Interview with Steve Hoffman
Award-winning recording, mastering and restoration audio-engineer Steve Hoffman is from Los Angeles, California, and specializes in remastering sound recordings on LP, CD and SACD. He has compiled, mastered and released over a thousand discs to critical acclaim, including such artists as: The Eagles, The Doors, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Cream, The Cars, Blondie, Jim Croce, Linda Ronstadt, Jethro Tull, The Doobie Brothers, Jackson Browne, Steve Miller Band, Elton John, Van Halen, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Pepper, Rod Stewart, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Wes Montgomery and many others. In his early years, Steve Hoffman worked in radio and earned a degree in Mass Communication Sciences from California State University, Northridge. In the 1980s, he worked for nine years at MCA, where he championed the idea that catalog artists’ reissues could be profitable. He has since done remastering work for companies such as Analogue Productions, Audio Fidelity, BMG/Razor & Tie, Cisco, Digital Compact Classics (DCC), MCA/Chess/Impulse, Rural Rhythm and S&P Records. “Steve Hoffman is one of the few engineers many music fans know by name”, said Pete Howard, the former editor and publisher of ICE Magazine, the highly respected, now defunct, monthly CD magazine. “He’s one of the most popular restoration and mastering engineers among consumers of reissues in America today,” Howard said. “When our readers see his name on a CD, the first reaction is, ‘It must be good.’” His approach to remastering varies, and is dependent on the state of the original master tape and EQ choices of the recording engineer. He attains this by usually avoiding compression, limiting, and noise reduction, and by adding colorations via tube gear, and/or using subtractive EQ. His website, www.stevehoffman.tv, is one of the most popular sites on audiophile restoration on the internet, and has received more than three hundred twenty-one million hits since it was created in 2002.
The Judy Room: Were you interested in Judy Garland even before you ever worked on her recordings? How do you feel about her as an artist?
Steve Hoffman: When I was a little kid, they showed all of her MGM movies (especially the pre-1943 ones) on TV here constantly. I had a crush on her from day one (in Andy Hardy, etc.) After I saw The Wizard of Oz, of course, she was my dream girl #1. I remember watching her CBS show with my parents as well, thinking that she was great even as a grown-up. Heh.
A long time ago. It was Ron’s idea basically. I knew Judy on Decca, but not as well as he did. He could spot the rare ones, alternate takes, etc. better than I could then. I do remember that NO ONE at the company wanted that released for some reason (I believe a holdover from her Decca royalties problems era, or something). At any rate, it sold very well and was well liked by all. It was our tribute to Judy.
Your remastering of Judy at Carnegie Hall in 2000 is still the reference to this day. Could you describe your work on that recording? What were the challenges?
The first challenge was getting DCC Compact Classics to even consider issuing it at all. It was going to be a double gold CD and that meant a $50.00 price tag. My boss Marshall Blonstein knew we would probably never make money on it, but as a “loss leader” it was a good one, for sure. I had a really good relationship with Cheryl Pawelski over at EMI (crucial to our getting anything done there), and I had her do a vault search on the Carnegie album. I knew I did NOT want to use the old LP cutting master. I wanted to hear what the ORIGINAL sounded like. Cheryl came through for us (the same way she did on the Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, etc. stuff I worked on for DCC), and we found BOTH sets of the original three-channel session reels recorded at Carnegie Hall. I was actually a bit amazed by this, EMI did a vault purge in 1959, 1969, 1979, and everything that wasn’t essential was destroyed. Obviously someone there thought that these reels WERE essential. Thank heavens for that.
What kind of tools and equipment did you use in remastering Carnegie Hall? Were they the same you used on other remasterings, or does the source material drive what tools are used?
At that time there really was no proper way to digitally edit something without (in my opinion) a giant loss of quality, so my goal was to get this thing out there essentially LIVE in mastering, no digital editing. That is why there are a few fade outs and weird spots on the DCC version. That was to keep the sound as pure as possible, and NOT go through a digital work station like Pro Tools, which degraded the sound. I did my three-track mix to stereo in real time, in my home studio, trying to keep the sound pretty much like it sounded during recording. It was a bitch.
This was totally my choice, and I’ve caught hell for it, trust me. I figured (and rightly so) that this would be the ONLY TIME EVER to actually hear clearly what was caught on tape, so I didn’t want to obscure it with fake echo. I did however run her vocal track through a vintage Teletronix LA2A vacuum tube compressor, which kept her dynamics intact while integrating her with the orchestra in a natural way. It was very difficult to do, and also very neat. I kept in pretty much everything that was on the actual tapes, didn’t edit out any audience or anything. I even kept the orchestra chatter at the start.
Considering its classic status, why hasn’t Carnegie Hall been issued on SACD, especially on its fiftieth anniversary in 2011?
You mean by Capitol/EMI? They don’t believe in high def. As to audiophile companies? Not a clue. I’ve only mentioned it to them a million or more times.
Carnegie Hall is a three-channel recording. On a hypothetical SACD, do you think it would be best to leave it in three-channel, or would you put it in surround sound?
I would leave it in three channel, but the orchestra tracks could be wrapped around toward the rear speakers for a nice effect.
You remastered Judy Garland: Judy in Love & Alone in 2002. How did that project come about?
Sam Passamano, Jr. had an audiophile label for a short while. A Peggy Lee did well for him, and he wanted another female vocal to woo the audiophiles. I suggested those two albums as her peak at Capitol. Since we had such a great relationship with them, it was a no-brainer to do these, and once again, Cheryl found the original originals for us, pretty much untouched since back in the day.
I didn’t even know Scott died. What a tragedy. So sorry to hear that. No wonder he stopped answering my emails. Yikes. Ah, well. He was easy to work with, very easy. He made sure that the little details were all taken care of, especially on Carnegie. Rest in peace.
Do you think that Sony’s purchase of EMI will facilitate the release of Garland recordings in the future?
I have no idea. Hope so. But usually, when one company buys another, the deep catalog goes even deeper, sorry to say.
What was your reaction to the fire at Universal in 2008, during which many masters, including those of Judy Garland, might have been destroyed? Do you have any precise information as to whether or not the Garland metal parts and glass transcriptions survived?
I cannot comment, sorry. Any vault fire is a total bummer. The one at Atlantic back in the 1970s wiped out almost all of their work parts. Sad.
Do you think the complete A Star Is Born exists?
Oh yes. Those crazy collectors. But this is a question for perhaps Jeff Joseph at SabuCat and his buddy Mike, who used to work at WB.
It has been said that an audio engineer plays God with the recording he is working on. Do you feel that way?
Yes, and I’ve been quoted before as saying that I HATE to play God. Ironically, with the Judy remixes that is exactly what I have been doing. I like to think I did them tastefully with MAXIMUM JUDY being exposed on the tapes. Other engineers when they do remixes seem to drown out the vocal with the orchestra. I mix the old stuff (Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Judy, etc.) with the spotlight on the vocalist, just like an engineer would have done in 1953.
The record industry has dramatically changed over the years. Do you think the physical entity of the CD has a future?
Of course. They said LPs were dead as well. Still going. Many music lovers want to hold the product in their hand, feel like they actually OWN something. That is not going away any time soon. Audiophile labels will see to that.
Technology has really advanced over the last few decades. Have these advancements made your job easier or more difficult?
Easy in some ways, harder in others. It’s easy to fix something that has been damaged now, but the temptation to OVER FIX is really strong.
In a few words, what is your philosophy of remastering?
I tell other mastering engineers the following: Do as little damage as possible. Don’t revise anything to sound modern. Keep dynamic range intact. Do not add treble for the sake of it. Don’t fiddle with something endlessly. Keep it natural and organic sounding. Heh, no one ever listens to me!
You haven’t remastered any Garland recordings in a decade. Might we hope for a new one sometime soon?
You license it, I’ll remaster it for free!
© 2012 JudyGarlandNews.com (TheJudyRoom.com)