Interview: Digby “Dig” Pearson of Earache Records
As many of you know, we are big fans of Earache Records Full Dynamic Range (FDR) initiative. Since its onset, with last year’s re-release of Napalm Death’s first two albums, we have seen many more of Earache’s unbelievable back catalog given the FDR treatment. The tape you see on your left is the original betamax tape in PCM format of an old Carcass master that maybe used sometime in the future for a FDR release. Cool, right? I was given an opportunity to ask Earache founder Digby “Dig” Pearson a few questions about FDR, the Loudness War, and the resurgence of vinyl in general.
MFi: What prompted Earache to start the FDR release initiative?
Digby: Fans persuaded me to do it! I’ve been running a blog answering fans questions for a few years now and when we put out Morbid Angel vinyl re-issues I noticed that so many fans questions had comments were more about the nature of the source and type of audio we were releasing, rather than say comments on the artwork or the songs, or the packaging, or whatever. Realizing we had an audiophile fan base and noticing the resurgence of vinyl sales, I figured why not do it properly and give fans exactly what they want – Fully Dynamic Range (FDR) releases. FDR is not an official audiophile term, but its our shorthand way to explain whats we’re offering and fans understood the concept straight away. Its the complete opposite of the Loudness War which is ruining the music scene.
MFi: Can you give an overview of what goes into each FDR release? (the process, tools, time, etc.)
Digby: I keep an archive of the original master tapes of the Earache catalog. Its kind of my own ‘record collection’ taking up 2 rooms in my house, a mix of Ampex analogue reels and DATs and SONY PCM (which look like VHS video). So the first action is to find the original mix down master. The sound the band recorded in the studio is the source material for all our FDR releases and most often it’s a DAT. And that is what is transferred – completely flat – you can be sure there is no interference in the audio whatsoever. This is undertaken at Formation Audio in Nottingham by JP Braddock. Fans get the exact raw virgin sound of the band that existed as they walked out the studio back in the day, nothing added or taken away. The cut of the FDR lacquers is undertaken by Noel Summerville who was the mastering & cutting engineer of hundreds of the original Earache releases when he was in-house at Transfermation cutting house back in the 90s. Nowadays, he works out of his own studio at his London house.
MFi: The FDR releases thus far are remasters of classic albums that were at pre-Loudness War levels. What do the current FDR remasters offer over the original dynamic pressings?
Digby: The FDR’s are not exact clones of the original pressings, but are as near as you can get. Often I’ll leave in the extra quirks for fans to discover. For example Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos intro is longer and contains extra drumstick intro clicks at the beginning of “Eternal War,” which don’t appear on the original release. And according to my ears the 2013 FDR sounds heavier/more bass than the original vinyl press of 89.
MFi: Are all the FDR releases sourced from the original analog master tapes? If so, some of these tapes are now over 20 years old, were there any condition issues before another transfer could take place?
Digby: The main issue is finding the bloody right tape. Not everything is marked up perfectly, and often I have to rack my brains to remember which of several mix downs was used for the original 90s pressing because Colin Richardson would mix various options with guitars up, vocals up etc. It’s possible we’ll accidentally use alternate mixes from the original release but you’ll have to A-B them to compare, and anyway you’d have a collectors rarity on your hands if we did. Our other fear is the tapes are quite vintage and fragile, they might snap or break up in the transfer process, luckily nothing serious has happened yet. Sourcing a decent DAT player was tricky, working models are hard to find, we chose Tascam.
MFi: What has been the most difficult part of mastering for FDR? Is there any fear that the FDR release will sound worse than the original?
Digby: The original albums were mastered and pressed in an all-analog era, in the early 90s any audio compression or EQ at the mastering stage was tastefully done by Noel Summerville. These FDRs are not exact clones of the original LP release but instead are exact fully dynamic clones of the original tapes. There is a difference! I admit there is a massive temptation to interfere with the sound, to try some small EQ to capture the sound of the original LP release, but we are resisting this because we want the buyer to get a pristine copy of the original tapes. Some of the FDR’s are more bass-y than the original vinyl editions because of this.
MFi: How has been the reaction to the FDR releases? Are there plans to continue to do more FDR releases after the current crop this year?
Digby: Every FDR release is in high demand, many selling out within days, so we are very pleased with the fan reaction. Some of our fans own the very best quality equipment and turntables money can buy, so its very pleasing when they email us to congratulate us on our brilliant efforts. Our FDR vinyls are sonically the nearest to time travel back to the 80s you can get!
MFi: What does Earache think of the Loudness War and its effect on music? Do you promote internally (Earache studio engineers, artists, etc.) the value of high dynamics in music?
Digby: Earache lives by the mantra, “playback volume should be in the hands of the listener, not the producer” so everything we do is highly dynamic nowadays, and consequently lower volume off disc. That’s what the volume control is for on your device! I’m sad to say that unfortunately we were as guilty of the foul practice of the Loudness War as any other company was back in the 1995-2005 era. I saw the all-analog-era become the Loudness War-era, and it wasn’t pretty. Many of our albums from that era (often the industrial or electronic) suffered. Mainly it was because of powerful audio editing software which came into the hands and desktops of musicians and amateur sound engineers. For some reason, they all considered mastering to insane levels of compression was best, because louder sounds are more seductive and pleasing on first listen. The foul practice is still around, one of the worst examples I’ve ever heard was Bullet For My Valentine’s Scream Aim Fire (Sony) on CD which is totally brickwalled and rendered unlistenable. I can only guess it was mastered by the band, because no professional mastering engineer would do that in 2008.
MFi: Has Earache considered doing full hi-res 24-bit/96kHz transfers of FDR releases? (similar to what Roadrunner did with the latest Megadeth and Dream Theater records on HDTracks)
Digby: Its not something we’ve done yet because we’re making these FDRs mostly to sell on vinyl, so never thought to also sell the FDR HD files as well, but we’ll look into it.
MFi: Does you believe the Loudness War will end or has it already ended in some ways with most records now standardized around DR6 (TT Meter)? Is there anything fans can do about it?
Digby: The Loudness War is pretty much over because the general music fan consumes music via iTunes or Spotify or YouTube now, which all seem to standardize playback volume. I guess reaching for the volume control on the PC/Mac could be deemed a costly design fault by those billion dollar tech companies. Mostly it’s important that fans know that lower volume off disk (be it CD or LP) is preferable to loud sounds, because more dynamic range is a better listening experience over time. I personally do not judge music by any meters or computer waveforms, but simply how it sounds to my – admittedly shot-through – ears.
MFi What does Earache think about the resurgence in vinyl and can we expect more vinyl releases from Earache going forward?
Digby: Well its great! Those people who were saying vinyl sounds best, were correct all along. Due to the fan support and runaway success of the FDR’s so far, we’re planning many more, including the complete Carcass, Entombed and Bolt Thrower Earache-era catalogs as FDR edition LPs in a deluxe box. Look out for them.
Cheers to the fans for the support! Stay heavy!
A deluxe box of FDR LP! Wow! You heard it here first.
Please continue to support Earache’s FDR campaign by visiting their webstore and pre-ordering some of the finest slabs of death and grind in the history of metal including Entombed’s Left Hand Path, Bolt Thrower’s The IV Crusade, and Carcass’s Necroticism – Descanting the Insalubrious. Do it.
A big thank you goes to Becky at Earache who facilitated making this interview happen.