Jason Bitner has been the mastering engineer for many of our releases going back to 2015. We sat down with him recently to learn more about the finer details of audio restoration.
How did you get into remastering and restoring vintage music?
I was working in band instrument repair for many years and really wanted to change direction somehow. Going into museum studies was something that I was considering. The idea of being a conservator was really appealing to be honest, but the barriers to entry in that world are very high. You basically need three degrees in multiple disciplines, and time was not on my side.
But, I made it a point to buy a copy of The Guardian every Friday and one week there was an article about the discovery and subsequent transfer and restoration of a previously unknown body of work by the composer Delia Derbyshire. I read that and thought “damn that’s cool, I want to do that”. I still have the article framed and on my wall by the way!
I started working out how to do transfers from records and tapes with some equipment that I would not even think about using today for sure.
Then one morning there was a segment on NPR about a national museum of Hip Hop opening in the Bronx. That’s when I started seriously looking for a recording program that would give me the tools I needed to get into the game.
There was no real curriculum in the field of audio preservation at the time, so thanks to the mentors I met along the way I was able to at the very least get a good understanding of best practices and who to talk to further to get better at the work at hand.
So, to kind of answer that question, I was trying to break my way into academia, but somehow ended up working at a very supportive company that gave me the freedom to learn a lot of the techniques I’ve been working on since the first time I tried to declick an LP.
I can’t stress enough that a positive attitude, and exposing yourself to as many situations as possible are the driving factors to success in any field, and this one is no exception.
The first time I met Deano Sounds was on a remix session that I kind of begged the engineer to let me assist on after helping him do some file management.
What's your ideal format to have the source material from i.e. master tape, vinyl, digital master, etc?
Every project is different, and the best source material for the project is the best source material you can find.
Sometimes that means using segments of a song from multiple copies of a record from all corners of the earth, and yes I’ve done just that.
As long as everyone makes an attempt to use the best practices that they can, something can usually happen.
Obviously having a nice flat transfer of the master mix down reel is ideal, but as we both know even that can be troublesome.
What's been your favorite Cultures of Soul reissue to work on so far? Your favorite project overall?
I don’t play favorites, but for Cultures Of Soul it was probably the Japanese Boogie compilation. Really well recorded material and it was a blast to listen to.
I also really enjoyed bringing the Shengo Dance Band back to life.
That was on Comb And Razor, and was a real beast! The record was in a fire, and recovered by Uchenna somehow. It was really challenging, and I think I would do a much better job with it today, but I feel that way about most of the projects I do.
Can you tell me any interesting stories while working on any of these projects? What's been the most difficult source material to work from?
Nothing too exciting really. I feel like I’m always trying to learn better ways to do things, and expanding my palette with respect to different sources. I recently moderated a panel to the Audio Engineering Society’s annual conference that focused on archiving the 90’s and some of the early digital tools that hit the market bin the early 90’s.
There was digital before that for sure, but these technologies such as Alesis ADAT allowed for creativity and quality to be in the hands of a lot more engineers. I liken it to the second major democratization in home recording, following the Tascam 4 track and 8 track open reel decks, and on to the Tascam 4 track and 8 track cassette recorders that followed those.
These early digital technologies really allowed for more recordings to happen, and at a level of quality that was only really accessible to studios with much larger budgets. But sadly the machines that were used to record onto these formats have a lifespan, and often the tapes are fussy to playback. So, I'm trying to raise awareness of the importance of migrating these formats.
What tips do you have for new audio engineers or producers trying to bring life back into these recordings from years ago?
Try to stay out of the way / resist the temptation to make an older recording sound too modern. As we have been seeing with some of the more famous pieces of back catalog re-masters are trending more toward authenticity and less toward making them sound like something they are not.
If you are working on the restoration side, I’d recommend starting with the best possible source. Clean the record using the best practice you can. Center the record on the platter any way that you can. And use the best tools to capture with. These suggestions don’t only apply to records, use good technique and you will get good results.
As for the audio restoration side, the tools just keep getting better and practice makes perfect!
Do 10 small moves instead of 2 large moves, and don’t work destructively.
In other words, always have a plan to go back a couple steps in a cleanup to save time when you listen to what you did last night and wonder what exactly you were thinking.
What does the future hold for restoring vintage music? Where will the technology take us?
I think I covered a lot of that answer above, but I will say that I’m very curious about just how far the optical playback systems are going to go.
I’ve heard some things done from discs that would be unplayable otherwise, and they sounded pretty good considering. But I’d love to see improvements in that already amazing technology.
Any other closing thoughts?
Get into the room, get people to recognize your talents, practice and be ready to listen to a lot of material that you might not love.
Treat every project like you love the material though!