An Insightful Look at Audio Mastering with Steve Hoffman

Steve Hoffman's name is synonymous with mastering perfection.

By , Columnist

Rock and roll is a tireless universe. The whole of it is made of so many elements that to begin to catalog them would be an immense undertaking. There are all kinds of music that need to sound their best for an audience. That's where great engineers separate from the many who call such an undertaking a job. As with the people who sit behind the boards as bands and artists record their masterpieces, there is also a need for mastering engineers. But interestingly, as the cream of that crop rises to the top, it yields just a small group of notable names. Steve Hoffman is one of those.

In Steve Hoffman's long and storied career, he has put his touch on hundreds of classic recordings, turning them into something better than they may have been before. But mastering is an art form and no simple piece of cake to undertake. Steve Hoffman's involvement, however, seems to assure fans of a particular band whose work is going to be re-mastered that it's going to be okay.

I caught up with Steve Hoffman and asked a series of what I hope were intriguing and probing questions that would provide insightful answers. And while the jury is out on the quality of the questions posed to Steve, his answers certainly were insightful. And therefore, I thank him for taking the time to deliver a fantastic interview, one that we hope you will find interesting.

Everyone who undertakes a musical career, whether as part of a band, a singer, a songwriter, an engineer, even a music journalist, has had a long history of appreciation before they picked up the tools of their trade. What is your history? When did you know that it was going to be music or nothing at all?

Actually I wanted to be in the movie business but had no clue how to do that as a kid. I loved music and, as an only child, my parents made sure I had a good classical music upbringing without the typical “you can’t listen to rock and roll” baggage that other parents inflicted on their kids. I had piano lessons, guitar lessons and picked up the drums naturally.

Of course we all wanted to be in rock bands but had no clue how to actually accomplish that. My parents wanted me to be a doctor so it was tough to figure out what to do. At our local mall, there was a radio station that did remote broadcasts on the weekends and watching the engineer cue up records, etc. was totally fascinating for me. I felt that radio would be a neat thing to be in. Never wanted to be the DJ, just the engineer making it all happen.

Did you undertake any encouraging projects when you were in high school, before going to college to “learn” the technical aspects of your craft?

No, I was a French major in high school! We did start a band — a bunch of music majors and I (the only non-music major) started a jazz-rock band like Chicago. We were pretty good but there was no money in it. My buddy and I also started a bootleg radio station in my room; he built a little transmitter and we broadcast illegally all over the neighborhood until we were snagged!

In college, I was a psych major (which I hated, eventually switched to mass media as a major) and I hung out for fun at the college radio station where I learned everything about broadcasting, the way it worked, the gear that made it work, etc. I learned that all records did not sound the same, some sounded terrible, some better, and sometimes the SAME ALBUM sounded different depending on the pressing.

Every expert mastering engineer had to start somewhere. Where did you get your professional start, and where did you learn your craft professionally?

Getting my MA, I got (through my college radio contacts) a good job as an actual engineer at a real radio station (KMET, Los Angeles) and worked there for a year. I made contact with the record company reps and got a job at a record company (Universal). Since I loved the old stuff, my job there was to mine the back catalog for goodies to reissue. Never planned on being an engineer at all, but I couldn’t help noticing that my projects (which I compiled on paper) sounded pretty bad when actually released. I took a walk to the studio one day to see how mastering was done and stuck my nose right in it, and it’s been there ever since. I started helping master my own compilations.

Often, a great mastering artist has had the benefit of a mentor. Who was yours?

All of the good guys at Universal at that time showed me what to do: Dave Hernandez, Kevin Gray, Steve Hall… These guys taught me their tricks on making stuff sound good. I believe no one had ever asked them before me or was interested. So I was an outsider who came inside. I started working with Marshall Blonstein (of DCC Compact Classics and Audio Fidelity) when CDs came in and I was ready for the change from LP to CD.

Do you do original mastering projects in addition to the remastering that your're well known for? If so, which do you find more difficult to do?

Well, I have done some mastering (first issue stuff) — Great White, Tom Petty, a bunch more. But mastering is mastering to me. The rules of dos and don’ts apply to all, music is music. The only thing different is that the artist (or his representative) is usually breathing down my neck during new product mastering! That makes it tougher, they usually want it louder, brighter, etc. I try and explain what I’m trying to do, and sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t!

When being asked to take on a remastering job, what do you look for? What essential tools are necessary to acquire before you feel comfortable in taking on a project?

Well, I have to do my homework, if that’s what you mean. If it’s a famous album like something by YES, James Taylor, Dylan, McCartney, The Doors, etc., I need to hear what other mastering engineers have done before me. I’ll listen to the first issue, the reissue, etc., to get a handle on what they were going for, compare it to the master tape and then go my own way. It takes time to do it that way but someone spent a lot of time creating an album, so the least I can do is hear what THEY thought sounded good back in the day.

What has been your favorite project to remaster, and why? What made it more special than all the rest?

Well, I’ve mastered thousands of albums, all my little babies. Hard to pick one but recently I got to remaster the seven greatest Nat King Cole Capitol albums for multi-channel SACD and 45 RPM vinyl so I got to remix them as well as master them. It was a real treat to do that with so much great music. Took a year but it was sure fun.

In remastering, what is your primary goal as an engineer to achieve in order for you to feel the job has been done, and done well?

The primary goal is to make the music sound as lifelike as possible. To bring the dead back to life, as it were. To give the music the “breath of life” that so much of it clearly needs. That is what I am best at, what I’m hired for and what I enjoy the most.

What equipment is essential to the art? Are there analog to digital converters that are better than others? What digital equipment do you depend on to give you the best output?

Well, I’ve mastered on old gear, new gear, expensive gear, cheap gear, I can get almost the same result. It’s the operator that makes the difference. I’ve used all types of A/D converters, all different makes, styles. I compensate for each of them in my technique so it doesn’t really matter to me what I work with (I know that sounds weird, but it’s true). I like neutral components that I can manipulate in certain ways to “polish” the sound to my liking. I have used all different studios with all different gear and I think my work from all of them sounds like my work. So there you go!

Is it possible that a remaster could never improve on the original masters of a particular recording? Can elements of analog be lost, perhaps even unrecoverable when converted to digital despite your best efforts to make it better?

A well-kept secret is that most (not all, most) master tapes need something to bring out their best sound. Remember, the “master” is what you use to “master with.” It is NOT the end product, it is simply a work part used to CREATE the final product. So, mastering and remastering are the same thing in that they take the “work part” and create THE MASTER (which is what you play at home). That’s how I see it.

To just take a master tape and transfer it straight to digital or vinyl is not what I do. It won’t serve the music that way, that’s for sure. Now, it’s up to the mastering engineer to know when to quit making something “sound better.” Heh, most engineers do way too much damage to the music that way. The trick is to know when to quit.

Would you feel better about a remastering project if the original artist were heavily involved in the process? I would assume that some might wish to be in the studio to ensure that the sound that is being captured are the sounds he/she originally heard. Have you ever had an artist in the studio as you worked? If so, what was the end result?

Well, let me give you an example of why it’s not usually a good idea to involve the artist in the remastering process, especially if the artist hasn’t heard the music in a long time. I remastered the ABC-Paramount Ray Charles catalog for DCC Compact Classics CDs with Ray himself at his studio. Ray hadn’t heard his famous “Hit the Road, Jack” in a very long time and when we played the master tape he said, “I can sing that a lot better now, let’s wipe off my old vocal track and have me re-record it.”

Needless to say, I talked him out of it but that one little example is a perfect one! Usually the artists have heard of me and leave me along to do my thing. When I worked on the DCC Gold CD series, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce of Cream, the surviving Doors, etc. all loved my remasterings of their stuff. You know you’ve scored a home run when they ask for a bunch of my remasterings for stocking stuffers at Christmas.

Steve Hoffman A.jpg

The name of Steve Hoffman arises in concert with remastered classics from the past. There are many who feel that if you are associated with a project, that that project will immediately be the superior version even to the original. Is that expectation a pressure when you go into the studio to re-mix or remaster a project?

Well, it’s both pressure and a relief. They understand what I do and seem to like it, that’s the relief part. The pressure comes from making sure that I do the very best I can, each and every time.

Throughout the history of recorded music, there have been many engineers that have become stars on their own. They are audio stars not only because of the great artists some have worked with exclusively, who are trusted where none else are, but also because the music that they hear becomes the music that the rest of the world hears. Many of those engineers soon master recordings. Bob Ludwig comes to mind. How do you feel being considered one that can also produce magic in the studio?

Well, traditionally, the recording engineer makes and mixes the album and the mastering engineer does the final stuff because the recording engineer is too close to the project to make objective decisions about the music. I would never even consider actually recording anything (spending a week doing tambourine overdubs would bore me to death) but I don’t really PRODUCE magic in the studio, my job is to FIND the magic buried in the master tapes. If I can do that, it’s a good day for me.

Do you find yourself ever preparing for a new project? Runners stretch the muscles before a run. Do you listen to original master tapes numerous times to get a feel for what is going on in them? Perhaps even listening for things that could have been done better?

As I’ve mentioned above, I listen to the actual master and compare it with the product that has been made from that master over the years. Basically (as I’ve told people before), I fall in love with each and every album I work on. That’s the only way for me to really get into it. Even if I don’t care for the music that much, I find SOMETHING about it that I can love. This helps me carry a project through to completion.

The term “breath of life” is heavily associated with your style of remastering and engineering. Is this a term that you coined, or one that was quoted in reference to your audio work on classic recording?

I coined it, yes. I try to explain to people that my goal is to make your ears believe that a living, breathing person is standing in front of you singing even though your logical brain is telling you that this person has been dead for 50 years and it’s just music coming out of the stereo. If it sounds like it could be real instead of just a recording, I’ve done my job and the music has my “breath of life.”

SACD has been around for quite a while, although in a diminished role. Regardless, there are fans of the format who will not go away. Do you feel that SACD is the best way to listen to old classic recordings? Or has the technology of the studio improved to such a degree that even CDs can rival an SACD's output?

Oh, I love to listen to vinyl, CDs, SACDs, whatever I feel like at the moment. I can bring out the very best in any format but my technique in mastering the compact disk is pretty up there. I would think that it would be hard to tell in a blind test what you were listening to if you compared my masterings of the same thing in both digital formats.

Is there an album out there in the wild that you feel can be enhanced, something that hasn't been done yet?

Beatles, Rolling Stones. The current remasterings are pretty good but since they are meant for the average consumer and not the audiophile, certain compromises were made that I don’t love.

A lot of your work is done with Audio Fidelity. How did that relationship develop?

SteveHoffmanAtBoard.jpgMarshall Blonstein (of Dunhill Records, Ode Records, etc.) hired me when CDs came in to master a bunch for his company. We’ve been working together ever since. His current company Audio Fidelity is dedicated to getting the best “audiophile style” sound out of classic music that we all love so much.

I’ve recently remastered so much good stuff for AF. Off the top of my head: Phil Collins, Dylan, Bad Company, Big Brother & The Holding Co. with Janis Joplin, Billy Joel, Doors, Joe Walsh, YES, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Doobie Brothers, Ten Years After, James Taylor, Beach Boys, Byrds, Linda Ronstadt, Faces, Deep Purple and on and on. All great stuff!

How do you keep up on the improving industry equipment? Do you appreciate certain studios more because they utilize the most current equipment? Or, I should really ask, do you own your own studio where you do all of your work?

Well, I read the mags, scan the ‘Net, see what mastering studios are buying, but really, I work a lot with VINTAGE EQUIPMENT and especially vacuum tube gear. This stuff ain’t new, in fact a lot of it is older than I am! A nice mix of old and new gear is my norm.

I'm a stereo purist myself. I believe that most artists worked in stereo and so envisioned their recordings in that way. However, there are bands that are easily the exception to this rule because if they had multi-channel recording, they would have used them. What are your feelings about surround 5.1 re-mixing?

It’s very hard, very, very hard to get the feel of an original mix. I avoid doing this whenever possible. I’ve done a few (Nat King Cole and some others) but only really old stuff without too many “tracks” to screw up in mixing. The problem with 5.1 is not really the remixing part, it’s the consumer part.

We as engineers have NO control whatsoever as to how a consumer is going to be listening to the music. If you don’t sit in the exact correct “sweet spot”, any 5.1 mixing efforts will be totally wasted. If the consumer doesn’t have five EXACT matching speakers the efforts will be wasted. Too many things to do wrong on the consumer end. That’s why Phil Spector liked mono. No one can mess that up at home!

Tell me about original master tapes. There are some circulating horror stories about the quality of original master tapes, Are they scary to work with? Did they age well? What tricks do you have to employ to get them to play back as you want them to?

Horror stories? Not really. Most old tapes are very robust. I’ve worked with stuff from the 1940s that still play perfectly. It’s the stuff from the middle 1970s and later that have problems due to the switch from natural to artificial lubricant. Those tapes need to be baked in an oven to get them to play at all. But everything from 1973 and OLDER play fine usually, if stored properly. That’s irony for you.

There seems to be a new trend, however small a trend it is, of going back to the multi-track tapes, cleaning them up, and then remixing them into a “new” product. Steve Wilson, who is a rising star in remastering and re-mixing progressive classics, re-mixed Jethro Tull's Aqualung to amazing results. How do you feel about re-mixing versus remastering?

Can’t stand it. Usually what happens is that eventually the remix replaces the original beloved version until the remix is heard on the radio and is the only version that one can buy unless one collects an old LP or something. Hate the trend. The original mix is the work of art.

One doesn’t add hot pink to a da Vinci just because it’s the color of the month. And if someone says that all they are trying to do is reproduce the old classic mix but with better sound, I say: Remaster the old classic mix and don’t try to tamper with music history. I wish this trend would GO AWAY. Can’t blame the record companies and artists for trying to make some money on their catalog in a new way though.

Thanks so much for your time. We know that you're busy and therefore appreciate you taking the time to enlighten fans of reissues and remasters as to your experiences and expertise. Are there any projects that you're currently working on that you can clue us in on?

All top secret until released! Sorry!

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Matt Rowe began his life with an AM radio, listening to anything that was considered music. Since, he has labored intently to build a collection of music, paring it down, rebuilding, and refining as he sees fit. His decided goal is to keep up with new music by panning for the nuggets among literal mountains…

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