August 25, 2014

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Callas remastering techniques revealed

Abbey Road's Simon Gibson interviews Robert Gooch, one of Callas' original sound engineers.

On 17 December 2013, Robert Gooch, the balance engineer of two of Maria Callas’s most famous recordings, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Bellini’s Norma, visited Abbey Road Studios to listen with engineer Simon Gibson to the newly remastered tapes Simon has made for the new Maria Callas edition. Robert’s recollections of the original sessions and his reaction to Simon’s restoration of the recordings he had made over half a century earlier can be heard in the following revealing segments.

SIMON GIBSON I have our new remastering of the recording here
for you to listen to. We have gone back to the original master tape and we have paid attention to the job file and all instructions it contains. This is Callas singing the second part of the aria ‘Una voce poco fa’.
[They listen to ‘Una voce poco fa’]

ROBERT GOOCH It sounds terrific! I’m amazed, I’m absolutely
amazed. Is this my original tape?

GIBSON Yes, it’s the original edited stereo master from the February 1957 sessions.

GOOCH My goodness, we were bloody good then, weren’t we!

GIBSON Of course these monitors are a lot better than the ones you would have used.

GOOCH Oh sure, we had rubbish, we had some commercial
speakers. This sounds just amazing, it’s a revelation.

GIBSON There’s just a little bit of equalisation, but not much.

GOOCH There’s enough ambience there – that’s just right, isn’t it?

GIBSON You said before our conversation that there was a previous reissue where some artificial reverberation was added, and we haven’t done that. We have just used the original tape, and it’s interesting that you said the hall was damped somewhat, because you still have a lovely resonance there.

GOOCH Incidentally, in the first act, Count Almaviva sings a serenade to Rosina with guitar accompaniment. Well, the guitarist was a young Julian Bream. That was typical of Legge – nothing but the best!

GIBSON Was he credited on the recording?

GOOCH No!

GIBSON Now, let’s turn to Norma.

GOOCH When Callas arrived [for the sessions] she was in trouble
with some congestion in her throat and she said ‘don’t worry,
tomorrow will be OK’. She came in the following day and she was
fine. We covered a great deal of recording, and she said: ‘Do you
know what I have done? Yesterday I consumed a whole tumbler of
castor oil.’ We re-named her big aria ‘Castor Diva’ after that. I said to Legge ‘what must that have done to her stomach?’
‘Nonsense, my dear boy,’ he replied, ‘these Greeks drink so much oil with their food, to her it’s just a drop in the ocean’.

[They listen to ‘Casta Diva’]

GOOCH My goodness me, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

GIBSON Does it take you back?

GOOCH Oh dear… [almost in tears]

GIBSON Did you get a chance to listen to her in the hall before you recorded?

GOOCH Not in this case, because our control room was two floors
up from the hall. Normally with the orchestral recordings at Kingsway Hall I used to spend a lot of time during the rehearsals in the hall, listening. I just couldn’t do that in La Scala. But, that voice of Callas has such an effect on me, I’m just amazed at the sound here.

GIBSON We have gone back to the original tapes – sometimes in the past they didn’t go back to the original tapes and worked from existing remasters instead.

GOOCH Well, it’s remarkable. I’m absolutely knocked over. I was
practically in tears listening to ‘Casta Diva’.

Recorded and transcribed for Warner Classics by Jon Tolansky

A note on the Maria Callas Remastered Edition

With high definition, you’ll be able to experience sounds which
have only been heard up till now by people who were either
present at Callas’s recording sessions, or who had access to the
unique master tape,’ says Allan Ramsay, one of the team of
engineers responsible for this remastering of all Callas’s studio
recordings. ‘And digital editing software has become so
sophisticated that we can correct problems which were insoluble
even a few years ago. The listener will experience something as
close as possible to the actual recording sessions.’

It sounds miraculous. Ramsay describes his aim for the
project: ‘The best way to explain a high-definition remastering is
to use the metaphor of a digital camera,’ he says. ‘Imagine the
difference in image clarity between a 1-megapixel camera and
a 12-megapixel camera. It gives an idea of the resolution we’re
now able to achieve. A cymbal crash, for instance, creates
frequencies that are audible to the human ear, but it also
creates supersonic harmonics, which are not. Those harmonics
can still be experienced as a vibration in the air, even if you
can’t hear them. Until now it has not been possible to reproduce
those frequencies for the public, as the possible range on a
CD [which operates at 44.1 kHz and 16 bits] is too low. With
high-definition, which can operate at 96 kHz and 24 bits, we’re
extending the range higher, and with more detail, than ever
before. You’ll experience that supersonic cymbal-crash almost
as if you had been in the recording studio when it was made.’
Warwick Thompson, 2014