Being a mastering engineer, I listen to a multitude of different music, and I never know beforehand what I am getting myself in for. But on this occasion, I knew exactly what I was getting myself in for, and that was (re)mastering what I consider to be one of Australia’s most classic albums – Midnight Oil’s “10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1.”
Nick Launay, the original producer of the album, had mentioned to me once that he would love to re-master the album – so I leapt at the chance and offered him my services. Nick and I had worked together on other projects, including some later Midnight Oil recordings, so we knew that if we got together we could make this album sound the way it should. So when Nick was in Australia over a Christmas break, he put the wheels in motion for us to begin the mastering.
I had listened to this album many times, so I knew it backwards. But back then, I was listening to it on good old vinyl. In the very early days of compact disc, this album was rereleased on the format, and it was often said that the vinyl sounded a lot better than the CD. So you can imagine the joy I got from knowing that the album was going to be remastered, using today’s current digital technology for release on iTunes – and a possible re-release on CD.
The Original Tapes
The first part of the process was to get the source material, and Midnight Oil has an extensive archive of all of its original recordings, so with the help of Jim Moginie and Arlene Brookes we were able to access the original masters. The fact that we were able to get possession of the original ½” analogue mix tapes was a major bonus in the whole mastering process.
These tapes of course dated back to the early 80’s, so they required a process called baking to be done to them first, which then allowed me to play back the tapes without damaging them. One down side of this was that the many tape edits that were done on the original masters (due to Nick’s amazing and creative production techniques) came apart after the baking process. So many of them had to be re-edited back together again by Nick himself, in order to have them play back as they were originally edited!
So with the luxury of having the original master tapes back to their fresh condition, Nick and I decided to try a number of different tape machines, to see what sounded best. In the end, we settled for the same model that was used to record them, the Ampex ATR100 (Nick had a particular way of recording onto that machine using its saturation and fluxivity qualities). Here at 301 we also have a choice of head blocks – one of which is the Mastering EXT, which has an extended low frequency range. The other is the Ampex standard specification. At this point we decided to faithfully playback the tapes the way they were recorded, using the Ampex standard spec head block.
The Mastering Process
When Nick and I played the master tapes back unprocessed, we just stood there and looked at each other in amazement at how good they sounded. They not only sounded better than the previous CD release, but of course they sounded better than the vinyl version as well.
It was at this point that Nick and I decided to use his favourite equalisers for the mastering process. So we called Jim Moginie and he brought in eight rack-mounted Neve 1084 equalisers from his studio (these, as Nick recalled, where the same equalisers he used in the album’s recording process). As Nick, Jim and myself sat down in the mastering studio, we found that all that was needed to bring this classic album back to life was a very small amount of high frequency boost from the Neve’s.
Nick, at this point, said that this was the first time he had heard this record sound exactly as he remembered it in the mixing studio all those years ago.
Little else was done in the re-mastering, just a slight amount of additional analogue compression, a little more equalisation here and there, and some level balancing between the songs on the album.
During the process of remastering this album, Nick said to me that even with today’s modern techniques and all that he has learnt since producing that album, he could not explain how he achieved some of the amazing sounds found in the recording. Jim said that Nick was like a man possessed when working on the album originally, and none of them realised how unique this album would be…. and how timeless it would become.
Thanks to Arlene Brookes for her assistance with this article.