Although purists might disagree, there’s little doubt that we can today hear Leonard Cohen, even his earlier recordings, much more clearly than someone listening to
the original LPs. In the old days, music was usually recorded first on magnetic tape, then passed on to a special type of turntable which cut grooves into the surface
of a soft plastic disc. This disc was then coated with metal; when the metal plate was ready and the plastic removed, it was called the master.
This master was as a negative is to a photo: it had ridges instead of grooves to represent the music. The master was then stamped onto a blank vinyl disc, leaving the
appropriate grooves and producing a record that people could buy and listen to.
While this process worked, it was far from perfect. A digital copy is always identical to its original (although DRM advocates would love to change this), but an
analogue reproduction is always just a little bit worse. With no fewer than four steps involved in the process, some relying on very delicate physical operations, some
degradation was bound to occur.
Today, digital signal processing is king of the recording studio. Used in everything from telecommunications to military applications, the basic idea is that once a
signal such as music is available as digital data, a whole range of mathematical operations become possible on it.
This means that the original metal master disc can be read again (this time with lasers instead of a needle) and digitized. Now all the flaws (some would say the character and soul)
of the recording can be removed: for starters, hiss (white noise) can easily be eliminated, while needle jumps or some idiot in the crowd yelling “whoo-hoo” take a
matter of minutes to fix.
Things become even more interesting when other nerdy tools are applied, especially if the original tracks from each instrument are available. Recording equipment from
the good old days was prone to generating “artifacts” – extraneous sounds that aren’t part of the music. Microphone noises can therefore be taken out, as can fumbles
in the editing process from when this couldn’t be done in software.
Perhaps just as importantly, although not as complex in technical terms, the tone of the recording can be restored to something more closely resembling the original sound of a band. Older recording technology didn’t
always emphasize the bass, treble and mid-range sounds equally, resulting in a flat, pale effect. Today, fixing this is as simple as pressing a button and waiting a
Nearly as Good as Being There
If time travel were possible, would you go back to 1969 and visit Woodstock? Ravi Shankar played his sitar in the rain, Joan Baez performed even though heavily
pregnant, and The Grateful Dead managed to blow up the stage’s electrical system. In terms of energy, audience dedication and of course the artistic development of
folk music, the 40th anniversary concert was no more than a joke in comparison.
Virtual reality concerts are already here, although the technology clearly has quite a way to go. Still, advances
are made at an enormous rate in both the VR and CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) fields.
This leads to an intriguing possibility: what if legendary performances of folk music greats could be recreated in three dimensions? Of course, footage would have to
be available and the computer would have to guess more than 90% of the details, but the concept is certainly within the realm of possibility.