Saturday, July 4, 2020

So here’s what all the big to-do was with Alanis Morissette this week.  A little back story first, though.

We’re trained audio professionals.  David and Craig have pieces of paper from snooty universities that say so.  But in the tenure of our lives, we’ve expanded our expertise into video.  We grabbed hold of it, learned it, developed it – until it became a staple of our business model.  

Over the course of the past several years, we learned of a vast stockpile of film assets in our clients’ libraries.  You see, when videos were first a thing, they were shot on film then transferred to some inferior video format, like 1”, Beta SP or DigiBeta.  The quality the MTV generation grew up with was really crap.  I mean, we didn’t much notice or care because Oh my god Simon LeBon is SO cute! and My, that Eurythmics video is strangely arousing and frightening at the same time.  We were distracted.

Eventually it came down to budget.  Video Killed The Radio Star, the first video aired on MTV at 12:01 AM on August 1, 1981 (dang – we share a birthday!), was shot on video.  Heck, everything was then.  Film is expensive, and producers and colorists were experimenting with pushing tone and black levels to their limits – something that came easy with the limited gamut of SD video.  This was the age of Esprit clothing and parachute pants, you’ll recall.  We had little to no shame.

But when an artist really broke through, or a label really wanted to market the hell out of a newcomer they were sure they could break overnight, film became the medium.  Burgeoning artists like Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Notorious B.I.G. and Stone Temple Pilots were given free reign to shoot all the film they wanted.

Bigger budgets, better quality, let’s kill it by turning it into SD video.  The conversion to SD video didn’t really kill the efforts, but the returns were greatly diminished.  HD didn’t arrive until 1998, but the record industry – being the record industry – would not significantly adapt for another decade or so.  We (the record industry in general) put out some real garbage in the meantime.

Fast forward to the mid-2010s.  We had firmly established a video production process that serves the digital supply chain from video post house to the labels’ Delivery Service Partners (DSPs).  We had witnessed the growth from SD video (720 x 540 in the US, 720 x 576 in most of the rest of the world) to HD, which is generally 16:9 video at a height of either 720 or 1080 pixels.  There were growing pains, as the ATSC took about four years to define and produce 1080p, the higher quality, non-interlaced version of HD video.  I am not a fan of interlaced video, though I understand why it exists.*

We began to witness some video content coming across our supply feed that was shot at 4K.  And why not?  Many manufacturers were starting to support it (and 8K, for that matter), and some of the larger budget production companies were happy to adapt to the RED Dragon and other such useful cameras.  Anyone worth their salt was moving with the times.

But then we started wondering about the provenance of excellent videos we had already processed.  We had already begun developing some very successful and groundbreaking innovations around film and video restoration.  I then developed a lust for film.

We identified several videos in our clients’ libraries that were shot on film yet released in SD.  Snow by RHCP.  Interstate Love Song by STP.  Numb by Linkin Park.  Hand In My Pocket by Alanis.  Hmm.

We then identified a number of film scanners, some affordable and some not so much, that we could leverage against the budget of the music industry.  Know this: the film and television industries’ budgets are about ten times that of the music industry.  Put away all your delusions of fat cats named Clive or David lighting cigars with $100 bills amongst a sunken shag rug executive suite lousy with hookers and cocaine.  Those tales died with the 1970s.

We were pretty keen on the Blackmagic Cintel 4K scanner.  It was cute, compact, hung on a wall (!) and the marketing campaign featured very pleasant looking ladies easily operating the hardware in extremely unrealistic-looking production facilities that resembled a 50th-floor Manhattan executive suite, rather than an actual production facility.  I actually like what the folks at Blackmagic do – they are exceptional in many ways, but this one product seemed that it was trying a little too hard to not quite reach the finish line.  We had to spend more.

I asked my pal and former boss, Jim, for advice.  His team turned me toward the 4K Scan Station by Laser Graphics.  Despite everything about them sounding like 1978 (Pew! Pew!), we gave them a visit.  We took with us a reel from the 1986 performance of The Cure from Orange, France.  We transferred two songs from the show, had the mag reels digitized sync’d them up, and touched up the dust and grit.  All in HD.  From 1986.  It’s amazing.

This piqued the interest of many around us, but not everyone was willing to wade into the water, until a friend from Rhino approached us one day.  “How much would it cost to re-create Alanis’s Hand In My Pocket from film?”  Within a month, and after a ten-second test run of Ironic, we, the label and management agreed to re-create all five videos from Jagged Little Pill for presentation at 4K.

They are all available on YouTube now, and if you read the comment section, they’re on fire.  I wish there was a way to look at the old versus the new, but the best I can suggest is to look up the Alanis 4K Trailer on YT.  It’s got a pretty good before and after visual summary.

Working in film is an incredible thing.  Conforming these iconic videos to the standard definition versions is challenging, not only because of the color balancing issues (film IS weird), but because you’re battling the cadences of the 1995 transfers.  We no longer have to use 0.1% pulldowns and repeat frames for a 3:2 cadence.  It’s just 24 frames per second.  But the sync gets iffy, so you tend to lose a frame or two here and there.  NBD.

We started with the lowest hanging fruit – Hand In My Pocket (16mm).  Lowest hanging, because there was no real color grading, just exposure, black level and white level controls.  Easy, right?  No.  Not easy.  For one thing, there is a shit-ton of footage.  Six takes of Alanis driving the car at the top of the video; eight takes of the dudes on bicycles; four of those creepy monsters in the parade (who would do that to a crying baby) and probably 30,000 ft of footage that wound up on the cutting room floor. 

Our workflow is methodical:  one of us creates a spreadsheet from the original music video, calling out each cut relative to the video’s timecode: 00:17:23 CT band OOF marching R>L revealing dude in wifebeaters and shades holding a smoke; DT transvestites waving at glittering float; out at 00:18:16.  

Another of us goes through each reel documenting what exactly is on that reel.  Remember that this is MOS film (the industry adopted the German acronym for mit-ohne sound – without sound in Englisch – and it stuck):  SYNC band performing in church, crane camera to Chester’s right, eyes closed, occasional pivot R>L to Mike on piano, Mr Hahn in BG, OOF.

Other pitfalls occur during the editing process.  The girl during the line “I’m poor but I’m kind,” – she’s reversed horizontally.  There’s a shot in the beginning with a car that was edited out in ’95 with some clever masking.  All of this takes a sharp eye to identify and reproduce the right shot.

I’ve seen several questions about this video, including “Why is this not 16:9 like Ironic?”  I’d love to have produced this at 16:9, but it wasn’t shot that way.  We were asked to reproduce the cuts as faithfully as possible to the original, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.  “Don’t break it,” is our prime directive.

You Learn (16mm) is an experiment in color bloom and black level crushing.  We really wanted to explore different color and depth options, given the HDR opportunities available to us, but management’s directive was clear: match as closely to the original as possible.  Crush and bloom it is.

Ironic (16mm) was actually a lot of fun.  Because the cameras mount the reels on the top, a lot of the shots were difficult to position inside the car.  The production crew’s solution was to mount the camera in the car upside-down, then fix the orientation in post.  It worked, but it’s difficult to identify shots when you’re working upside-down.  That was an interesting session.  We used the pattern of the snow on the windows to identify the shots that were used – you learn to use the oddest cues when conforming to someone else’s work.  Oh, and we learned late in the process that the actual original cut was at 25 fps, so that was fun.  Our version is at 25 as well.

Head Over Feet (35mm) is a one-shot, non-edited version, though she did some eighteen takes, and it took a lot more grading than one might think.  That’s stamina.  But You Oughta Know (8mm and 35mm) is by far the most rigorous endeavor of the album.  Filmed at Badwater (and other locations) in Death Valley, California, the video captures the anger, the desperation and the insanity of the song.  The average length of each cut is 12 frames.  They shot 29 reels of 8mm film and two reels of 35mm film shot at 8 fps with a Nikon F motor drive.  It was nearly impossible to resist abandoning the original direction of the video and embrace the amazing quality of those brief 35mm shots, but the mandate prevailed, and we filtered everything heavily through a haze of orange.

Restoration is necessary for nearly every film reel.  Dust specks, hairs, scratches, dirt and general schmutz are inevitable by-products of film.  A restoration effort depends greatly on how the film was handled and stored over the years.  Most of these reels were treated well.  You Oughta Know was heavily warped, and some reels were pretty dirty.  Working with 8mm is a challenge, especially at 4K, because every image is about the size of a well-trimmed pinkie fingernail.

So for this 25th anniversary of Jagged Little Pill, our friends at Rhino Entertainment have come through and celebrated its release in the best way possible.  Re-imagining these releases at 4K is the right way to honor this landmark record – the Tapestry of the 1990s.

*We'll post more on interlaced video and its unfortunate history a bit later.  Those of you who have seen my lectures will find the subject matter familiar.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Love - Forever Changes 50th Anniversary Box

The critically renowned 1967 release, Forever Changes by Love is being released on April 6 in a super-deluxe 50th anniversary set.  The selection includes 4 CDs, including plenty of outtakes, a DVD of the album, remastered by Bruce Botnick at 96kHz, 24-bit (including a restored bonus video by Mark Abramson), and an LP of the original master, recut by Bernie Grundman.

It includes a CD full of alternate mixes of every track on the album, and a 12" x 12" hardbound book with a current essay and commentary by music historian, Ted Olsen.

If you haven't heard what the original ear candy sounds like, this is it!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Fellowship Of The Ring - Complete Score on Blu-ray

Tomorrow, March 30, Rhino is releasing The Fellowship Of The Ring - The Complete Score on Blu-ray and 3-CD set.  This is the first time the complete score will be available on either format.  The Blu-ray features DTS-HD Master 5.1 Surround and DTS-HD Master Stereo as well, offering over two hours of Howard Shore's original score.

The enhanced audio experience does not require a monitor for listening, resulting in very CD-like playback.  The disc auto-plays upon insertion, and the user simply selects the remote's red button for Surround and the yellow button for Stereo.  Numeric keys on the remote correspond to track numbers, so playback navigation is clear.

This is an incredible score, and it never gets old to my ears.  I hope you have the chance to experience this lossless and flawless reproduction.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Led Zeppelin - How The West Was Won Blu-ray

Coming this Friday, March 23, Rhino Atlantic is set to release the 5.1 Surround remix of Led Zeppelin's How The West Was Won on Blu-ray.  It features recordings from two consecutive 1972 shows at the Los Angeles Forum and the Long Beach Arena.

We're fortunate to have worked on this project with our friends at the Warner family of labels (partly because they keep the Zeppelin coming).  They are also releasing the stereo version in a 4LP vinyl box.  Look for more soon!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Whitesnake - The Purple Tour Live

Headbangers!  In case you missed it, Whitesnake has released CD/DVD and CD/Blu-ray combination sets of The Purple Tour Live.  They've also released it as a double LP.  This was a fun one to work on, as we were unexpectedly brought on to the team at the last minute to help push it over the finish line.  Producer/Engineer Mike "Mac" McIntyre is an absolute gem to work with, and the record itself just rocks (as it should). 

It is available at Amazon Music.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Hotel California Emerges Again on 5.1 Blu-ray

2017 concluded with yet another spectacular reissue in the form of Hotel California in 5.1 Blu-ray.  While previously released as a DVD-Audio in 2001 (and for sale on eBay for $139 today - WTH?), this new 40th anniversary edition is available as a 2-CD + Blu-ray set, and includes previously unreleased live recordings (CD-side only).

After 40 years, this record - and especially Elliot Scheiner's exceptional surround remix - is worth another listen.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

21st Century Quadrophenia

The music industry is enjoying a resurgence in vinyl sales these days, thanks to hipsters, high-school students and tenacious audiophiles who still feel that surface noise, an antiquated RIAA curve and recycled vinyl make a sound recording more "authentic" or "warmer" than digital.  I'm not going to go off on the vinyl vs digital thread here (though I will later), but I do want to highlight another survival story that has slowly bubbled to the surface in the wake of vinyls's recent success.

That surviver is Quadrophonic Audio.

Perhaps because of today's vinyl surge, or perhaps despite it, we have been recently exposed to a number of archive projects dealing with Quad mixes, and our good friends at Rhino Entertainment have taken the bold move of releasing it to the public.  The Chicago box set, lovingly named Chicago Quadio Box, is set to hit the streets on April 29.  It contains the band's first nine studio albums, from Chicago Transit Authority (aka Chicago I) to Chicago X (Chicago IV was a live recording recorded straight to stereo, and therefore never rendered as a 4-channel product).

After the release and success of Chicago V, the band's entire collection was mixed to quad up until their 10th release.  We had the privilege of restoring, mastering and authoring these titles to 192kHz, 24 bit Blu-ray here at CMD.  Very cool stuff.  It's great that we can present a historic collection like this in such high fidelity for consumers to reproduce in their own home entertainment systems.

I have to say that it sounds phenomenal, and I really appreciate that the band took bold risks in utilizing the multi-channel format (horns only in the right rear, organ and hand claps only in the left rear, etc.).  Not every recording weathered the test of time as well as the others (and yes, the band did produce some of the sappiest songs of the decade as well), but overall, it is a beacon of rhythm and brass that has stood the test of time.

So it's cool that we are able to deliver this in such high fidelity to anyone with a surround home theater system.  It's easy: four channels of HDMI out of your BD player and into your receiver; we just ignore the center and the sub - you won't tell the difference.  But while working on this project (we started in February of 2015), some of our younger crew began asking what should really be an obvious question today: How did people experience Quad audio in 1972?

Naturally, one would need a 4-channel amplifier component with 4 speakers delivering sound to the room, but what delivery methods did the music industry use to get Quad to the masses?  It turns out that there were three main Quad delivery formats back in the day, one of which is brilliant, if not imperfect.

The first system was open-reel 4-channel tape.  You could purchase a 7" reel for your 4-channel, one-direction 7.5 IPS tape deck, which fed into your Marantz quadrophonic hi-fi.  Very hip at the time (did you know they actually made quadrophonic headphones back then?).

Mmmm, Stravinsky.

The second (and most popular) format was 8-track tape.  Most cars in the 1970s that had any more than AM radio (or even more typically, single-channel FM) boasted a groovy 8-track cassette player.  Some sprung for the happening Quad upgrade, so you could park behind the drive-in and suck face to Dark Side Of The Moon all night long.  Literally.  8-track players never stop once they get to the end of the tape - they flip over and play the next "side."  I have no idea how this played out for the Quad aficionados, but perhaps this is what got Tipper Gore so worked up about listening to Black Sabbath backwards.  If Paranoid were ever released in Quad.  I don't know.

You know it's Quadrophonic 'cause it says so 4 times.

For my money though, the most interesting and unlikely delivery format in quadrophonic hipness was vinyl.  That's right: four channels of discrete audio delivered by dragging a metal stick over a hunk of wax that rotated 33 1/3 times per minute.  

But wait - how does that work?  The mechanics of vinyl are that there are two walls to the groove of the record.  Each wall has a unique topography that represents the audio information of each channel, left and right.  The needle responds to that topography, and through a series of magnets, inductors, filters and preamps, pushes out two channels of audio per disc.  By definition (and limited by physics, man), you can only ever get two channels out of a record.  

But they did it.  And they were very clever about it.  

So as an audiophile and a guy who argues in favor of high-resolution, high bit-depth PCM audio all the time, I feel compelled to stop right here and mention that I am not applauding the fidelity of multi-channel audio delivered on vinyl.  There are plenty of quadrophonic screes out there bemoaning the failure of Quad on vinyl, mostly because it's a matrix-based format prone to degradation over time, but I'm going to praise the solution (or at least one in particular - there was more than one Quad-on-vinyl scheme out there at the time), because it is a very clever feat of engineering innovation.

The solution, as just mentioned above, was in a matrix.  A matrix and a very high-frequency component.  The solution we will focus on here is CD-4 (Compatible Discrete 4), aka Quadradisc.  CD-4 was developed in 1971 by RCA and JVC.  Part of the problem was that the music industry had introduced this new 4-channel format to the world, but most of the world was grooving to their tunes literally with grooves - vinyl.  Everyone was still buying vinyl, but not everyone had a Quad system installed at their pad.  So how do you make a quadrophonic record that is still compatible with all the still-remaining stereo LP players in the marketplace?

The answer: make a stereo-compatible piece of lacquer, and push all of your additional channel information up onto a subcarrier that lives at a higher frequency than the human ear can perceive.  

EM photography by Ben Krasnow

In a regular stereo system, the circuitry (and hardware) are limited to an upper-frequency range of about 20kHz.  This is similar to CD, as our human ears are unable to directly perceive much information above 22kHz (more for kids, of course).  The CD-4 system takes advantage of this natural "flaw" in our aural intake, and pushes the frequency response of the needle and circuitry up to 45kHz.  At 45kHz, they introduced a subcarrier that was then FM modulated to carry the Quad information for those with Quad compatible systems.

That's where the matrix comes in.  Remember that we have to keep these discs playable for regular stereo owners, too.  How do you do that?  Easy.  Just add the Left Front channel (Lf) and the Left Rear (Lr) channel together, and put them on the left wall of the record.  Add the Right two channels (Rf + Rr) together and do the same.  But if you take the difference of the left channels and the difference of the right channels and place them on that 45kHz subcarrier, BOOM!  You've got a matrix.

So here's the deal:  Left Channel (under 20kHz) is just L = (Lf + Lr).  Its 45kHz subcarrier is Ls =(Lf - Lr) - a difference signal.  Right Channel under 20kHz is R = (Rf + Rf), and it subcarrier is Ls = (Rf - Rr).  Upon playback, you filter each channel such that the lower frequency component goes to one side and the upper frequency component goes to another.  Demodulate the FM subcarrier to get your difference signal, then simply add (L + Ls) to get the discrete Left Front (Lf) channel and subtract (L - Ls) to get the discrete Lr channel.  Do the same with the right two channels, and you've got discrete Quad audio delivered on two-channel vinyl.

On Vinyl:
L = (Lf + Lr)
Ls = (Lf - Lr) @ 45kHz

R = (Rf + Rr)
Rs = (Rf - Rf) @ 45kHz

On Decode:
Lf = (Lf + Lr) + (Lf - Lr)
Lr = (Lf + Lr) - (Lf - Lr)
Rf = (Rf + Rr) + (Rf - Rr)
Rf = (Rf + Rr) - (Rf - Rr)

The result?  Genuine engineering brilliance (with a tip of the hat to the NTSC's solution to the color sideband solution dating back to 1953).  More on that later, but we got discrete 4-channel audio out of a 2-channel delivery system, and if you notice, people with stereo audio systems didn't notice a thing, because the Lf and Lr components stayed in their left speakers (and similarly for the right), and no additional information was added to or subtracted from their listening experience.

Over time, one would find that after multiple plays, the 45kHz subcarrier signal would degrade, due to the physical stress of dragging a diamond stylus across a piece of vinyl.  The response was to manufacture harder, wear-resistant vinyl and a differently shaped stylus to improve the durability of the subcarrier component.  However, by the 1980s, the downward-turning economy and the promise of CD soon overshadowed the desire to spend money on crackly 12-inch obelisks, and the 4.75-inch shiny round thing took control of the audio consumer's market.

Mark Anderson is a nice guy with a very outdated website (I know - who are we to complain, right?), but he's got very useful information if you care to look further into the history of the quad world.  He can be found here: