Shai Fishman is a composer, performer, multi-instrumentalist and sound engineer. He has composed music for museums, feature films and is one of the creators of The Voca People, an international a capella group that has appeared on the Italian X-Factor and has had millions of YouTube views for clips of its performances.
At Amoeba, he’s helped to digitize Amoeba’s collection of vintage vinyl and 78s for exclusive download at Amoeba.com’s Vinyl Vaults. Right now Amoeba is featuring more than 100 remastered songs by jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong, first released from 1923-1926. I spoke with Fishman about the digitizing and remastering process.
Amoeba: Can you take me through some of the basics of converting vinyl to digital? What are some of the concerns when dealing with older vinyl?
Fishman: As far is converting vinyl to digital media, the main concern is high-fidelity digitizing. We need to make sure that the analog recording process is done in such quality that it reproduces the signature vinyl sound we all love so much, in an authentic way, while still enjoying all the benefits of digital media.
Our digitizing allows for 96 KHz and 24 bit audio sampling resolution, which is more than enough to reproduce vinyl and at the same time allows us to have some room to manipulate the wave file, if need be.
When dealing with old vinyl the main concern is eliminating the noise that exists on copies that are older than 30 or 40 (roughly) years. That noise profile may be a simple surface noise, clicks, pops, crackle or any other intricate profile that we have to deal with in order to produce a digital copy that is in keeping with today’s sound standard.
Amoeba: Once a song is transferred to digital, what goes into cleaning it up? How is the process used here different from, say, the average person using their record player to convert their own vinyl to digital?
Fishman: If you were to digitize at home, using your own equipment you would have an actual reproduction of the vinyl (not in a good way), with all the hiss and crackle that comes with it.
But what do you do when your vinyl is noisy or just very old and sounds like it? The answer is that you would have to use a certain amount of outboard gear (if you have it and know how to use it and assuming you have upwards of $20,000 to spend on a good system) or an elaborate chain of computer based plug-ins, but at the same time you would want to keep the original signal untouched. Sometimes, even for us, it may prove to be next to impossible to eliminate all the noise, since getting rid of it almost always involves getting rid of a little bit of the original signal as well. And I’m not even talking about eliminating uneven static or trying to bring forward some of the vocals that are lost when restoring old 78 RPM LPs.
The quality of our work when cleaning up old vinyl is based on our ability to maintain and preserve the original signal while getting rid of the unwanted noise profile.
Amoeba: How do you approach the process of remastering? Do you try to retain the original sound of the record and maximize its volume or try to make individual parts come out more that might have been obscured previously, or is it just different per song?
Fishman: Remastering is yet another part of our work with Amoeba. In addition to snapping, digitizing and cleaning the noise out of the recordings, we also enhance and remaster a lot of them, which at their current state do not stand the test of time.
The consumer today is used to a certain amount of volume and compression; to a high-fidelity sound, rich with bass and treble, bright and punchy, that we all know from the radio. It is very hard to achieve using recordings from vinyl. We try to maintain the original sound with the utmost respect to the artist’s intention and compliment the frequencies that have been lost or diminished while transferring the master on to vinyl or during the digitizing process.
You can say that we “bring back” the frequencies that have always been there but are missing from the vinyl recording, making any vinyl album sound like it was recorded today and released on a CD.
Sometime, the remastering and enhancement process is done with the purpose of complementing the low-end or high-end frequencies and a lot of times it is designed to fix or correct a specific problem in a certain area of frequencies, like the mid-range for vocals that are incorrectly mixed or just missing due to the vinyl copy being old.
Amoeba: Were there any records in particular that piqued your interest during this process?
Fishman: In the course of five years, I would say we’ve remastered, enhanced and cleaned more than a million songs, so naturally, we came across so many titles that were interesting and unique.
It is so interesting to me to be doing this kind of work as I get to discover so many wonderful artists and music from all around the world. It’s especially interesting for us to discover how different regions of the world in different periods of time have produced mixes and arrangements that are unique to that region and subsequently require a different set of skills when enhancing or remastering with great care, as we do.
Amoeba: How would a listener benefit from downloading in M4A or WAV file as opposed to MP3? What are the differences, and what is your preferred format?
Fishman: In layman’s terms, MP3 versus WAV is like comparing regular TV to high-definition TV (WAV being high-definition). It is, in fact, the full resolution of the audio recording, in which you have all the information that was initially on the original master. An MP3 is a compressed version, created with the purpose of making the file smaller for Internet transfer or streaming. Even the highest resolution, MP3 does not equal a WAV file, meaning, you have lost some data, even if you can’t hear it (mostly, you can, especially if you have dealt with WAV files in the past, or you’re just used to playing your CDs at home and not streaming your music from YouTube or through your iPod/iPad).
Amoeba: With the Louis Armstrong 78s, were there any specific challenges in dealing with that massive body of work?
Fishman: Definitely, Louis Armstrong is our flagship project. Not only did we have many challenges, but we had to invent technology in order to clean and remaster some of his old recordings.
A lot of Louis Armstrong recordings have been around since the 1920s and 1930s. Naturally, with these kind of recordings (all on 78 RPM vinyl), even the mint copy will surely have surface noise, crackle, pops, clicks, skips and, often, uneven spiral surface noise that needs massive noise reduction treatment and many times even reproduction of lost signal, like bringing back vocals through instrumentation and making a mono recording into stereo.
Amoeba: As recording methods were still developing at the time of the Louis Armstrong recordings, were you able to note the development of recording quality over the course of the 1923-1933 period included in Vinyl Vaults, from acoustical early recordings to the development of electrical recording?
Fishman: Absolutely. The evolution of sound recording is apparent throughout the 20th century and is very much a part of the Louis Armstrong catalog. On Amoeba.com, you will find recordings from the pre-microphone era to his late recordings with pristine sound in the studio.
Our goal was to level the playing field, so to speak — trying to complement and enhance the old recordings and make them sound the same way Louis wanted them to sound, if you were sitting there, in the studio, right in front of him, listening to him play and sing.
The old 78 LPs do not allow you that pleasure. We try to do it ourselves with respect to the natural sound and original intent of the sound engineers and Louis Armstrong himself, meaning, we try to create a product that is basically “the way it sounded back then, acoustically.”
Amoeba: Can you point to any particular songs, Louis Armstrong or otherwise, where song quality was able to be greatly improved from before?
Fishman: Quite a few:
“As Time Goes By”
“Swinging on a Star”
And many, many more...