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How does fan remastering of bootlegs work?


Guest WD52
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Guest WD52

I was wondering how these fan remastered stuff can be done? I always thought you needed multi track tapes or more than one source to be able to remaster stuff. As far as I am aware each bootleg is  a single recording tape or pressed cd. Is there software out there that lets you isolate each instrument or do the fan remasterings just change the treble/bass etc like a glorified Dolby system/graphic equaliser? Am intrigued how it is done.

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Although definitions vary, to me a remaster is just changing the sound characteristics of an existing record (more bass, less treble, adding reverb, etc.), while remixing is changing the layout of the instruments in the stereo field (e.g. moving the guitar to the right channel.) Within the past couple of years, software has been released that can analyze a recording and create an individual track for each instrument. Those tracks are called stems, and once you have them you can remix the instruments into any positions you want. For a straight-forward rock song (e.g Sick Again), it allows you to move Jimmy's guitar from the center in a mono soundboard recording to the right channel, which creates a stereo recording. If you stopped at that point, you would have a recording that sounded exactly like the original mono recording, but with the guitar off to the right. It's interesting, but not much better than the mono recording from which it came.

However, that's also the point at which the fun begins. After you move the guitar in to the right channel, you can also add some of that same right channel guitar into the left channel. That gives the guitar a much fuller sound, although it's still mostly in the right channel. It's also pretty much of a necessity because if the guitar isn't in the left channel at all, the recording sounds unnatural. You can also add reverb to the guitars without making the other instruments sound far away. Or you can run an invert on the guitar signal in the left channel, which creates the sound of the guitar moving slightly in the 3/21/75 sample below. You can also do things like reduce the cymbals without impacting the vocals, or or add more bass guitar without making the kick drum overwhelming. Basically, you can do the same mixing that would be applied to multi-tracks, because you now have the instruments in their own tracks.

All of that would make for a much more exciting listen than the mono recording, but for it to sound really good you need to remaster it. In this stage, you're impacting all of the instruments simultaneously, trying to put a final polish on the song. In true multi-track recordings which might have been recorded in different studios, this step would also see you trying to make each of the songs on the album sound similar so you can't tell they were recorded in different places. For a soundboard recording, that's not an issue because it's a single performance. However, soundboards have problems of their own that need to be addressed in this stage. They typically do not contain any of the reverb or other effects that would have been added before the sound was sent to the PA. That's why soundboards are typically referred to as "dry" (the sound also reverberates through the arena, which reinforces the mechanical reverb and is one of the reasons why well recorded audience recordings can sound better than soundboards.) Soundboards normally have a bunch of other issues too, so remastering them takes a much firmer touch than would normally be applied to true multi-tracks. Here are some examples of what's described above. All of them have been remixed as described below and remastered:

3/14/69: Guitar moved to right channel and a little of the right channel guitar mixed into the left channel:

3/21/75 - Copy of right guitar put in left channel and Invert function run on left channel:

LA '75 - The software that created the stems put the theremin in the same stem as the vocals. Because of that, the swirling freakout effect was created by varying the volume in the left and right sides of that stem:

 

Edited by SteveZ98
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Great info from Steve!

On a more basic level, mono and stereo audience and soundboard sources have been "remastered" for a long time. The most common technique is probably EQ, changing the frequency energy with an equalizer plugin or a similar tool. Graphic EQ can boost or cut specific frequency ranges to alter the overall balance of the source, adding high-end sparkle, cutting excessively boomy low end, or boosting or cutting the midrange to change the loudness of much of Plant's vocals and Page's guitar relative to Bonham and Jones. Parametric EQ allows more fine control over the frequency range that's boosted or cut, and is often used to, for example, add some snap to the snare drum without altering the overall sound of the midrange, or to tame an overpowering bass frequency without cutting the overall level of bass on the recording.

When the source is a stereo one, especially a soundboard where the stereo separation is clearly audible, some folks will also EQ each channel separately, to further contrast or clarify the instruments that are more dominant in each channel. That's sort of a  "poor man's remixing." Conversely, if a stereo soundboard has excessive or bizarre separation, as a few of the older Zep soundboards do, folks will sometimes narrow the apparent stereo channel difference by doing a version of what Steve notes above, either narrowing the L-R spread in an audio editor, or else making a duplicate of the stereo source, flipping the channels, lowering the volume of the flipped version, and mixing it back in with the original. The result is added L-R channel crosstalk, which can "knit together" a source in the right situation.

Beyond that, reverb is often added to soundboard sources, since most of them are "dry" and lack both the hall ambience and some of the reverb effects that might have been applied to the voice and instruments in the sound setup. 

Compression is also an oft-used technique. Somewhat similarly to parametric EQ, some of the most skilled fan remasterers will apply compression to multiple, relatively narrow frequency ranges (multi band compression) to liven up or sharpen up the sound without adding excess compression to the entire thing. 

Noise reduction is sometimes used to reduce tape hiss, although it's very easy to overdo this and many purists are against any noise reduction ever being used at all.

Finally, there are a couple of less-often used techniques. One, which I believe Steve uses or has used in the past, is an exciter plugin. An exciter adds distortion to the signal, but it adds only even-order (or maybe just 2nd order, I can't recall) harmonic distortion, so what it's designed to do is increase the high end sparkle of a source by synthesizing sounds at double the original frequency of the sound. So if a soundboard tape has very little energy above, say, 7kHz (as is sometimes the case, especially with pre-1972 soundboards for Zep), an exciter can create 8kHz harmonics from 4kHz sounds, 11kHz harmonics from 5.5kHz sounds, 14kHz harmonics from 7kHz sounds, and so on. The restored harmonics extend the treble, brighten and liven up the sound, increase the body and volume (since new sounds are being added all over in the form of those new harmonics), and potentially increase the feeling of air and ambience (since 2nd order harmonics are known to increase the perception of ambience - which is why some folks like tubes in their stereos even though tubes are not as accurate as well-designed solid-state gear). The problem with exciters when used on something like a 1960s/70s soundboard tape is that the tape doesn't just have pure fundamental musical notes on it - it also has a ton of distortion, from Page's and Jones' guitar effects boxes, from the amplifiers (in that era the signal chain was often stage amp to stage mic to soundboard, so you had the amp and mic distorting the signal on the way), and from the original tape recorder and tape plus any tape copying steps over the years. All those distorted sounds get new harmonics generated by an exciter too, and sometimes the result can be a bunch of treble distortion that makes the entire thing sound like a hash. In some situations, though, and used judiciously, an exciter can produce an interesting effect.

Another, even less-frequently used technique is highly effective but incredibly labor-intensive, and I know of only one guy who uses it: he samples the very brief transients when Bonham hits the snare drum and cymbals on an official live Zep release, and he goes through the entire bootleg soundboard source and inserts the transients whenever appropriate, literally restoring the missing treble transients that were either not recorded on the original tape, or have been lost as the tape was copied over the years. I can't even imagine how long it takes him to do that, but it works and it never sounds fake.

And a third is adding audience noise to a soundboard source to better simulate the feeling of a live show or official-release live album. Typically the audience noise is either copied from elsewhere on the soundboard source (like at the very beginning or ending of the show), or else "flown in" from the between-song applause from The Song Remains the Same. It's usually faded up as a song ends, left up throughout the break and the beginning of the next song, and then faded out as the next song really gets going.

Edited by tmtomh
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Wow, tmtomh did a really nice job of explaining the details. I do use an exciter on each remaster, although I'm trying to use it less than I did when I first started out because it definitely solves some problems and causes others. The main thing that determines a lot of the final result is what the person who is doing the work is trying to achieve. Some folks want to bring out the best of each tape, particularly for audience recordings where a lot of time and effort was put into tracking down the master or low gen copy. Because of that, they'll limit their efforts to trying to fix problems with the tape without totally changing how it sounds. This is relatively straightforward when you're working on a single tape. However, it can get complicated when multiple sources are merged together and you need to fix different problems on each one while also giving them a sense of cohesion so the sound doesn't change radically from one source to the next.

I work primarily on soundboards. My goal isn't to improve the sound of the source but to fundamentally transform it so the final result gives some tiny fraction of a hint of what it would have been like to be in the arena the night of the show. It's an impossible goal, but it's what I'm shooting for and it calls for a much more radical approach than I would use if my aims were different. And a lot of my results are dependent on the tour the soundboard was taken from. For example, the '75 and '77 shows are pretty easy to work with. The ones from '73 are harder but not impossible. Most of the ones from the very early '70s (Orlando '71, etc.) don't sound too good, although I am happy with the 9/29/71 remaster I'll be releasing soon. And the 1980 shows just don't come out well at all. I'm not sure why, but no matter what I do to them they never sound much different than they did before I worked on them.  

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5 hours ago, WD52 said:

Another massive thanks for the information, really time consuming process by the sound of it. 

It can take a lot of time. For me, one of the main reasons is the "bootleg ears" phenomenon where your hearing adjusts to whatever you're listening to. I've got dozens of versions of each show I've remastered that I thought were great only to listen to them later to realize they weren't even good, much less great. Another issue is that it's very easy to make something sound different, but determining whether the change was an improvement or not is hard. What would help is having some sort of standard to measure against. The official live albums seem like they'd work for that, but which one? If you go with The Song Remains The Same, do you use the version from 1976 or one of the later ones? And they sound different than How The West Was Won, which also has an original version and a later one. Not to mention Celebration Day, which sounds radically different than the other two. And then what about the audio from the official DVD, which has performances from a variety of years that all sound very different from each other? I gave up on using any of them, probably to my detriment, unless I'm working on something that is from one of those shows or right near them in time.

Luckily, most of remastering is a blast. My consistent experience is that the better you can make a show sound, the more it makes you appreciate how good the performance was. In the case of the '75 and '77 shows in particular, bringing out the low end really gives you the ability to hear much more of what Jonsey and Bonzo were doing and understand just how great they were as individual musicians and how well they worked together as a rhythm section. I think a lot of shows, especially the ones from later tours, are judged solely on Jimmy's playing, not just because he's the guitarist in a form of music that's guitar-based, but because his instrument is pretty much the only one that was adequately captured in the recordings we have from those shows. When you remaster them and give everyone in the band a chance to shine, you get to appreciate just how great the band was, and that even in the latter years which might not be held in as high esteem as the earlier ones you still had three world class instrumentalists giving it their all each night, playing at a level that most musicians could never dream of. Which makes all of the headaches that come with remastering totally worth it.

Edited by SteveZ98
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Guest WD52

What do you listen back to through Steve? It's a constant bugbear of mine that people make comments about the quality of sound of something without then saying what they are using to listen. This really bugs me about vinyl-where people try to convince me that vinyl sounds better than cd-then tell me they are listening to it through a player and cartridge that cost about £100 (with the cartridge damaging the vinyl on every play). Likewise bootleg cds. The cheaper the system the worse the boot sounds.  I would love to hear some of your stuff through my cd player-Roksan Caspian M2 CD or Musical Fidelity A5.5 depending on mood....but not through my computer!

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51 minutes ago, WD52 said:

What do you listen back to through Steve? It's a constant bugbear of mine that people make comments about the quality of sound of something without then saying what they are using to listen. This really bugs me about vinyl-where people try to convince me that vinyl sounds better than cd-then tell me they are listening to it through a player and cartridge that cost about £100 (with the cartridge damaging the vinyl on every play). Likewise bootleg cds. The cheaper the system the worse the boot sounds.  I would love to hear some of your stuff through my cd player-Roksan Caspian M2 CD or Musical Fidelity A5.5 depending on mood....but not through my computer!

I sent you a PM about my system. One of the things I struggle with is that I can never know what one of my remasters will sound like on another person's system. The biggest issue is the bass. I'm trying to make it have a big impact without being bloated and that's a fine line to walk. My solution to that problem is to listen to each remaster I'm contemplating releasing in my car and on our home theater system, in addition to the system I use during the remastering process. The car stereo is the stock unit that came with the car and isn't great, but it's good at telling me if the bass is overwhelming. And the home theater is good at letting me know how it will sound on a conventional stereo (as opposed to the desktop system I use for remastering.)

Edited by SteveZ98
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Guest WD52

Thanks for the PM, have replied. The variety of systems people listen through must be a real challenge for you. Sometimes a I think people are commenting more on the quality of their system playback than accurately about a bootleg (or official release). I tailored my system to how I like to hear stuff-detail, spacing and bass fairly lean. I guess your stuff would sound tight through that. Oddly some commercially available remastered stuff for groups sounds horribly harsh through my system, but ok in the car. As if the remastering is aimed at a generic low cost system for maximum sales?!

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16 minutes ago, WD52 said:

Thanks for the PM, have replied. The variety of systems people listen through must be a real challenge for you. Sometimes a I think people are commenting more on the quality of their system playback than accurately about a bootleg (or official release). I tailored my system to how I like to hear stuff-detail, spacing and bass fairly lean. I guess your stuff would sound tight through that. Oddly some commercially available remastered stuff for groups sounds horribly harsh through my system, but ok in the car. As if the remastering is aimed at a generic low cost system for maximum sales?!

The hard part about working with recordings is they're all impacted by the system through which they're played and all systems are different. If you ever look at a picture of a professional sound studio you'll see they have a bunch of different speakers. The reason for that is so they can hear how a song sounds on a variety of speakers. If it only sounds good on expensive speakers then they need to work on it some more because most people are listening on less expensive speakers or cheap headphones or in their car with all the road noise. One of the most common speakers you'll see in a studio, at least older ones, is the Yamaha NS10. Apparently they sound terrible, but the thought was that if you could make a song sound good on them, it would sound good on anything.

https://www.soundonsound.com/reviews/yamaha-ns10-story

 

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Guest WD52

Lol makes a kind of sense I guess. Also any studio picture I have seen uses bookshelf rather than floorstanders as their reference ones. It does make you wonder how they figure out the 'ideal' sound. At least with your work on Zep you are dealing with improving an imperfect source rather than ideal one.

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  • 2 weeks later...

When I'm cleaning up old audience tapes I swear by Sound Forge 13 and Audacity. Sometimes it's easier to do than others. Patching and editing sources can be a time consuming, monotonous endeavor. Of course in the end it's all worth it if you end up with something like "the definitive version" of a given show...and there's always the chance of having yer work bootlegged, which has happened to myself and a few other of the amateur audio engineers here...shit, look at Moonchild making a fortune (as it were) off of Winston's work😆

You know the Pride Of Chelsea Tempe '77 boot? Yeah, they used my 'remaster' for that one...what the fuck, I don't care, IMO I made the goddamn show listenable and, as a result, the performance managed to undergo a bit of reappraisal. 

Oddly enough probably the best work I think I did on an audience recording was the ELP Baton Rouge '74 show I put up over at Trader's Den when I did my little "Freezer Flood" there about a month back...there were two different versions of Freezer's tape circulating at that point, and both had audio issues- one was hissy as hell and had a couple of cuts in it (I suspect said cuts were how Freezer 'marked' that version) and the other, though less hissy, had an audible warble (tape issues of some kind or another) throughout, yet it was complete, so I used that to patch the other source once I'd taken some of the overriding hiss out of it (thank god for whoever invented the "Low Pass Filter".) Ended up sounding good, if I do say so myself, I figure I did justice to the recording and, given that I really wan't a big Emerson, Lake and Palmer fan before that I managed to gain a bit of an appreciation for those three lunatics as well after hearing the thing so many times...

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6 hours ago, SteveZ98 said:

Sample of the 9/29/71 stereo remaster. I just need to tie up a couple of loose ends and then I'll post it.

 

Sounds great!  Can't wait to hear the rest!  I love that version of "Communication Breakdown" too...

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1 hour ago, John M said:

Wow.  This sounds amazing!

Thank's. It's taken me almost two years to get it to sound like that, although two-thirds of that time was before the I found out how to remix it into stereo. I wish I could do these things more quickly and get the same sound quality, but it just never works out that way.

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Congrats, Steve! The punch and oomph are amazing, but somehow the stereo image of the old Stage/multi  dub makes me wonder how a true matrix of SB and multi would sound. I tried it myself on audacity for only one  track (Communication B) but synchronizing the two source seems impossible (yes, I have no stamina 😉

 

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39 minutes ago, duckman said:

Congrats, Steve! The punch and oomph are amazing, but somehow the stereo image of the old Stage/multi  dub makes me wonder how a true matrix of SB and multi would sound. I tried it myself on audacity for only one  track (Communication B) but synchronizing the two source seems impossible (yes, I have no stamina 😉

 

Thanks. The only luck I've ever had synchronizing anything was a Japan 1996Page/Plant show. That was easy because the two sources ran at the exact same speed, so it was just a matter of lining them up at the start of each song and then they would stay together for the duration. I tried doing the same thing with some Zep shows but the audience tapes never line up with soundboards, and even if you can get them in synch, they often quickly drift apart. That's one of the main reasons I started focusing just on remastering soundboards. I really like the way the crowd noise brings life to a matrix, but I just don't have the patience to do them. 

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Thanks Steve and tmtomh, very interesting and informative!

That Osaka 71 stereo sample sounds really great, and I can’t wait to hear more... the fact that it’s my favorite show of all time has nothing to do with it 😉

Sincere thanks once again.

Edited by White Phone
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15 hours ago, SteveZ98 said:

Thanks. The only luck I've ever had synchronizing anything was a Japan 1996Page/Plant show. That was easy because the two sources ran at the exact same speed, so it was just a matter of lining them up at the start of each song and then they would stay together for the duration. I tried doing the same thing with some Zep shows but the audience tapes never line up with soundboards, and even if you can get them in synch, they often quickly drift apart. That's one of the main reasons I started focusing just on remastering soundboards. I really like the way the crowd noise brings life to a matrix, but I just don't have the patience to do them. 

Which 96 show Steve? I’d be interested in hearing it

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5 hours ago, Xolo1974 said:

Which 96 show Steve? I’d be interested in hearing it

I don't think I ever finished it. It was more of an experiment to see if modern audience DAT recordings are easier to work with in a matrix than analog tapes from the '70s. Turns out they are a lot easier. There was no speed variation at all between the DAT and the soundboard from the show. 

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