Abbey Road Half Speed Mastering
It may not have escaped your attention that some of the releases I’ve recently championed (The Zombies Odessey & Oracle & The Who’s Brunswick Box Set being two) have been half speed mastered at Abbey Road.
Six new releases have just been released and for reasons that will shortly be clear, The Police’s 1981 LP “Ghost In The Machine” has joined two other copies in my collection.
Like many other topics I pick up on, Half Speed Mastering is nothing new, even before Mobile Fidelity made it their standard practice in 1977, DECCA records had already been using the process for some of its classical output for nearly twenty years. As the name describes, you run the master tape at half speed, if it runs at 30 inches per second ( ips) you play it back at 15ips while the cutting lathe runs at 16 2/3 rpm. There are some well-known issues with this process, low end roll off and more difficult de-essing being two. Low end roll off means losing some bass at the deeper end of the sound spectrum and de-essing being a way of correcting the distortion on vocal sounds using “S” and “T”.
Trying to improve on Ghost In The Machine is certainly a tall order, the original album (released on A&M) sounds terrific and I remember listening to it on my friends Dads posh hifiback in the early eighties, being mesmerised that recorded music could sound so good.
Four or five years ago, I picked up a second hand copy that was released on the Nautilus Recordings label, released the same year as the original it was half speed mastered and marketed as a “Super Discs – Listen To The Difference”. Having read lots of conflicting opinions on the benefits of half speed mastering I thought it would be interesting to hear it for myself. Supposedly, by running the lathe slower it has more time to accurately cut the groove, whilst this sounds like it should make sense it could also be audio snake oil. Now this version certainly sounded better, I thought the bass had more clarity and the treble seemed crisper. Whether this was down to being mastered at half speed or just being mastered with more care and superior equipment, there is no clear evidence to say, but I’m happy to reap the benefits either way.
The new Abbey Road half speed masters have somewhat controversially been using hi-res digital masters to cut the new re-issues. Mike Showell who oversees the half speed masters has spoken about why he feels that using new hi-res digital copies of the original master tapes to make these records is superior to cutting directly from tape-
“The greatest variable in all of this is the replay of the master on the tape machine. Just about all of the limitations of analogue cutting from tape are made twice as bad at half-speed. For this reason I firmly believe careful and sympathetic high-resolution digital capture from a well-cared for and customised (i.e. improved) American tape machine will ultimately yield better sounding records which is the sole reason for this series of releases. There is no perfect solution, but I feel by some distance this is the best way to proceed.”
Mike Showell talking with Michael Fremer
Well the proof of the audio is in the listening, so after listening to the Nautilus version I pop the new Abbey Road version on the turn table. It’s a revelation. Virtually all the bass sounds deeper and clearer, everything sounds more defined and it still retains a real “depth” of sound over the rather flat sounding CD version. Whilst the improvements to the treble are quite subtle, they become more obvious on the soundscape intro to “Secret Journey”. The dynamics seem improved too, the explosive start of the chorus of “Invisible Sun” sounds bigger than ever.
From what I’ve heard so far from the Abbey Road Mastering Team I’m mightily impressed and thoroughly recommend these re-issues.