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They say in the entertainment business that you're only as good as your last hit. But poised as we are at the end of the century, there is a natural impulse

They say in the entertainment business that you’re only as good as your last hit. But poised as we are at the end of the century, there is a natural impulse to look back and perhaps try to immortalize the past for posterity. If you’re in the record business, there’s the added incentive of knowing that CD reissues in general-and the “box set” phenomenon in particular-have proven that there’s a considerable market for artists whose last hits were decades ago. Working at the intersection of these cultural and commercial motivations, Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings label set out to create a monument to the recorded music of the modern era. The result is a new 26-CD box set called Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century.

Legacy’s executive producers for the set were Steve Berkowitz and Jeff Jones. Berkowitz, Legacy’s VP of A&R, points out that despite the “100 Years” reference in the title, 2000 will actually mark the 113th year of continuous operation for Columbia Records, the label at the core of what is now Sony Music. “The hundredth-anniversary box set should have been in 1987,” Berkowitz says, “but the company didn’t do it. So we felt this would be an appropriate time to build a monument to the artists, the music and the history of this company. We also wanted to create a document that would be an overview of the century of musical recordings of North America.”

Beyond the documentary aspect of the set, however, Berkowitz says Legacy wanted to make “products for the celebration of the millennium, and to make music available for all the retrospectives that are going on. We wanted to make these recordings available to all the people who are interested in looking back, or in discovering.” Based of these goals, Berkowitz says he and Jones knew they would be creating “an incredibly large release.” The set, which reached stores in September, comes with a 310-page hardbound book and sells for $329.

“We know that many people’s budgets won’t allow them to buy such a set,” Berkowitz continues, “and that many people will only be interested in certain types of music.” The solution was to organize the discs in the set according to musical categories, and to make volumes based on those categories available for individual sale. The categories are: Jazz, Country, Broadway, Movie Music, Classical, Pop (three volumes), Folk, Gospel & Blues, Rock, R&B and International. Except for the four-CD classical volume ($36), each volume is a two-CD set selling for $24. The volumes each include their own 64-page booklet.

Releasing both the entire set and the individual volumes makes the project “both a documentary and a set of great commercial compilations,” Berkowitz says, “Hopefully we provided a very wide overview of the century, but then also a very specific overview of the history of different musical genres and artists throughout the century. In so doing, we also display the history of the business, the recording technology, and the evolution and destruction of trends.”

PICKING THE TRACKSThe first challenge in producing the box was choosing from the vast body of material available in the archives of CBS/Sony Music labels such as Columbia, Epic, OKeh, Vocalion, ARC (American Recording Company) and Brunswick. Aside from the general requirement that the music be noteworthy within its genre, Berkowitz says some specific criteria were used to guide the selection process: “Except for the International volume, the set covers North American music whose original release was worked-marketed, promoted at radio and sold to retail-by the CBS/Sony Music labels. In some cases, that meant we tried to license music, such as Chicago or Elvis Costello, that was on Columbia when it was first released, but that we no longer own or distribute.”

An A&R committee of 17-some from within the Sony family of labels and others brought in from the outside for their knowledge of the music and its role in recorded history-was primarily responsible for the selection process. Berkowitz and Jones chose individual producers who played an important role in choosing material for the various volumes, and executives at each label also weighed in. The preferences of many of the artists or their estates were also considered. After a lot of back and forth between all the concerned parties, a final list was developed containing 542 tracks. “It was a very tough decision,” Berkowitz says.

Once the list was available and source material located, the work of transferring and mastering the material was handled at Sony Music Studios in New York City. Because of the size of the project, the work involved a number of the facility’s engineers. According to mastering engineer Mark Wilder, “Each engineer mastered a volume or two from the set, so the same engineer would master material originating from disc transfers all the way up to recordings made in the 1990s.”

TRACKS WITHOUT TAPESFor music before the middle of the century (when tape recording began in the United States), there are no original master tapes. “The pre-tape material came primarily from shellac, lacquer and metal parts sources,” says Darcy Proper, another Sony mastering engineer. “For the pre-1930s material, one of the most difficult aspects of the project was locating sources for the desired songs. Many of the original parts are no longer available from the Columbia vaults. Many of the tracks from this period were transferred from shellacs owned by private individuals, and it took some serious research to find them.”

Neither Proper nor Wilder were directly involved in transfers from the pre-tape sources, but Proper says that the discs were typically transferred “from a specialized turntable, through a high-end A/D converter, to either DAT or directly to a digital audio workstation, in most cases a Sonic Solutions Sonic Studio. The mastering engineer would then process the material, using EQ, compression and noise removal, according to their judgment and that of the producer.”

One factor influencing the extent to which a given selection was processed for noise removal, Proper says, was the type of material preceding and following that selection. The use of noise mitigation technology was not across-the-board. “A lot of the choices about restoration were made jointly with each producer,” Wilder explains. “Some producers have very opinionated views on Sonic NoNoise and CEDAR, and how to utilize each. One of the more popular ways of processing was to do a CEDAR pass using multiple processes, and then during the editing phase to use processes in the Sonic System to tidy up.”

As for the tape recordings, the formats involved offer a history of the evolution of tape technology since the 1950s. “From 1950-1956, we have 11/44-inch mono masters,” Wilder says. “In 1955-56, we start to see binaural moving into stereo. Starting in 1956, we occasionally have 3-tracks, which become commonplace by 1958. About 1965-66, we see 4-tracks used by some of the more adventurous Columbia engineers. 1968 brought in the use of 8-track.”

One might think that the older the tape, the worse its condition, but that doesn’t necessarily turn out to be the case. “Almost all of our tapes up to the early ’60s are in great shape,” Wilder says. “The only ailments they would have are poor winds and brittleness. In the early ’60s, we start to see shedding problems, especiallyinner bands [closest to the hub], then it gets better until the ’70s, when we see massive shedding, which hardly eases up until the ’90s.”

One factor that made the process easier in many cases was the availability of song versions that had already been mastered for inclusion on other CDs. “If material was previously mastered, in general, we would honor that mastering and insert it into the set,” Wilder says. “On occasion, early CD masterings of material would be considered and sometimes redone. Also, there were instances where mastered material would be altered slightly to help it fit within the set.”

In every case, a listening session proved the final factor in deciding what would be used as the source. “It was always done on a case-by-case basis with the producer playing an important part in that decision-making process,” Proper says.

THE MASTERING PROCESS”For the volumes I worked on,” Wilder says, “we started by finding all the CD masters, original mixed master tapes, original session multitrack tapes and any disc transfers that were done. We would listen to each CD master to determine if it was acceptable. If the CD master was acceptable, it was transferred to the DAW and became the basis from which we worked.”

If there was no CD master version, or if it was not acceptable, Wilder says, “we would check the condition of the original mixed master tapes and listen to them to see if they were acceptable. If so, we would A/B between the two tape machines in my studio to hear which brought us closer to the sound we wanted. Then the signal would pass through a Cello custom mastering suite, and we would check different converters for their impact on the sound. Once we chose a converter, I would process as needed and transfer to hard drive.”

In some cases, no acceptable mixed master was found, and the tracks would be remixed. “The decision to remix varied from producer to producer,” Wilder says. “Some producers enjoy remixing, and we would remix almost everything. We would mix the 3-tracks and 4-tracks after all the mono and 2-track transfers. Generally, I would mix directly to the hard drives through Neve modules set up as a mini-console, while A/B comparing with the original mixed master. Once everything was inside the computer, we would edit and do some of the smaller cleanup work.”

Proper describes a similar process, but using different gear: “The console in my mastering room was designed and built by the engineering staff at Sony Music Studios, and I use that for 2-track mastering rather than the Cello mastering suite used by Mark. I also tend to use a Studer analog console for mixing more often than the Neve modules, though I did use the Neves for a few tracks on the discs I mastered for this set. The decision of which console, tape machines, converters and EQs to use was based solely on which combination of gear would produce the right sound for a particular musical selection.”

While drawing the best sound out of each source was the prime concern, the challenges were not always strictly technical. “Given the amount of producers, all of whom wanted it done the way they are used to, there was a lot of technical juggling,” Wilder says. “What was needed from an engineering point of view was an open mind toward each producer and their way of working.”

Both Wilder and Proper also point out that the time span covered by each volume was much larger than any typical compilation involving a single artist. That amplified the importance of the role of mastering, which is to create a cohesive whole from a set of parts. “When a CD begins with material dating back to the pre-tape era and ends with material from the late ’60s or early ’70s, there are a lot of transitions that need to be made, from both technological and musical standpoints,” Proper explains. “Retaining the character of the recordings without calling the casual listener’s attention to the changing technology was a very challenging aspect of putting together this collection.”

While the broad range of material made mastering the volumes more difficult, it was also part of what ultimately made the job so interesting. “Working on this set really brought to my attention how each era in music and recording has its own definitive personality, both in the character of the music itself and the inherent sound of the recording medium,” Proper says. “It makes me wonder what our modern recordings will sound like to the ears of future listeners.”

In a sense, answering that very question is part of what Soundtrack for a Century may someday accomplish, Berkowitz says: “I think that if someone five, 20, 100 or even 200 years from now were to ask what music was like in America in the 20th century, and what was being recorded, this would be as good a document as you are ever going to find.”

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Five hundred forty-two tracks are a daunting number for even the most hardened audiophile to tackle. So a few Mix staffers assembled a selection of pop, rock, folk, country, jazz and Broadway favorites from the 26 CDs in Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century-ready for programming into your CD changer.

Blair Jackson”Mack the Knife”-Louis Armstrong

“Take Five”-Dave Brubeck Quartet

“Camelot”-Richard Burton (from Camelot )

“Hickory Wind”-The Byrds

“Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day”-Cab Calloway

“London Calling”-The Clash

“So What”-Miles Davis Sextet

“Like a Rolling Stone”-Bob Dylan

“Subterranean Homesick Blues”-Bob Dylan

“Sexual Healing”-Marvin Gaye

“Comin’ in on a Wing and Prayer”-Golden Gate Quartet

“Round Midnight”-Dexter Gordon

“Pancho and Lefty”-Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson

“Don’t Let Go”-Roy Hamilton

“Hernando’s Hideaway”-Carol Haney & Ensemble (from The Pajama Game)

“God Bless the Child”-Billie Holiday

“Frankie”-Mississippi John Hurt

“Cross Road Blues”-Robert Johnson

“Me & Bobby McGee”-Janis Joplin

“Omaha”-Moby Grape

“Back Stabbers”-The O’Jays

“Some Enchanted Evening”-Ezio Pinza (from South Pacific)

“America”-Chita Rivera & Girls (from West Side Story)

“El Paso”-Marty Robbins

“These Days”-Tom Rush

“The Sounds of Silence”-Simon and Garfunkel

“The Birth of the Blues”-Frank Sinatra

“The Flat Foot Floogie”-Slim & Slam

“Everyday People”-Sly & the Family Stone

“Careless Love Blues”-Bessie Smith

“Born to Run”-Bruce Springsteen

“The Fields Have Turned Brown”-The Stanley Brothers

“Birdland”-Weather Report

“New San Antonio Rose”-Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

Chris Michie”Ruby Baby”-Dion

“The Battle Of New Orleans”-Johnny Horton

“I Put A Spell On You”-Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

“March From The River Kwai & Colonel Bogey”-Mitch Miller, His

Orchestra and Chorus (from The Bridge On The River Kwai)

“Big Bad John”-Jimmy Dean

“Sunshine Superman”-Donovan

“San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear

Some Flowers In Your Hair)”-Scott McKenzie

“Mr. Tambourine Man”-The Byrds

“Itchycoo Park”-Small Faces

“To Sir, With Love”-Lulu (from To Sir With Love)

“Stand By Your Man”-Tammy Wynette

“I Ain’t Superstitious”-Jeff Beck

“Albatross”-Fleetwood Mac

“For Your Love”-The Yardbirds

“Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is A Season)”-The Byrds

“I Got A Line On You”-Spirit

“Going Up To The Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue”-Taj Mahal

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”-Bob Dylan (from Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid)

“I Can Help”-Billy Swan

“I Want To Take You Higher”-Sly & the Family Stone

“Frankenstein”-The Edgar Winter Group

“I Can See Clearly Now”-Johnny Nash

“Kiss And Say Goodbye”-The Manhattans

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”-Michael Jackson

“Pump It Up”-Elvis Costello

“Lowdown”-Boz Scaggs

“Lady Marmalade”-LaBelle

“Rockit”-Herbie Hancock

“Smooth Operator”-Sade

“Wishing Well”-Terence Trent D’Arby

“Streets of Philadelphia”-Bruce Springsteen (from Philadelphia)

“Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)”-Maxwell

Kimberly Chun”Dream On”-Aerosmith

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”-Blue Oyster Cult

“More Than a Feeling”-Boston

“Can the Circle Be Unbroken”-The Carter Family

“Ring of Fire”-Johnny Cash”Time Has Come Today”-The Chambers Brothers

“Surrender”-Cheap Trick

“Suzanne”-Leonard Cohen

“Shining Star”-Earth, Wind & Fire

“Always Late (With Your Kisses)”-Lefty Frizzell


“Boogie Nights”-Heatwave

“Doo Wop (That Thing)”-Lauryn Hill

“Carrie-Anne”-The Hollies

“Raw Power”-Iggy & the Stooges

“It’s Your Thing”-The Isley Brothers

“He Stopped Loving Her Today”-George Jones

“Got to Be Real”-Cheryl Lynn

“Chances Are”-Johnny Mathis

“Straight, No Chaser”-Thelonious Monk Quartet

“All the Young Dudes”-Mott the Hoople


“Love Train”-The O’Jays

“Me and Mrs. Jones”-Billy Paul

“Crazy Arms”-Ray Price

“Pretty in Pink”-The Psychedelic Furs

“Bring the Noise”-Public Enemy

“Behind Closed Doors”-Charlie Rich

“Lovin’ You”-Minnie Riperton

“Hot Fun in the Summertime”-Sly & the Family Stone

“Blue Velvet”-Bobby Vinton

“Play That Funky Music”-Wild Cherry

“Moon River”-Andy Williams

“Time of the Season”-The ZombiesWe Choose the Songs So You Don’t Have To