smokebox interview with sound restoration and mastering engineer doug pomeroy: part one

I don’t know what they thought of Woody Guthrie. They I think assigned to him some company producer, and from the sound of it I would guess the thing was done with one RCA 44 microphone. That picked up his guitar and his voice. They just put it out there and he started singing. Yes, it could perhaps, even in 1940, been better. Had he been a famous classical artist, they probably would’ve treated him a little better…”

 

 

Greetings to all you music fans from down here in the Cellar. Remember last month I mentioned that I would be discussing Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads? Well, this month (and next) you are in for a real treat. It just so happens that through a twist of fate, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Doug Pomeroy, the man who restored and remastered these classic recordings! He has also worked on the recordings of Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Art Tatum – check out the partial list of stuff he’s done at the end of this piece. If you recall, the premise of this column is to discuss CD reissues of important recordings, and the role that the sound restoration and master engineer plays in preparing a reissue is pivotal. He or she is a surgeon of sound who’s faced with the task of painstakingly transferring the material from its original source to a digital form and then using a variety of procedures to bring it to a listenable level that captures the spirit of the performance. A daunting task indeed! Most of us buy all kinds of CDs without giving any thought to people like Doug. (Pick 5 of your favorite albums and tell me who mastered them – bet you don’t know.) After you have considered his artistry and the passion that he brings to his work, you will realize that he and others like him are true masters themselves. Without these heroes of the control room, we would have a lot less to listen to, and what we would have wouldn’t sound the way it’s supposed to sound. This month and next, we’ll hear what Doug has to say specifically about the Dust Bowl Ballads, about the whole process of preparing vintage recordings for reissue, and about recording music in general.

When Woody Guthrie recorded the Ballads, he went into RCA Studios in New York two different times, recording the bulk of the songs on April 26, 1940, and an additional 2 tracks on May 3rd, 1940. There are also other versions of these songs recorded at other sessions by other companies (like Folkways), but the RCA ones are the ones that have become known as the definitive set. In recent times, there has been one reissue by Rounder Records (1988), and in 1999, Buddha Records (a subsidiary of BMG) hired Doug to perform his magic for their 2000 reissue. What follows is a rough transcription of a conversation that took place in Doug’s studio/living space. It’s on the top floor of a 4-story brownstone in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. The space has been renovated so that there is a loft area above the living area and this is where he works. And folks, he tends to work all the time, at all hours, seven days a week. I was fortunate enough to catch him for a few hours and here’s what he had to say:


John Pinamonti: How did this project come about?


Doug Pomeroy: I had done a couple of other things for BMG, for the Buddha subsidiary – they had told me they were going to reissue some of the albums that were on the Vintage Series LPs. RCA had reissued the Dust Bowl Ballads – there’s also a Lead Belly, there’s a whole series of them – Blues, Country, Bluegrass. So they asked “Would you like to work on it?” They had already done the disc transfers from pressings or from the actual metal parts themselves. (ed. note: the metal parts or “stampers” were used to press the shellac or lacquer discs).


JP: But on other jobs you do, you do the transfers too as well as the restoration and mastering?


DP: Exactly. I prefer that, and most of the companies I work for simply bring me the records – literally, they come to my house with the records because they don’t want them to get lost or broken. I generally don’t like to work on a job where I don’t do the actual transfers myself.


JP: You were very familiar with the Dust Bowl Ballads, but you never owned the RCA records, right?


DP: Strangely enough, I never bought them but I remember the 10-inch Folkways LP with that burnt sienna cover and the little figure of Tom Joad. I remember all this from when I was in grammar school – 1944, somewhere around there. Obviously what I was hearing was the Folkways issue and not the original RCAs – RCA is the original recording of this material. Somewhere along the line I heard these RCAs, because when I played them as I started to work on them, I instantaneously recognized them.


JP: So in this case, with this job, there is this long-term connection with the material – it’s been in your life for 50 years!


DP: Oh yeah, I knew those recordings! Of course I have a lot of recordings from that period, I grew up at that time, I’m familiar with the Folkways catalogue. I’ve got some of the 78s right up there (points to his record shelf), so I’m very familiar with it all.


JP: So what’s the process? Assuming the transfers are done, what’s your first step?


DP: Well, let me just say again that I wish I had been able to get my hands on the original discs because the original transfer – just simply playing the disc – is the single most important step in the whole process. Everybody says “well, anybody can play a record” – well, no – anybody can’t play a record! There are tricks to playing a record and it’s absolutely essential to get it right.


JP: OK, so how do you do a transfer?


DP: The first thing is to clean the disc. If the disc is lacquer (acetate), very often there is a white sticky substance that comes out of the lacquer over a period of time and that has to be cleaned off, usually with mineral spirits. I do have a gas mask I wear for doing that.


JP: And that doesn’t damage the disc at all?


DP: No, no damage. I use also brushes – all kinds of brushes. I use a lot of liquid detergent, and I have a vacuum machine as well. When the record is clean, I try to find the proper stylus, and I try to transfer the record at least twice, because one stylus will perhaps play part of the record better than another, so it’s good to have two transfers and splice between them.
(ed. note: At this point, I should mention Doug’s turntable – a Technics model SP 15 with digital features – which free-floats inside a metal frame by a series of springs which allow it to be suspended and not susceptible to outside vibrations. He also has many special styli that he utilizes made by an English company called Expert Stylus).
Also if the record is off pitch – flat or sharp – the time to re-pitch it is at the time that you make the transfer so that you avoid going through digital signal processing later on. Digital signal processing should always be avoided if possible because it does degrade the signal. So I check the pitch… before tape came in, everything was on lacquer discs, and the lathes were not all running at the same speed. In the ‘20s each company was slightly different- they did not standardize 78.26 rpm until sometime after 1926. So I mean, for example, the Okeh recordings by Louis Armstrong – Columbia was issuing them for years off-pitch and the musicians were going nuts! They did that for years and finally someone said “hey, let’s get these running at the right pitch”. So that’s another thing that’s done. Also, if the record is warped, I have a special arm for playing with a pivot right off the end so that it can track warped records… and metal parts are often bent because in getting them off the press they would often bend them and they’re terrible. The other thing about a stamper, a metal stamper, is that is a negative. Think about it – it’s pressing a record that you can play, but you can’t play the stamper because instead of a groove it has a ridge. So you need a special stylus that rides on the ridge and that also plays backwards, because it’s a mirror image of the record and so you need to play it backwards. I don’t often do metal parts, usually the metal parts stay at the record company and they don’t like to let them out.


JP: But you have all the facilities here to do all these things?


DP: Yes. And sometimes I play 78s that are in very bad shape, and if you think about a record that’s worn, you realize the groove is damaged because it’s been played in the same direction over and over and over again, so I wired a special turntable that plays records backwards. Sometimes I can get a slightly better transfer playing a record backwards because the needle is hitting a part of the groove that hasn’t been damaged so badly.


JP: In the case of The Dust Bowl Ballads, I assume the transfers they did were off the original metal parts?


DP: Either off of the metal or they would have a new pressing made from a new vinyl disc pressed from the metal, which is much quieter than the shellac which was used for regular commercial pressings sold to the public.


JP: So you aren’t sure how they did the transfers?


DP: They gave me the material in CD form… there is some indication on the sheet here what the source was, but I had no control over that. I was just given the transfers and told to clean them up. Cleaning it up and taking the noise out and beyond that…well, to me, audio restoration and mastering are two different jobs, but the companies think of is as all one thing…
(ed note: Here I should mention all the different “job titles” that have been attached to Doug’s name – “Digital Editing, “Digital Remastering”, “Audio Restoration”, “Noise Reduction”, “Editing and Assembly”, “Reissue Tape Preparation”, “Engineer, Transfers, Restoration” – the list goes on and on!)


DP: After the audio restoration part, then I re-equalize, which many people consider to be CD mastering. I consider it to be part of audio restoration, because my goal is to get back to the studio. I think of myself as standing in the studio – what did the music sound like when it was actually being played? That’s why I try to get rid of the noise and that’s why I re-equalize, use filters, whatever’s necessary to try and get rid of the rumble, get rid of the hiss, but still bring out a presence in the recording, and as you heard in the Woody Guthrie example, try to make it sound less muffled, which is difficult because the minute you make it brighter you increase the surface noise. (ed. note: He played me a sample of some of the transfers before he worked on them so I could hear the raw transfer.) That’s part of the game – you’re always struggling to do two things that are contradictory.


JP: So to sum up so far – the transfers are done, they hand you the material in CD form – then what – you load it on to the hard drive?


DP: Yes. Then I examine the program with my ears. Of course I can also see it on the computer screen, so if I hear some distortion I can also see what it looks like.


JP: So you can actually see a graph of the song on the screen?


DP: Yeah, down to a level of a single sample, which is 1/44,000th of a second. And I’m using software called Sound Designer II, which Digidesign unfortunately no longer supports. It’s old but it’s great. For two-track editing there’s nothing in the world better. It’s got a pencil tool that I use to remove any huge noises which I know that my automated noise removal systems will not be able to handle. I go through the whole program… in the case of the Woody Guthrie, the material was in pretty good shape. The transfers were not horrible. I went through and manually re-drew the wave form where there was serious noise and also where there was distortion, distorted peaks. A lot of recordings I work on have a huge amount of peak distortion and I remove that manually and it takes forever, but it’s the only way to get rid of it – there is no device that will get rid of it.
So I put it in the computer, look at it, go through it with my pencil tool… oh, and I should mention that most of my transfers are flat. That is to say, when you play an LP, you are actually playing it through an equalizer that is in your phonograph pre-amplifier. It’s called the RIAA curve. Well I transfer records without that curve, which means they have virtually no bass and they seem to be screamingly high end. I do that for a reason, because when I do use the automated noise-removal (the CEDAR declicker), it tends to do a slightly better job if it’s given a flat signal. So after I’ve done my pencil work and the CEDAR stuff, I then transfer all this back to the hard disk. That mix has been optimized at the time of transfer so that I know that the noise is being attenuated in an optimum fashion, and I do that using a differential amplifier.


JP: Wow! (ed. note: The preceding paragraph is condensing a very complex discussion of the process. Thanks to Doug for trying to explain it within our time and space constraints! We may clear up a few points in next month’s column.)


DP: All of this makes a difference… I optimize the mix of the left and right channels (to mono) before the computer even does it. The next step is equalization and filtering, which is done largely by ear. I also use a 10 band parametric equalizer made by Waves – a wonderful device. Any rumble at the low end, any hiss at the high end can be notched at the same time and I’m boosting the bass now… but the bottom line is you gotta make it sound like music. I tell my clients that although I’m in the business of removing noise, a little noise never hurt anybody, and the engineers who get into trouble are the ones who focus on the noise and don’t even hear the music.
(ed. note: It’s a fine line between removing “noise” and harming the original performance. This is why when you buy stuff taken from old 78s, you generally have to put up with some degree of noise, because removing all of it would also remove vital parts of the music. The art of sound restoration lies in being able to hear what to leave in and what to take out. Doug himself has had restoration jobs he’s done ruined by other engineers who have then run the recordings through automated noise removal programs which, if not used properly, destroy the integrity of the recording.)


JP: A few final Questions about the Woody project – Was there a deadline and how long did it take you?


DP: They said they needed it in 2 months. With a job like this I gave them an estimate on what I thought I could do it for and I didn’t keep track of the hours. Just to process this material in the way I’ve described it to you would take at least 4 days of solid 8 hour-a-day work.


JP: So are you able to listen to a recording after you’re done working on it?


DP: Never, no, even the ones I love! By the time I’m finished with an album, I don’t want to hear it for at least five or six years. It’s hard, because when you’re working on it, it takes patience. When it comes to restoring the audio and doing the mastering, I will spend however long it takes, even on the most miniscule thing. I’m monomaniacal about getting it as good as I can get it. And it is hard, when you finally finish the whole thing and you’ve burned the CD master, and then you have to sit down and listen to it one last time to make sure that the master is ok – it’s painful!


JP: I read you a quote from a review that praised your work on The Dust Bowl Ballads – they mentioned how it now sounds like Woody’s right there in the room with you. It seems to me that in a lot of cases there wasn’t a lot of care taken in the recording and pressing of some great music. Do you think this was the case with these sessions we’re talking about?


DP: I don’t know what they thought of Woody Guthrie. They I think assigned to him some company producer, and from the sound of it I would guess the thing was done with one RCA 44 microphone. That picked up his guitar and his voice. They just put it out there and he started singing. Yes, it could perhaps, even in 1940, been better. Had he been a famous classical artist, they probably would’ve treated him a little better.


JP: Well, it was folk music, so it was rustic!


DP: Yeah! Very rustic! Woody with his crazy guitar…


JP: The one that had “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it?!


DP: I would guess that by 1940 he was trying to kill all the Fascists!

Next Month: We talk with Doug about Ella Fitzgerald, live recording tape restoration, The Beastie Boys  and more…

 

 


Pomeroy has done work on more than a hundred CD reissues; following is a list of some of the most recent:

Mildred Bailey, The Complete Columbia Recordings, MOSAIC (10 CDs) MD10-204
Disc transfers, restoration , digital remastering & CD mastering
Horace Henderson, Live at the Trainon,1954, IAJRC, CD-1015I
Tape transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Herbie Fields, Live at the Flame Club 1949, IAJRC, CD-1014
Tape transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Mekons, Live 86 & ’87, ROIR, RUSCD 8269
CD remastering
Joe “King” Carrasco, ROIR, RUSCD 8268
CD remastering
Various, Melodies of Jerome Kern, Harbinger, HCD 1804
Disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Dinah Washington, Live 1948-55, Baldwin St Music, BJH 310
Disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Ella Fitzgerald, Live at Birdland ’50-’52, Baldwin St Music, BJH 309
Disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Buddy DeFranco, Blues Bag, KOCH CD-8545
Disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Bob Crosby & The Bobcats, The Standard Transcriptions, Soundies SCD 4129
Restoration & CD mastering
Count Basie, The Lang-Worth Transcriptions, Soundies SCD 4128
Restoration & CD mastering
Annie Get Your Gun, Original Cast Recording, 1946, Decca Broadway 012 159 243-2
Disc transfers & restoration
Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads, Buddha/BMG
Restoration & CD mastering, BUDDHA 74465 99724-2
Ella Fitzgerald & Her Famous Orchestra, Savoy Broadcasts, 1939, Buddha/BMG 74465 99702 2
Restoration & CD mastering
Benny Goodman & Rhythm Makers, Good To Go, Vol 1 Buddha/BMG 7446599624-2
Disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering (w/wrong liner credits)
From Spirituals To Swing, Carnegie Hall Concerts 1938-39, Vanguard 169/71-2
Tape Transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Nat King Cole Trio, Live at The Circle Room, Capitol Jazz 7243 5 21859 2 4
Disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Bunny Berigan, Sideman (Intl Assn of Jazz Record Collectors), IAJRC 1013
78 rpm Disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Giulio Gari, The Giulio Gari Collection, Athena CD 107
Disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Dick Wellstood, Live at the Sticky Wicket, Arbors ARCD 19188
Tape transfers & CD mastering
Jerry Jerome, Something Old, Something New, Arbors ARCD 19168
78 rpm disc and tape transfers, restoration & CD mastering (one of two CDs)
Charlie Spivak & His Orch, What’s Cookin’ Charlie?, 1941-47, HEP CD64
78 rpm disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Kay Starr, Lamplighter Recordings, 1945-46, Baldwin St Music BJH-305
Disc transfers, tracks 1-3, 6-10 & 24-26 only (liner credits incorrect)
Johnny Hartman, The JH Collection 1947-72, Hip-O HIPD2-40137
78 rpm disc transfer (track 18 only)
Free Design, The Best Of The Free Design, Kites Are Fun, Varèse Sarabande VSD 5954
Disc transfers only
Harold Arlen, The Music of Harold Arlen, Harbinger HCD 1505
Lp disc transfers, restoration & CD mastering
NY Philharmonic, Historic Broadcasts, 1923-87, NY Philharmonic NYP 9709
Removal of distortion from two arias by Roberta Peters
Russell Oberlin, John Dowland, Lute Songs, Lyrichord Disc LEMS 8031
Tape transfers & CD mastering
Paul Wolfe, Pedal Harpsichord, When They Had Pedals, Vol 1&2, Lyrichord Disc LEMS 8033/4
Tape transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Phyllis Curtin, Susannah, Live Performance in New Orleans, VAIA 1115-2
Tape transfers, restoration & CD mastering
Charlie Parker, Complete Legendary Rockland Palace Concert, 1952, Jazz Classics JZCL 5014
Tape transfers, restoration, stereo re-syncronization & CD mastering
Art Tatum, The Standard Sessions, Music & Arts CD 673-2
CEDAR processing
Dizzy Gillespie, Oo Bop, Tradition/Rykodisc TD 1027
Tape transfers, restoration & CD mastering

 

Originally published:
Issue Seven
March 2001

 


Recording engineer Doug Pomeroy has more than twenty years experience in the field of audio restoration, having begun this type of work while a staff engineer for Columbia Records in NYC, from 1969 to 1976. He is the engineer for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors, a member of the Technical Committee of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, and a long-time member of both the Audio Engineering Society, and the Boston Audio Society.

 
John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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