Culture Critique: Remastered Music Misses the Beat

"The original mix of Megadeth’s Rust in Peace versus their 2004 remaster epitomizes everything wrong with modern approaches to remastering," writes author Matt McDonough. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe this is the epitome of first world problems. Maybe this is a problem that only occurs when you have too little to worry about in your life. But I think this issue is important, not only to me, but for the entire human race.

Modern music remasters are dog sh*t, and there needs to be a change.

I know, I can hear you from here, dear reader. That’s it? You say, rolling your eyes. That’s what you’re wasting our time with this week? A pathetic rant about how music used to be made better in the “good ol’ days?” by you, some disaffected 21-year-old boomer on the cusp of a quarter-life crisis? 

Yes, in the grand scheme of things, it may seem like a small issue. But hear me out: there’s a reason why I believe this is important. Music is one of the small joys that can be afforded by just about anyone. With the advent of streaming services and the ability for artists to put their work online, people from all sorts of backgrounds can partake in the rich and diverse tapestry of music. Many remasters absolutely ruin the experience and effect of the original work, watering it down for future generations. Art is being sullied, and that I cannot abide.

First, what’s a remaster? Remastering is when a label or an artist goes into their catalogue and touches up the audio on a past work, and releases it to the market. On paper, this sounds pretty good. You can pick up an album from decades ago for a pretty fair price online. Or better yet, you can stream it for free or with a monthly fee with the streaming service of your choice.

The problem? In my experience, nearly all these remasters are done poorly. I don’t know what knobs they fiddle with, or what dials they press in their workstation, but somehow they wind up sounding worse. What once was a nice and even mix, where you were able to clearly hear and define each instrument, is now all muddled and the audio is blown-out.

What do I mean? The best example I can think of is the original mix of Megadeth’s Rust in Peace versus their 2004 remaster. It epitomizes everything wrong with modern approaches to remastering. The original mix is just perfect. Gunshot-like drums, a rich, full bass and piercing, dual guitars. Yet, the 2004 mix botches this in a spectacular fashion. The mix sounds tinny and cheap, the bass has been weakened, and the guitars have lost their edge.

It’s hard to convey the experience of listening to something in a written format, but these versions can be easily found on YouTube so you can see (or hear, rather) for yourself. Again, in my experience, these are the issues that many remasters face. Everything is made louder while the low-end of the mix flounders. It results in an experience where everything sounds flat, loud and ill-defined. 

This isn’t to say that there aren’t good remasters out there. There are entire record labels dedicated to the creation of high fidelity remasters for your enjoyment, particularly for jazz. Yet, they aren’t as easily available as whatever’s put on Spotify, Amazon or Apple Music. We’re stuck with the roughest cuts of music out there while the juicer, richer remasters graze on open, expensive pastures.

As listeners, we shouldn’t just accept whatever is thrown in front of us by a label. That way, they’re able to produce more of these terrible remasters and sully an artist’s legacy by creating a distorted facsimile of their work. I don’t know what exactly can be done to change this trend, but if enough burgeoning audio engineers become aware of this issue, then perhaps we’ll be able to experience remasters that feel like they have been remastered.