Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Part 6 of Exclusive Interview with Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: What is your working process with Michael Anderson and how are you approaching the remastering? What are each of your unique perspectives and roles in regards to what you are listening for and trying to achieve sonically? Also what is your signal chain? How are you transferring the tapes and what tools your are using?

Irwin Chusid, Exclusive Administrator for Sun Ra LLC: I can’t speak for Michael. I hope he consents to being interviewed about the process. 

Michael produces the transfers from source tapes. He has a battery of vintage open-reel decks with various head configurations and speeds, and he knows how to service them. I honestly don’t know what adjustments he makes to the digital files. He works alone, he’s been doing this for decades, and I’m not going to second-guess his methodology. He sends me his processed wav files, and I undertake a meticulous restoration pass. He focuses on macro, I delve into the micro. I remove transients, occasionally boost midrange or high-end a smidge, reduce noise in selected passages, shave hiss, squelch distortion, de-ess, correct momentary speed irregularities, repair dropouts, balance volume disparities, and remove spikes that will sound like vinyl clicks in the end product. This process can take hours for one track because I’m a perfectionist—which with Sun Ra recordings is a fool’s errand. They can’t be perfected. You don’t want them perfect. Making them “perfect” would strip away layers of soul. You’ve heard of “garage rock”? This is Garage Jazz.

I’ve been doing digital restoration for ten years but confess that I don’t have sophisticated ears. I’ve never owned a high-end audio system. I own cheap consumer speakers, which I rarely upgrade. My bedroom has a pair of Lafayette speakers I purchased in 1969, just out of high school. Lafayette went out of business in 1981. These speakers sound fine, but I don’t crank them because it would disturb the neighbors. Connected to my iMac, on which I do audio restoration in Adobe CS5.5, I have a pair of desktop Bose Companion 2 Series II multimedia speakers. (I had to flip one over to find the model. Fancy gear doesn’t interest me—I just want my toys to work.) I have never taken an engineering course, don’t read audiophile magazines, don’t follow trends in acoustic advances, have never attended an audio convention. As Raymond Scott once claimed about himself, I have a degree in “primitive engineering.” You could say there’s a component of voodoo in my approach, but it seems to work for restoring Sun Ra’s recordings, and it’s worked for any number of previous restoration projects, particularly a lot of vintage calypso. This lack of technical expertise notwithstanding, I’m friends with numerous engineers, and often turn to them for problem-solving. I’m the beneficiary of their sound education.

I’m not trying to horrify prospective—and skeptical—buyers. I labor exhaustively over these audio files. There’s much trial and error. Some fixes sound fake. I reject those. There’s usually a trade-off: filter out one flaw, you inadvertently filter out part of the signal you’d prefer to keep. It’s a balancing act. But in some senses, the quality of my work is best judged by what you don’t hear.

I have not used compression or reverb on any track. I want something that to my ears sounds natural, that reflects the soulful-but-not-always-optimum settings in which these performances were captured. These recordings were not made in a Miles Davis studio with a Dave Brubeck budget. 

My expectation is that I will please people like me—ordinary Joes and Josies who just love the music—and disappoint audiophiles. But that’s a small minority of Sun Ra fans, and pleasing the high-end crowd is above my pay grade. If we do please them, I feel lucky—but that might have more to do with Michael’s initial transfer process.

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: Well Irwin, as one of those picky audiophiles, who's never bought an album from iTunes because I want the highest quality sound possible, I can tell you that your work holds up to scrutiny and didn't disappoint me at all. I did extensive a-b testing between your new MFiT remasters and all of the previous issues of the music—from Saturn, Impulse!, Evidence, Scorpio LP reissues, etc.—and I can say the across the board, your new remasters are the best quality versions of the music released to date. There is a natural tone and acoustic realism to the new remasters that has rarely been heard from previous Sun Ra releases, many of which utilized multi-generation tapes, excessive EQ, or noise reduction to "clean up" the recordings. The end product was music that sounded distant and flat, while the new remasters sound almost three dimensional in comparison! It's a pretty stunning difference for a fan like myself who has heard these albums many, many times. I applaud you for the musical, tasteful choices you and Michael made when approaching your remastering work. For anyone interested in learning more about what Mastered For iTunes really means, here's a great primer.

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