Saturday, January 2, 2010

(more than) A few words about this blog...

Origins of the blog

This blog is a place to download free and legal audience recordings of Phish shows, which I have "remastered" via ghetto-fabulous processes in hopes of a more enjoyable listening experience. I do not post any copyright-protected material here (which should be obvious, since no audience recordings are copyright-protected).

I first fell in love with Phish and the ritual of zoning out to crazy Phish jams on worn-out analog cassette tapes around 1993/1994. A lot of the pre-'94 shows I got through trades were SBDs, but pretty much all the current shows I got on tape were AUDs (aside from the FM broadcast NYE shows). Even though my 4th or 5th generation tapes were full of hiss and lacking much dynamic range, I wrapped my head inside them and felt the chills down my spine as I heard the crowd roar...whether it was the 3rd triumphant peak in the 10/31/94 Divided Sky or the acoustic -> electric switch on the 10/18/94 Llama w/ Bela Fleck, hearing the crowd react made it easier for me to transport myself to the show than a SBD ever could. I'm not saying I listen more for the crowd noise than the music onstage, but as we all know a Phish show is a communal experience. There's nothing like the collective energies of thousands of phans coming together and exploding with joy/ecstasy/gleeful madness/pick your emotion as a result of what is channeling through the musical vessels onstage. Hearing that energy on the recordings brings me closer to that state when I'm stuck in the car or the train, or in my simple abode.

Flash forward to 2010 and we have instant SBDs of all shows, and even the old AUDs are available in lossless, "master" quality. We've become spoiled with audio and video quality as the technology has made quantum leaps. As a result, we may not be as pleased with the sound of many AUDs right off the bat...unless we take the time (or even have the capability) to fiddle with EQ settings or bass/treble knobs (don't try that while me), many AUDs come off sounding muffled and bass-heavy. It can be difficult enough appreciating the nuances in an AUD recorded at a huge arena; a less-than-optimal recording magnifies that quandary. The tapers have given us such a wealth of great music by doing what they do, and none of this would be possible without them. However the bottom line remains that even the best techniques possible and the best gear money can buy cannot always produce a crisp, dynamic AUD - especially when you're dealing with the size, acoustics, and taping locations of some of these venues.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is that each AUD has its own sonic quality - some louder than others, some clearer than others. It can be a pain listening to a mix of live tracks, or switching from show to show, having to constantly play with the EQ to find the best sound for each source.

Last year when I started seeing some other Phish-centric blogs popping up, I couldn't believe there weren't already a dozen doing AUD remasters. With such a rabid fan base, with such a bounty of shows to choose from, and with technology making it pretty easy, I was amazed that something like this already didn't exist.


Concept & goal of the blog

So, what I've tried to do here is share with all of you what I've been doing for myself for a while now: I take each source and search for that "sweet spot", bag it, tag it, and know that I can pop it in whatever audio player or stereo I want to and not have to search for that spot ever again. Of course, this is all subjective and will vary from person to person, but I've been told by enough friends that I have a good ear and should try to do this on a regular basis to make it a worthwhile endeavor. And if you think one of my remasters is a bit off, at least it should take smaller increments on the bass and treble knobs to "fix" it than if you were starting with the original source.

Also of note is the general rule of thumb that the better your stereo system is, the less likely you'll benefit from my remasters over the original sources.  Honestly, my remasters will likely sound a bit harsh on a great system.  That's because an audiophile-grade system will be capable of reproducing the entire frequency spectrum more naturally, and you would have less need to tweak the EQ settings to find a pleasing sound quality.  In almost all of my remasters, I have jacked the high end significantly since so many AUDs sound soft or flat to me (based on my equipment and ears, and personal preference).  This effect may come across as overtly bright and fatiguing on your ears if you have a top-shelf system.  That said, I realize the majority of phans (like myself) don't have audiophile-grade systems and have succumbed to the trends of portability and convenience while still maintaining "good enough" audio quality.  Whether size, cost, or both is the issue, most people these days listen over headphones, computer speakers, or car stereos.  I know, custom aftermarket car stereos can be high grade, but you know many Phish heads pimping those trunk-filling speaker cabinets and mega subwoofers?  Neither do I.   Bottom line, if you're listening back on more standard equipment like mine, I think you'll find my remasters an improvement both in dynamic range and volume.  At least that's my hope.

Anyway, hopefully you will be able to appreciate what I've done. Those who prefer to start with the original lossless sources themselves and find what they consider the best sound will continue to do so, and I encourage it. But I know there are a ton of folks that don't have the time, patience, know-how, etc to do that and just want to be pointed in the right direction of the best sounding source for a given show. Again "best" is subjective, but you get the picture.


What's up with this blog's name? What's this about "ghetto-fab"?

I'm glad to say I've received a lot of very positive feedback on the blog and the remasters thus far, so I'm going to keep doing more remasters for a while if people are still happy.

However, I have received a couple less-than-constructive remarks here and there, most likely coming from individuals who are much more technologically savvy than me, at least in terms of audio engineering. I knew it was inevitable that I'd get such reactions from a small few, and feel I should address it here and now in hopes of avoiding further misunderstanding.

Their biggest gripes concerned my lack of formal training (although I will note that I majored in music business and took a studio production course...many years ago) and the low-tech, basic manner of my remasters and the amateur equipment I am using for the mastering and playback of the shows. Specifically, I listen through Audio Technica noise-cancelling headphones (model ATHANC7) with a Sansa Fuze (FLAC-compatible) portable for playback and directly through my computer's headphone jack during remastering. I use Magix Audio Cleaning Lab to make the following tweaks: EQ adjustments, a preamp boost if the source is quiet, and if the recording is way one-sided I might rebalance the L/R separation. If the source contains alot of distortion/clipping/static, I may run the files through a decrackler to minimize the ill effects. The software is definitely amateur compared to the more professional mastering programs out there...but it works for what I'm trying to do.

(EDIT - as of July 2011 this is my new playback equipment/remaster setup:  the audio bypasses my laptop's sound card and goes thru the USB port of my FiiO e7 portable DAC / headphone amp combo, which then drives a pair of Sennheiser HD595 cans (scroll down for model specific info).  I also have a dock for the FiiO e7 DAC that provides a dedicated line-out which I can hook up to my Onkyo receiver, freeing up the e7 to function solely as a DAC.  While this allows for much cleaner and truer listening via loudspeakers than merely plugging in my Droid or even my WD TV media player, I still prefer doing my audio analysis and critical listening on headphones.  I feel this gives a better idea of stereo separation and balance, as well as a real immersion into the AUDs.

Of course there's the whole issue of using the term "remaster" itself. What I am doing, as well as some other like-minded folks out there recently (which I think is great!), are technically not "remasters" at all. A true remaster would require me to have the original, master audio files captured by the taper, before they have had any processing applied whatsoever. Clearly that's not what I'm doing; I'm working with the lossless sources from etree. I can see the theory behind tapers and audio guys' stance that a source that has already been processed in any way should not be further processed.

But I prefer to use my own ears rather than rely on theory. Some sources I hear that have not been processed sound amazing. Others that have tons of processing applied sound like they have major room for improvement. That's not a slight to the taper or their gear - there could be a variety of factors that results in the sound a recording has. But knowing the lineage of a source or whether it has had any processing done plays no role in what I eventually do. I try to approach each remaster with a blind eye. I seriously doubt people (other than a select few audiophiles/tapers) who are listening to their shows at home, in their car, or on the go are going to be thinking about the lineage or the processing techniques of the source. They just want to hear the show in the best, clearest quality available. That's what I'm trying to provide, at least until a further upgrade comes along.

I suppose it would be more accurate to call these "reimagined versions of previously mastered source files"...but that doesn't quite capture the basic premise to the average listener as much as "remaster" does. I don't want to say "upgrade" because that's entirely subjective. There's a very good chance you might hear one of my remasters and think "geez, he went a bit crazy with the high end there, I liked the original better". And that's totally cool.

I'd also like to add that I truly believe my simplified approach could potentially yield better results (to the naked ear, methodology notwithstanding) than a trained audio engineer using a more professional, full-featured mastering program. Specifically, I think people sometimes overdo it when they have too many tools at their disposal. Certain effects and filters can lead to a really unnatural, overprocessed sound. While I think remasters should have greater clarity and "pop" than the original source, they should still strike a delicate balance between resembling the original source and sounding different enough to warrant a remaster. So, I feel by mostly sticking to the ghetto-fab mantra of using the EQ to find that sweet spot, giving a boost the preamp if the source's levels are low, and the periodic stereo rebalancing when the sound is heavily biased to one side, it should help me steer clear of getting carried away.

I've had a couple folks offer constructive advice, or even ask me for the original files so they can work on them w/ Pro Tools and give them back. But that kind of defeats the purpose of this blog. This is just one dude's idea of "optimal sound quality" for these own little outlet for being creative and offering artistic expression with the hope that it will be an upgrade for someone. I'm not about to drop hundreds of dollars on software, and I don't have the extra time to learn a complex program. Just not in the cards for me at this point in time.

One more concern that was brought to my attention is the possibility that others could take my files and seed them to the etree, essentially "polluting" the database with amateur remaster jobs. Totally valid point, and one that I had not thought of. So consider this a genuine plea that you NEVER seed my files onto etree, out of respect to the tapers and the high-quality operation they've got going over there. I consider it extremely important to separate the true "master" sources from the remasters, tweaks, revisions etc.  Feel free to toss 'em up on Demonoid though, since pretty much anything goes there :).  For what it's worth, I think the whole "polluting the pool" discussion is a moot point these days.  While there was a time where every recording was passed down a trading tree and it was imperative to maintain the integrity of the original files, those days are gone.  You can find anything online in seconds, and you have total control over what you want and what you don't want.  It's not like by doing these ghetto-fab remasters I am ruining the files for everyone else - not only are the original sources available on etree, but I include the shnid numbers in the comment tags of every file and I also include a link to the source's db.etree page within my blog post.

You may frown upon what I am doing, and you can feel free to lecture everyday listeners on the sonic evils of post-EQ'ing and the fact that it degrades the signal and subtracts frequencies...but at least I make it clear up front what I do to the files, and tag them accordingly so that wherever they might end up there's no mystery that they are remasters.  It would be far worse if I did not bother w/ tagging the comment field and people thought they were listening to the original source.  End rant.

I hope I haven't let people down or mislead anyone into thinking I am using fancy, recording-studio quality software to do this. I've tried from the beginning to make it clear that the opposite is true. If you are a sound-guy type or a taper or just generally tech-minded, I completely understand if you can't get past the fact that I am using the hardware and software that I am. Personally, I think some people get so hung up on the technology and methods that they lose sight of the whole does it sound? If it's an upgrade over what you previously had, great! If not, better luck next time! This is a free internet and I won't be hurt if you choose never to return to my blog again.

In summing up, I decided to add "Ghetto-Fab" to the name of this blog so there would be no doubt that I realize these are by no means pro-level remasters. They are what they are, and I love the little buggers. They're my But wait, they're not just mine; they're yours too. Because in the end, I want you to be happy.

As you were...


CreedReader said...

Yeah, Kenny, this is our blog too so I'm glad you want us to be happy. :)

While I see their point about the "pollution" of sources so-to-speak, I also haven't seen any sites that are dedicated to providing remastered audience sources of Phish shows.

I know for a fact that they, along with matrix recordings are being made, BUT THEY AREN'T BEING SHARED.

To whomever wrote KP to complain and say that they can do it better with Pro Tools etc: Where is your freaking blog? Do you share your work widely? Unless you do, you should shut up about it or you should be applauding this guy for taking his time to do this and sharing the music.

I have been on etree and looked through the database to populate my collection. I've gotten what I think are choice recordings according to the ratings on the db. Still, those are still not definitive and people's opinions differ. Not only that, but the great project to make things clearer hasn't really happened, and people are compressing sources all over the place. I seriously doubt that one guy with a blog, a passion, and a good set of ears can do as much damage to a Phish recording as the compressing and recompression that is being done to shows to send them across e-mail accounts, file sharing services and the like.

Basically what I am saying is: THANKS FOR DOING THIS! This is cool and I am glad that you are sharing the goods with the world.

I wouldn't know how to remaster a damn thing, and I wouldn't want to take the time to mess with the EQ for every single aud show.

Kenny Powers said...

@ CreedReader,

thanks very much for the supportive words. I do, however, feel like I should come to the defense of the poster that you referred to in case she's reading!

The one who recommended the ProTools thing was actually positive and supportive, I think she was just offering to lend a hand despite the fact that I'm content with doing what I'm doing as is, for now anyway.

It was really only one guy who was pretty juvenile and negative. Again, I should be able to take some flack, after all people's knee-jerk reactions are only amplified when they can hide under the curtain (with) of anonymity that the internet provides.

At any rate, I appreciate the backup and really hope this can stay positive for people. As long as the ratio of happy:offended people stays above 10:1, I'll keep on keepin' on. After all, if people quit their goals because they offended someone, nothing would get accomplished.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kenny ! Fox remaster is great. When the boys are in Atlanta they always burn the house down.


Dave said...

Where is there another easy source of hq late 90's auds? As long as your "remasters" sound better than my old shows I have on CDR, I'll keep downloading them!

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