WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MASTERING AND REMASTERING?

You have likely noticed the term 'Remastered', either when you purchased an album, in the title of a musical piece on an online distribution service, or while browsing productionspf.ca. But what's the difference between Mastering and Remastering ?

Let's explore the meaning of 'Remastered' and what it entails for the listener.

Steely Dan - Aja Remastered 2023

The new version of the Steely Dan album 'AJA' has just been reissued a few days ago, 2023 edition. This is a reissue, but in this case, it also involves remastering (by Bernie Grundman). The album is available in UHQR (Ultra High Quality Record) vinyl version, 45 RPM (LP), 200-gram weight, for the tidy sum of $150 USD. We could start by saying that it's possible to reissue an album without necessarily remastering it, but it's important to begin by quickly understanding what mastering a musical piece or a complete album involves to then grasp the possible subtleties.

Mixing

Once a musical piece has been mixed, meaning that all instrument and vocal tracks have been balanced relative to each other to achieve an interesting sound balance, often treated with equalizers to reduce masking of one track over another, and effects such as reverb and echoes applied tastefully, the next step is the mastering of this now unified stereo mix.

Mastering

Mastering provides another pair of critical ears that can listen to the mix as a whole, with a perspective that proves challenging when one has just spent 12 hours or even more mixing a song. The mastering engineer will listen to the musical piece to assess the overall balance. For example, it may need more bass, more high frequencies, or a different compression amount to give it more energy. Mastering also allows for adjusting the sound level to make the piece competitive with other songs broadcasted on the radio or on an online distribution service such as Spotify.

Mastering is therefore a stage where the work done by the mixer is polished, optimized, and confirmed (QC). This step can simply represent an 'ok' from the mastering engineer, indicating that everything is perfect and no additional intervention was needed (which is rarer), or it can make an appreciable difference compared to the non-mastered version (see the before-and-after example here).

Remastering

So, what is the difference with remastering? In general, it is exactly the same thing, redone from the original non-mastered recordings, for reissue. As mentioned earlier, it would be entirely possible to reissue an already mastered version without going back to the original recordings.

Among the reasons why an artist may want a track or album to be remastered is the fact that it allows for the utilization of the latest sound processing technologies. These technologies enable finer control over the final product, making it well-suited for current playback or distribution systems.

Indeed, music mastered in the 1970s was optimized for turntables, songs released in the 1980s and 1990s were optimized for playback on compact discs, and in recent years, they are optimized for streaming services, Bluetooth speakers, and small headphones.

Going back to the non-mastered tapes also allows the engineer to have a better understanding of the original intent of the recording and potentially be more faithful to it.

Note that it can also happen that only an already mastered version is available for a digital reissue, in the form of magnetic tape or vinyl (a situation I often face). Although this is more limiting, it is possible and even desirable to remaster from this already mastered version because, once again, over time, playback and sound processing equipment have evolved.

Amongst other reasons for remastering, an artist may desire a change in the structure of a musical piece, a shift in the balance of instruments, or a cleaning up of certain noises. Indeed, the latest technologies allow for the effective 'demixing' of a musical piece, separating the various instruments and recreating a different balance, for example, with the vocals made more prominent.

The remastering process will take into account all these different parameters, and even more. It is a work of improvement and preservation.

One might then ask the question: should the latest version necessarily be the best? Not necessarily.

I have three versions of Steely Dan's album 'Aja': a first version from a CD, probably from the late 1980s, a remastered version from 1999, and the new 2023 version (digital distribution version).

The three versions have a different sound, especially depending on the track being listened to. Trends change, and currently, there is a push against compression (limiting audio peaks to achieve more volume), a war against the loudness war.

The latest version is the one with the lowest audio level and the least frequency correction applied. One can say that it's the one that sounds the most 'natural.' However, pushing 'natural' to the extreme may result in the final version lacking excitement or 'punch'...

What is done during mastering or remastering is also partly a subjective process, and the key is obviously to meet the client's expectations.

If you have a reissue or remastering project, feel free to contact me to discuss your needs.

You can also visit this page to discover examples and excerpts from completed projects.

Written by Patric: What is the difference between Mastering and Remastering?

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