelled "master" that they'd pulled from the vaults, the original master tapes, the ones that I wanted to use, were actually the ones in the boxes that were marked "Do Not Use" - hahaha! - because in their lingo, "Do Not Use" means "Original", and therefore unsuitable for the mastering and cutting processes that they had at the time. So it turned out that the tapes that I used to make my CD were actually better than the tapes that had been used to make the original LP! In fact, they had never been used at all since they were first copied back in 1965. I mean, it's pretty much the same album, of course, but there's just more information on the original tapes, so it sounds a lot better.
How many master reels are there - one for each song?
No, one for each side of the LP, and they're usually filed under the American Federation of Musicians project number and the record number, but since these reels were marked "Do Not Use", they had not been filed under the regular stacks but had been thrown in a heap some place else. Anyway, I was glad that we were able to use that tape. Actually, in the process of unearthing this original tape, they had also managed to pull out the original multi-tracks, eight-tracks. When I heard about these tapes, I toyed with the idea of doing a little remixing - hahaha! - but I stopped short of doing that because it would not have sounded like the original album. I couldn't have duplicated that sound, which came from original tube amplifiers and mixing consoles and so on, so I didn't do it.
Because the aim was to be totally faithful to the original album?
No. The aim was to reproduce the album on CD in exactly the form that the engineer and the producer would have heard it played back in the recording studio as they were mixing it. The LP would have sounded inferior to that and so we certainly didn't want to replicate the LP - there's no reason to transfer the faults of that original pressing to CD when with today's technology you can produce something better. Nowadays you don't have to worry about a stylus jumping off a groove, so that eliminates any reason to use anything but the original master tapes. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of CDs out there that haven't been cut from the original master tapes, which is a shame, because they're missing a lot of musical information as a result.
You must have been a little disappointed that you didn't get much help and encouragement along the way.
Well, no-one seemed to care very much about what we were trying to do. I was actually kind of shocked by that. You would think . . . Well, if I was the artist and someone called me up and said that they were wanting to produce a real accurate, faithful version of some of my sessions, I would be keen to make sure that they got whatever help they needed. But it didn't happen, so I had to do it all myself, without anybody's help.
But you were helped by people at the record company . . .
Yes, finally. But still, there are so many employees and you're not allowed to talk to the people that you really need to talk to - the guys who work in the vault - you're only supposed to talk to the management people, and then they talk to the vault people, but the management people don't understand the terminology, so they garble everything all the time. It can get really frustrating! However, I persevered for three or four months, and they finally must have got tired of having me call them every day. After a while they must have said, Look, give this guy what he wants and maybe he'll stop bothering us. I think that's what happened. Then I had four months, from February to May of this year, of focusing in on Like A Rolling Stone. I must have heard it over 500 times, but I liked it still! I still like the album, even though the musicians are all out of tune, I still like it! Hahaha!
So what about some of the other albums?
Well, our initial plan was to do a lot of the Bob Dylan albums - Blonde On Blonde especially. However, CBS have since decided to do their own series of gold CDs and so that's us out of it. What they'll be using as their master tape, however, is anybody's guess.
They'll be using their new Super Bit-Mapping technology on Blonde On Blonde . . .
Well, it doesn't matter. What matters is what you're feeding into the Super Bit-Mapper. If you're not using the original master tape, it's meaningless. It's like you're driving an old Ford - you can put expensive gasoline in it, but it'll still drive like an old Ford. I mean, maybe they understand now what I very patiently tried to explain to them about how to find the original tapes. Maybe they've done that for Blonde On Blonde. Maybe they've found them. Maybe they've used them. Maybe it's all going to sound great. I hope so. I should be optimistic. But I wouldn't hold my breath. You need someone who cares enough to do the job properly.