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Lou Reed’s digital remasters once brought him to tears

“When Lou was in the studio, he was a perfectionist. He knew exactly everything he wanted to use. And when it came to mastering, nobody cared as much as he did.”

Lou Reed never cared about what you thought of him. He followed the punk ethos right up until the very moment he passed away on October 27, 2013 at age 71. But Reed — gifted songwriter/guitarist/vocalist, co-founder of the legendary Velvet Underground, gender-bending David Bowie collaborator, and indelible influence on countless generations of artists ranging from R.E.M. to Green Day — was also something else that was quite remarkable. That is, Lou Reed was an audiophile. In fact, he was as meticulous about the sound quality of his recordings as anyone I’ve ever known or heard in the music business.

I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

The proof can be found throughout the recently remastered release, The RCA & Arista Album Collection (RCA/Legacy), a 17-disc box set covering the 16 solo albums Reed produced in a 15-year timespan, from his self-titled 1972 solo debut through 1986’s Mistrial. And what a revelation it is: From the stacked female harmonies and sweet sax solo on 1972’s Walk on the Wild Side to the quieter, ever-building passages of 1976’s Coney Island Baby to the abject guitar fury of 1982’s The Blue Mask, this massive collection reinforces the unyielding passion Reed had for making sure every single song he cut was produced to his exacting aural specifications.

Spearheading the remastering effort was engineer Vlado Meller (Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash), who, along with box set producer Hal Willner, often worked side by side with Reed himself at Masterdisk in New York City in June and July 2013 to make sure the man’s explicitly expressed sonic expectations were met to a hi-res T.

“Lou was in the room telling me exactly what he wanted to hear, and thanks to digital technology, we were able to do a beautiful job with it,” Meller confirmed to Digital Trends. “We took the original masters and restored them to their natural beauty — the way they were meant to be heard when they were first recorded.”

The Czechoslovakian-born Meller spoke with Digital Trends to discuss what it was like working with Reed in the studio, the importance of sourcing original masters, and the differences between mastering for vinyl versus mastering for CD. A hustle here and a hustle there has now resulted in a box set for the ages.

Digital Trends: Lou Reed was always chasing after a certain standard for how he wanted things to sound on his albums, and it seems like you were finally able to achieve that goal together.

Vlado Meller: Yeah. Surprisingly, his master tapes were of really good quality. I was totally shocked when I compared the original CDs to the tapes — and I’m talking about 15 ips (inches per second), 2-track tape here. (15 ips is the generally acknowledged standard magnetic tape speed for multitrack recorders in the studio environment.)

Vlado Meller

In some cases, I imagine they used second, or even third-generation masters to cut those original CDs, rather than use the original masters.

That’s very possible, yes. That’s the way the record companies operated. They would also make copies of those originals for Japan, for Holland, and for Germany, but they were all really meant for vinyl. People didn’t realize it until a few years later when the CDs came out that they weren’t meant to be used that way. I mean, these mixes were made specifically for vinyl, not for CDs.

What was it like working with Lou in the studio?

Lou would show up many times each week and sit down for two and three hours at a time to listen to what I was doing. Finally, he heard the stuff he had wanted to hear for the last 25 to 30 years, which he couldn’t do before. I asked him how much he had liked his original CDs, and he told me personally that he’d never listen to them again because they were so bad.

When he was in the studio, he was a perfectionist. He knew exactly what microphone he wanted to use, what tape, what speed, what effects — everything. And when it came to mastering, it seemed like nobody cared as much as he did.

I’ve spoken with many artists who get frustrated at that stage, because what they sign off on in the studio and what comes back to them are often two very different things. They wind up thinking, “I spent six months to a year working on this, and now I have to compromise?”

He did have to compromise back then, so we had to be meticulous with the tape transfers. We transferred them to the digital format at 96kHz/24-bit.

For this project, you had to go hi-res all the way.

Yes. We started with the hi-res masters, and it’s a true transfer. Whatever he had on the tapes is exactly what went into the digital domain. I don’t care who tells you what about recording in digital, but all the original nuances are right there on the tape. Everything he wanted to hear was always there.

“I never saw an artist cry before in the studio like that. He was so happy with the remasters.”

When everything became what he wanted to hear, he was totally blown away. If I can quote him directly, this is what he said about it — and it was also quoted in the book that’s in the box set — “Holy fucking shit, listen to this!”

And he was crying. I never saw an artist cry before in the studio like that. He was so happy with it — so happy to be alive, and to be able to listen to this stuff. He got to listen to every CD we mastered, but unfortunately, he died before we were able to complete all the packaging a year and a half, two years later.

But I’m so happy he was there with me so he could listen to what I was doing and tell me what he wanted more of or less of. It was a beautiful experience, you know?

Sure sounds like it was. Lou first became aware of you because you had mastered Lulu, the album he did with Metallica in 2011.

That’s the reason he knew about me, yes. And you know the truth about it — some people love that music, and some people hate his music.

I may be in the minority, but I happen to like that album — and I bought it on vinyl, too. In the box set’s book, there’s a line where David Bowie told Laurie Anderson [Reed’s widow, and a fully adventurous recording artist in her own right] that Lulu is going to be one of those albums people come around to much later and wind up calling a masterpiece, much like they did with Berlin (1973).

I think Lou was way before anybody’s time. If you listen to his music from 30 and 40 years ago, it’s pretty much current with right now. Younger generations are relating to it the same as they are with new music.

Oh yeah. He is The Original Wrapper, after all — and we’ve got the proof! (both laugh) [The Original Wrapper, a track on 1986’s Mistrial, is Lou’s way of poking fun at his vocal delivery, which was often cited, for better or worse, as being similar to a rapper’s flow.]

Some people thought he was good and some people hated his guts, but he couldn’t give a shit what other people thought — and that’s what I loved about him. He was his own man. Either you like it, and that’s great — but if you didn’t like it, go fuck yourself!

“If you listen to his music from 30 and 40 years ago, it’s pretty much current with right now.”

And that’s pretty much who he was. He was a creative genius. To be able to see an artist listen to his own recorded work and be able to compare it to his old CDs — which, like I said before, he didn’t ever want to listen to because he was so disgusted with them — to see him have that level of pleasure when he was listening to what we did is a great honor.

We finished working on it together in late September 2013. We had been working on it on and off that summer, when we were getting the masters as Sony was transferring them. And then it was in October when he passed away.

I’m glad he lived long enough to hear his early solo catalog come full circle. What did he focus on the most when you two were in the studio together?

His main thing was his vocals, the drums, and the reverb. He had a specific reverb he wanted, and he used a guy in Germany who had special vocal micing for it. He was very smart about it.

I must say, as an artist, he knew what room he wanted to record in, exactly when he wanted to record, what type of setup he wanted to have, and what he wanted to hear. Essentially, he was telling the mixing engineer how he wanted to hear it mixed. That was the type of guy he was.

He achieved a very great sound. Listening to those original 15 ips, 2-track tapes, I can tell you — it was absolutely amazing. Then you’d put the original CDs on and go, “What the fuck happened over there?” It was the same question he had about them.

And what’s quoted in the book is only an excerpt of what he said to me regularly. This was the constant conversation, every day. At first, he couldn’t believe it — he thought I was “enhancing” things, or “cheating” them somehow. I told him, “Take the CD home, and listen there. Obviously, you don’t know my speakers and my setup here like you do your own; why would you? So take it home with you and play it there, or in your car, or your boombox, and then call me back.”

Every second day he would come back to the studio to work on the next one, and his regular line was, “That’s fucking amazing! It’s unbelievable! What did you do?” And I would tell him, “We’re running 96/24 versions of your original masters with limited EQ, trying to get decent levels for all of them.”

Playing the original master, you could hear everything — the beautiful low end, the beautiful midrange, and the high end. Everything is there, but the original CDs would be missing half of that! I can understand how that happens for the vinyl, but to have that happen for the CDs — that’s unexplainable to me. How is this possible? Don’t tell me the converters were wrong! (chuckles)

As somebody who played I Love You Suzanne and the title track to New Sensations (1984) into the ground on the original (and not-that-great) RCA vinyl, to be able to finally hear those tracks the way Lou himself intended is totally refreshing.

What’s in this package is the way Lou wanted you to hear it. He’s an artist, and you have to respect the artist. As a mastering engineer, I don’t question the way the songs are structured. I just do the job to make it better for the artist, and for the listener. To see Lou’s reaction to it in person was one of the best rewards for me.