Saturday, August 30, 2014

Part 9 of Exclusive Interview with Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: There have been many issues of this material over the years, from the original Saturn LP’s, ESP Records, the ABC/Impulse reissues in the early 1970s, the music’s first appearance on CD via Evidence Records in the early 1990s, to the endless releases, both legit and bootleg, since Sun Ra’s earthly departure—most notably, El Ra Records, Art Yard and Atavistic (legit) to Scorpio’s 180 gram LPs, Transparency, and Universe (grey or black market releases).

What is your team’s unique aesthetic approach to remastering these tapes and what kind of sonic qualities are you hoping to achieve from an audio perspective? From working with Michael and the tapes, do you think Sun Ra had a clear sonic aesthetic as to what he wanted his records to sound like as a body of work? I’m especially curious about your approach to the remasters in regard to current mastering trends—known as “The Loudness Wars”—where hard limiting and excessive compression are utilized to make the loudest files, which as a result are often harsh and fatiguing to listen to.

Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC: As to whether Sun Ra had a clear sonic aesthetic about his records, it would be presumptuous of me to hazard a guess. As I said before, with Sun Ra you get everything but consistency and predictability. Clearly he was curious about technological advances in sound generation and recording, but his approach seems intuitive, not technical. I’d imagine he was the sort of guy who’d buy a new piece of equipment, open the box, ignore the instruction manual, and just start messing around. Or perhaps I’m projecting.

Sonically his records are a colossal crap-shoot, especially pre-1975 releases. Some sound great. Everything he did with Tom Wilson for Transition and Savoy is crisp, full of dimension. On the other hand, parts of Universe in Blue sound like a 3rd-gen Velvet Underground audience cassette. The Choreographer’s Workshop recordings are raw, flawed, gritty—but they work if you don’t mind low-fi. I grew up listening to 45 rpm singles in the ‘60s, and many of the coolest were mixed down to the point where nuance was minimal, but still they made your ears tingle. Some had a massive wall of sound, others just a flimsy barrier of sheetrock. The CW tracks have that quality, like they were using Joe Meek’s soundboard. I assume they had few mics at Choreographer’s Workshop—perhaps just two—which creates a natural compression. For that reason alone, you don’t need to add compression. The room took care of that.

Regarding the Loudness Wars, I do the Sun Ra restorations at low to moderate volume. If necessary I go under headphones to detect and remove buried transients. Volume is overrated. We’ve all been to clubs where the decibels are pumped during DJ sets and it all sounds like shit. I guess these DJs don’t really care about music because they assume louder is better. I’ve analyzed the waveforms of contemporary commercial recordings and I’m shocked at the lack of headroom, the extreme saturation of the spectrum. It’s the musical equivalent of fast food—packed with sugar, processed starch, and saturated fat. Everyone wants to outgun the Foo Fighters.

That can’t work for Sun Ra. It shouldn’t work for most music, period. But it’s a noisy world and labels compete for attention by trying to be heard above the din. A lot of recording artists could establish a more intimate connection with their fans by turning it down a notch. I remember first hearing Norah Jones and getting it immediately: she’s the anti-diva—all restraint, nothing forced, no need to shout. And she got heard.

Raymond Scott once said that he preferred to mix at low volume. In the late ‘70s I lived in a house with friends who went to bed earlier than I did. At the time I was a big fan of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and discovered that late at night I could play the LP at low volume and the sound was almost tactile. My assumption is that most consumers who listen to Sun Ra don’t crank it to Spinal Tap magnitude. I want it to sound good at comfortable volume, not breaching the Richter scale. Anyone who jams a Choreographer’s Workshop recording to 11 is likely to be disappointed.

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