Copied without permission from Stereo Review Magazine, June 1992
Written by Glenn Kenny
"None of the mechanics of reproducing music interest me at all," Robert Fripp admits midway through a conversation on that very subject. "What interests me are the rare moments when music leans over and takes you into its confidence. But the composer/guitarist's altogether reasonable belief that such moments as have been documented on vinyl should make the transition to a new music-storage medium intact has forced him to take an active interest in those mechanics.
For Fripp, a particularly pressing case in point- although not the only one, since his work over the past two decades and more has generated a wide range of reissued recordings- is the catalog of his band King Crimson, one of the most controversial and influential of the so-called progressive rock bands that began popping up in the late 1960's. As the compact disc took off in the mid-1980's, record companies began reissuing their back catalogs on CD. Since the new format boasted "perfect sound forever," and since it could replicate highs and lows that were effectively unreproducible on vinyl, many assumed that CD reissues would sound at least as good as their vinyl forbears, if not better.
But, as a legion of professionals and consumers have learned, and are still learning, it's not necessarily that simple. One early example of that was the initial batch of King Crimson CD reissues. Fripp was not even aware of what was happening to some of his most famous recordings until he received a royalty statement from EG, which at the time was both his management firm and his record company.
"When EG first released the Crimson catalog on CD," Fripp recalls, "it was a straight transfer from copy masters in the 15-ips(inches per second) quarter-inch format done by people I'd never met, probably assistant engineers in various studios. In other words, it was done badly. The [band] paid for the cost of that transfer. I remember quite well receiving my royalty check and discovering 5000 pounds had been deducted from my royalties for the CD transfer, although I hadn't been involved in it at all."
Complaints about the noisy, muddy CD versions of such albums as King Crimson's legendary 1969 debut, "In the Court of the Crimson King," began showing up in the press and at EG's offices- "sentiments with which I heartily concurred," says Fripp. "My view was...if that material were to be available on CD, it should be the best format and best condition reasonably available." So Fripp took matters into his own hands- at his own expense- and teamed up with renowned audio engineer Tony Arnold to remaster the King Crimson catalog once again. The fruits of their efforts can be heard on a dozen individual reissues of Crimson and Fripp albums and on the recently released four-disc box set "Frame By Frame: The Essential King Crimson."
It wasn't easy. In most cases, particularly with the earliest of King Crimson recordings, the original master tapes- that is, the tapes used to create the first vinyl version- were unavailable. Fripp and Arnold had only "copy masters" to work with, second or third generation masters supplied to companies releasing the record outside of the country of origin.
"When 'Court' was cut in America from the quarter-inch copy master, there was a fault in the right channel. What we did to balance it at that time was to add 10k [10,000Hz] and let the right side break up.... And when we remastered it in 1989, instead of using a fixed-band EQ we used dynamic equalization with an Aphex. The currently available remastered 'Court' has things on it you can't hear even on the original vinyl. But the master [we had to use] was flawed, probably because the original two-track machine at Wessex Studio in 1969 that made it had either a worn or damaged head on the right channel, or else there was dirt on the head which wasn't recognized at the time. The original master- I have no idea where it is. I'm only working from the best copy masters I can get. The eight-track of 21st Century Schizoid Man was stolen from the Wessex tape stock, which in those days was a cupboard that anyone could go into and lift a tape out of. You see, [pop] recording in 1969 was by and large not a professional business."
The difficulties Fripp describes are not unusual ones. What is shocking is the music industry's apparent tendency to overlook such difficulties when preparing back-catalog recordings for CD reissue. A recent Billboard article reported that Roger Nichols, the ace engineer behind Steely Dan's sound, made digital transfers of the already deteriorating masters of the Steely Dan album for MCA's use in the early 1980's, but MCA ran off only one pressing from those transfers and then reverted to second or third generation masters for subsequent runs. Another calamity revealed was the use of equalized masters for CD transfers. Such masters are intended solely for use on vinyl, with equalization on cuts near the end of a side to compensate for potential groove-tracing problems. Under the microscope of digital recording and CD playback, such equalization can sound gruesome.
Fripp is familiar with all these horror stories- he's been embroiled with his former management firm over CD transfers and much, much more for a good number of years (he does seem to enjoy friendly relations with Virgin, which now owns EG's record catalog). Still, after detailing a litany of fairly outrageous music-industry abuses, he says, "I'm not cynical about it. What it comes down to is this: In a democratic society the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I've got to be eternally vigilant about my catalog."
Although Fripp is far happier with his own King Crimson reissues than with the initial batch, he insists that, given more time and money, he could do better. Fripp and Arnold are continually looking at both analog and digital equipment that will enable them to improve their efforts.
"Since we did those remasters, technology has moved on again. I'm about to go into the studio with Tony Arnold again to experiment with the very latest technology in noise reduction. This system is being pioneered by a man who worked for the English Department of Defense, in radar. And what's he's done is use that technology to hunt hiss. Arnold himself is now off to check the latest on-the-market noise-reduction system- 1,000 pounds a day to hire. His test for such systems is to put through them this old tape he has of a drummer using brushes. And if the noise reduction removes the brushes along with the hiss, the noise reduction is not effective. So we may be able to move the format along a little further for future releases."
Not that Fripp is completely pleased with the CD format to begin with. IN the vinyl vs. CD debate, he falls into the vinyl camp, but only in ideal terms: "I accept that people with real ears probably would prefer vinyl to CD's. However, if you use vinyl, you've got to have a superb pressing plant, you've got to have superb metal work. And you're not going to get it."
All this might suggest that Robert Fripp is living in the past, but that's far from the truth. He recently completed a mini tour of Japan with musicians David Sylvian and Trey Gunn and performed in a Guitar Masters series at New York City's World Financial Center, both solo and with students of his own Guitar Craft school. And for this year's end he's planning the next incarnation of, yes, King Crimson. "The players are in place," he says, smiling a Cheshire Cat smile that means, no, I'm not going to tell you their names, and, yes, it will be worth the wait to find out.