Mastering Chicago (the band)

Discussion in 'Mastering' started by Gardo, Oct 8, 2004.

  1. Gardo

    Gardo Guest

    Chicago has seen several remasterings over the years: the original Joe Gastwirt masters, the Doug Sax remaster for the CBS Masterdisc (CTA), the Mark Wilder remaster for the Group Portrait box, and the new ones done by Dave Donnelly for Rhino. I've heard that the recording methods used by their producer, James William Guercio, make mastering these tapes a challenge in some respects. Anyone have a comment on this? And does anyone know why the tapes seem rougher--more dropouts, more buzzes and clicks--on the recent Donnelly remaster of CTA than they have before?

    I'd particularly love to hear from Mark Wilder, whose work on the Group Portrait box I have long admired--it really hits a sweet spot and presents the music very well, to my ears.
  2. markwilder

    markwilder Guest


    My work on Chicago comes from a very interesting time. I was in the old studios on 52nd and Madison. These were neglected rooms, hardly the studios we have now. I didn't have a "home" so to speak, so that box set, and a good chunk of work I did up until about 1992 was worked on in whatever room was available that day (there were 9). From what I remember, we had original masters on everything. Most had stickers from Guerico's production company on them. I did do some A/B work against pressings. At that time it was easy, the Lp library was in the same building, unlike today. It tended to be a very simple, slapped together setup. Like I said, these were not the greatest rooms, nor where they setup for mastering specifically, but whatever came along; mixing, mastering, editing, whatever. I don't remember any of the masters being in bad shape. It was edited pre-workstations, most likely Sony 1100-A/PCM 1610. Maybe DAE 3000/PCM 1630.

    Joe was on the west coast. I'm not sure they would have shipped him masters, but I could be wrong. I could ask him. His work is excellent.

    I wish I could have worked with Doug on the Mastersound CTA. I had worked on the earliest Mastersounds, and went to TML for the mastering of Amused to Death. After that, Mastersound passed to an engineer by the name of Kevin Boutote. He did a quite a few at TML because the room that I'm in now, which was being built specifically for the Mastersound series, was not complete. Doug's the man!

    I know nothing about the Dave Donnelly issues. Age has a bad effect on some tapes. I'd have to bet the tape must range from Scotch 202 up to early Ampex 456, the bulk being 406 (just a guess). Prime period for baking. Buzzes and clicks...I don't know. I didn't have Cedar or Sonic at the time, so there was Zero noise reduction on the Box (not that I use it very often anyway). Maybe a sliver edit to get rid of some noise or loud tick.

    I must admit this has to be a 13 year memory, at least. I didn't take notes then; nothing was recallable anyway, it wouldn't have mattered. If I remember anything else, I'll post it.

    PS...The funny thing about that set was the artwork, which I had nothing to do with. Everyone hated it. I know there were a lot of heated words over it. that had to be near the end of the long box also.

  3. Ammitsboel

    Ammitsboel Guest


    I found this in an article about Doug:
    "Sax also established a pioneering set of procedures for testing and evaluating audio components by ear"

    Did he tell you about this?

    Best Regards
  4. Gardo

    Gardo Guest

    Thanks for that great response, Mark. It's hard to believe you were able to do such quality work under those circumstances. I'm assuming you were able to stay in the same room for the whole project--at least, I hope so!

    To my ears, the biggest problem with the Donnelly remasters I've heard (CTA and II) is multiband maximizing. The average RMS levels are up around -9 or -10db for most songs, which is considerably higher than anything you or Joe or Doug did with your mastering. The sound suffers as a result, especially with CTA.

    Do you remember if there were any unique challenges to mastering the Chicago material? Was it tough to find good EQ points, or did the tapes lend themselves well to a more-or-less straight transfer? Many, many years ago I asked Joe (in an ICE Q&A page) about a certain "phasey" sound I detected in the highs on the later albums (I was worried they might be CopyCode encoded), and he replied that with the way Chicago was recorded, he wasn't surprised I heard that. I didn't get a chance for a follow-up so I'm not sure what he meant. At least I confirmed that CopyCode wasn't involved.

    Two other quick questions. Fans of the band have long been puzzled by the way the second Chicago album sounds so bandwidth-limited and anemic compared to the first album and subsequent albums. Unfortunately, that means the sublime "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" doesn't sound nearly as good as it might. I thought you did a fine job on the GP box of getting the best sound out of the Chicago II cuts, but they still sound different from tracks from earlier and later albums. Do you remember anything from your time with those tapes that might help shed some light on this question?

    Finally, there's tape drag at the beginning of "Introduction" on the Gastwirt master and the Donnelly master of CTA. There's no tape drag on the original LP (I've got the double-eye) or on your master or Doug's. Donnelly's master claims to be from the original masters. Was there a problem with the CTA tape in this regard? If so, how did you and Doug get around it?

    Thanks again for the memories and insights. I treasure my long box of GP and believe it is the finest collection of this band's work ever to be released. The track selection is also great--did you have input on this? If so, kudos here too. The artwork never bothered me, but then I'm always a liner-notes-and-music kind of guy, two areas in which the GP long box excelled. And a special thanks for your thoughts/philosophy on noise reduction. This listener thanks you for staying away from it as much as possible.
  5. JoeH

    JoeH Distinguished Member

    Jun 22, 2004
    Philadelphia, PA/ Greenville, DE
    Home Page:
    << To my ears, the biggest problem with the Donnelly remasters I've heard (CTA and II) is multiband maximizing. The average RMS levels are up around -9 or -10db for most songs, which is considerably higher than anything you or Joe or Doug did with your mastering. The sound suffers as a result, especially with CTA. >>

    Wow, I haven't yet heard these remasters, but that immediately scares me off spending my $$ on something like that. (I'd always go with Doug or Mark's works, regardless). In a somewhat related vein, there have been remastered/repackaged CCR boxed sets over the last few years or so. I was shocked and appalled at the new "loudness" added to these somewhat "Sacred" master recordings. I did a DAW/timeline comparison of the mid-90's George Horn (now retired?) digital remasters of some of the Creedence catalog (the best versions in existance, IMHO), and they are clean, clear, and TRUE to the originals (from vinyl samples I used for testing.)

    The "NEW" (read: LOUDER) remasters from people that Fantasy entrusted (names not worth mentioning) are awful, to my ears. In yet another cheap "grab for the cash", Fantasy cranked up the volume on these, made the bass & Kick louder (via Finalizing, etc.) and tampered with legendary mixes. Some fans (completists? Zealots?) want to keep going to back to the vaults in some strange attempt to get "MORE" out of the master 2-tracks, and these new remasters seem to be akin to giving candy to children (or drugs to addicts).

    While it's great to get the best possible quality out of a remaster project, there is a limit to what is reasonable to glean from the pre-LP eq'd masters. After a certain point, there's not much left to hear, at any sample rate, regardless of the hi-end AD converters, etc. Re-releasing things with multiband compression and loudness boosts to sell more product is shameful, dishonest, and borderline criminal.

    Buyer beware, indeed!
  6. markwilder

    markwilder Guest

    No, I'm unaware of this. When I was there we just worked on Amused to Death. It took the better part of a week to complete it and there was very little chat time. I'd love to know about it, though.

    I learned a huge amount just by watching and listening. It was a defining moment and change the way I listen and work.
  7. markwilder

    markwilder Guest

    Good morning Gardo,

    Friday night, on the walk to the bus station, I had an interesting conversation about your questions with Vic Anesini, who was also mastering at Sony's old studios. We had a good laugh.

    I can remember working in at least 2 different rooms with radically different setups. One was a brand new room which didn't sound great. The other was an original room with EVERYTHING in the room built custom, in house. It didn't sound good either. It didn't matter though, because we just pilfered whatever good loose gear was around and created a unique chain.

    I remember very little about how I processed those masters. I do remember fighting with a few, and others I was just blown away by. I was a real jukebox kid, and I remember wasting many a nickel to listen to these songs, and I remember certain songs gave me chills because it reminded me of those days, and others were total letdowns. I understand single mixes and mono/stereo etc... but that was how I remember hearing this music. Copycode is a conversation for another thread.

    I don't remember anything specific about the second album. My only guess is this is one of the one's I wrestled with.

    Tape drag. My only guess is that I found another source without it and inserted it. I try to fix things like that when I can.

    I had nothing to do with the track selections. Amy Herot get's credit for that. I'm not sure if she worked with anyone on it, or it was all hers.

    Enjoy your day,

  8. Gardo

    Gardo Guest

    Thanks for that reply, Mark. I sure hope you have better gear to work with these days! It never ceases to amaze me how substandard some pro installations can be. Most of us tyros imagine that the pros have only the finest equipment to work with.

    It may sound strange, but the thought of two of my favorite mastering engineers having a nostalgic chuckle together on the way to the bus station is a real trip for me. Both you and Vic have done right by a lot of music I really care about. Please give him my best regards. You both have my gratitude!
  9. Gardo

    Gardo Guest

    Without giving away any trade secrets, are there particular things you can share about what you learned?
  10. markwilder

    markwilder Guest

    It had nothing to do with EQ or secret processors. What I saw was craftsmen working on music. A style, a philosophy, a certain mindset toward what was being done. Tools modified to fit the style. Not getting caught up in what's new, but what works. Dramatic focus. And it's reflected in everything I hear that comes out of TML. It raised the bar for me. Listening, really listening.
  11. Gardo

    Gardo Guest

    This is inspiring to think about. What did this experience teach you about listening? What do Doug and his crew listen for?

    I've often thought the mastering engineer's job is to be able to hear each tiny part and the entire soundscape all at once, or at least to be able to shuttle back and forth very quickly. The trick is maintaining focus at both the micro and macro levels. How do you do that?
  12. markwilder

    markwilder Guest

    Up to this point (1992) I was pretty much working in a vacuum. Early on I was in the studio and learned from a couple of people, most importantly David Baker (god rest his soul) and Tom Lazarus. I learned a lot about mic placement and choice and how that worked in the grand scheme of things. How to make sessions flow smoothly. Shortly there after, I was at Polygram and worked by myself. At Polygram, I developed my own personal style without outside influence. Then (1987) I go to CBS. I'm brought in during the very bottom of a transition period, so there were a couple of us who were under 30 (Vic is included here) and everyone else (20+ engs.) are from the old CBS guard. Now I learned a huge amount about the history of CBS studios, but I was technically ahead of all but a couple of them.

    I know this is a long winded way to get there but up to this point I thought I had listening and focus and judgement down, period. I had sat in with a few others, big names, but I watched engineers who had much more experience than me doing the same things I do, in better equiped rooms. I figured I was on the right path, and in time, I would move into the higher eschelon of mastering. Then I fly to LA to oversee (If you could call it that) the AtD mastering.

    I couldn't tell you how he listens, or for what, but I noticed that in those first few minutes, I was totally out of my league. It took all my effort just to keep up with what they were hearing and judgements they were making and the ease they were doing it. And I thought, Holy S***, what have I been doing up to this point. And all I'm doing is checking out a bunch of posers. This is real audio, real music.

    Once again, I know this is long winded. But I think this says a lot about the craft we all pratice. I would still be quite stagnant in my profession if it wasn't for this eye opening experence, and that I was willing to see it. When you talk with great engineers, they talk about the people who influenced them. That they come away with something that forces them to re-evaluate what they're doing. Doug was that for me.

    When I sit and hit play, I move to another place, I'm feeling it, hearing it, I'm even seeing it. It allows me to make decisions that I couldn't have made 13 years ago. And I consider the changes in my personal style to have been exponental since then.

    I hope this answered it, I babble when I'm tired.

  13. Gardo

    Gardo Guest

    Neither babble nor long-winded, Mark. Just inspiring. As a teacher, I think a lot about just the kind of experience you're describing. I think about how hard it is for someone to be ready for the experience. I think about how hard it is to find the experience, to find the master whose work simply changes everything about the way one thinks about a craft. It's a mystery, but it does happen, and when it does, everything changes.

    I really appreciate you sharing these stories. They truly are inspiring.
  14. Ammitsboel

    Ammitsboel Guest

    Don't ever let anyone make you think that what you write is babble!

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