An interview with
Steve Hoffman (2011)

By Beppe Colli
June 28, 2011

I have to confess that things haven't always been great between me and lovers of Hi-Fi. Maybe it's just a matter of bad luck, but the majority of audiophiles I've met were of the kind that are slaves to audio fads and go crazy about things whose usefulness I consider to be, at best, dubious (and let's not talk about cables, please...). When it came to music things were even worse: from Ottorino Respighi and his Pines of Rome to Tomita to the Puppini Sisters, the lag between those monster Hi-Fi sets and music that was... well, let's call it unremarkable, was impossible to ignore.

However, becoming aware of the fact that two different pressings of what was - apparently - the same LP sounded very different; that a CD of an LP album that was dear to me didn't necessarily feature "the same music"; that a fantastic-sounding CD could be reborn as a squashed, compressed monstrosity; all made me investigate the way recorded music is produced.

One of the (very few) (re)mastering engineers whose work is held in high esteem all over the world, Steve Hoffman sports a CV that's literally immense. While quite a few interviews he's given in the course of the last fifteen years have taught me quite a bit about many topics, lately it's the Forum the lives under the umbrella of his website ( that has given me surprises every day. I'd like to stress the fact that it's an ad-free Forum I'm talking about, which lives thanks to voluntary donations; and that one can visit and read the threads even if one is not a registered member.

Steve Hoffmann kindly accepted my proposal to answer a few written questions, which were sent to him, via e-mail, last week.

Though I'm sure you've already answered this question a million times, I'd like to know if your background was initially music, or a technical one? I mean, by the time you started your engineering practice, were you coming from a musician's perspective - i.e., somebody who played an instrument with a certain degree of proficiency - or, say, as a listener who liked both music and electronics?

I never had a technical background at all. It was always music. The technical stuff happened because I needed to know how to do it so I could fix the music I love.

Do you remember the time when you first became aware of the difference in sound between different LP editions? If I remember correctly, in a thread that appeared in your Forum about the recent mono CD edition of Younger Than Yesterday by The Byrds that you remastered, you said that, at the time of the album's original release, after listening to those tracks in mono all the time, the stereo version you heard in somebody's home sounded "wrong".

You mean between editions of the same album, in stereo, I assume. It was 1976 and I took a job at a radio automation company making tapes of music for radio stations. The song was Uncle Albert by McCartney. The library gave me 2 albums of Ram to work with, the original US Apple, and a new 1976 recutting. I was shocked at how different they were. I hadn't noticed changes like that because I never had two of the same album at home but cut at different times. The new issue sounded worse than the old Apple version but it had cleaner vinyl so I used it. From then on I was aware of differences in mastering.

I assume that when Younger Than Yesterday was originally released you were quite young. As a listener, were you aware, at the time, of "progress" in recorded sound? And did some records struck you as having a "different" sound, a "sonic fingerprint"? (Such as: UK vs. USA, or Stax vs. Motown, or Olympic vs. EMI, or...)

I thought Younger Than Yesterday sounded pretty bad on my little Zenith portable stereo. The drums were faint, there was no bass and the recording sounded "distant". Compared to the Dave Clark Five Glad All Over where the drums were up close and full and the bass was very strong and low. But, the music came first and I tried to ignore the changes in sound. I could tell a Motown song vs. a Stax song, etc. but everyone could back then although we didn't put it into words. Do you understand? Hard to explain...

I assume that when doing a remaster one has to ponder some heavy philological matters - besides the technical issues concerning the actual remastering process. When you remastered Laura Nyro's "best of" CD - Time And Love: The Essential Masters - you actually took the time to go back to the original master tapes. And (again: provided I remember correctly) it seems to me that when you talked about your recent remaster of James Taylor's One Man Dog you stressed the fact that from song to song the sound now changes, instead of all the songs having the same "tonality" as it was on a previously released CD edition. Would you mind elaborating?

Well, I just want the listening experience to be nice. I don't want to tamper with the sound of the old mixes even if some of them sound better or worse than another song on the album. I do not however want to startle the listener out of the mood by ignoring blatant changes in sound. Is that what you mean?

A CD re-release of an old LP offers the chance to "better", to "improve", the original, and I think that, time and time again, quite a few remastering engineers have gladly accepted this responsibility - for instance, I own a 24bit remastered version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Bayou Country where Stu Cook sounds a lot like Jaco Pastorious! But I'd like to know if - besides obvious factors such as budget constraints, sheer laziness or carelessness, the "loudness wars", etc. - a lot of mastering engineers nowadays actually know how a group such as Creedence really sounded back in the day, or what a Marshall top + Marshall bottom, 4x12, combination actually sounds like in a room. Or, indeed, that a certain piece of equipment - say, a digital reverb - had not been invented yet at the time album x was recorded. What's your take on this?

Well, most mastering engineers today have never even seen an analog tape machine let alone know how to work one. Letís face it, the stuff I work with is really old and most engineers work on newer stuff (which I would be lost at).

Still, I would expect any engineer to know the basic sound of real life instruments and voices but you would be surprised at how many of them don't care. These engineers want to leave THEIR mark on the music which of course to me is totally wrong, wrong, wrong.

Quite a few times one has to face "the devil's alternative", i.e., whether to buy an old CD mastered from high-generation tapes, unfutzed; or, a recently remastered CD, purportedly "off the original master tapes", with strong doses of added signal processing of a modern kind. Is there a better way to proceed than a "case-by-case" basis?

No, not really. It depends on the label, the date of issue and who was in charge. Frustrating, isn't it?

Unlike boomers, young consumers/music listeners have grown up in an age when music isn't necessarily sold on a physical support - nor it is customary for them to pay for the music they listen to. Judging from those heated discussions I happen to read all over the Web, most music listeners are quite indifferent to the financial well-being of musicians, engineers, studio owners, and the like, all of whom are often condemned under the umbrella name "the industry". As an engineer, do you see a decline in the standards of sound recording, now that most great studios of the past have closed their doors?

Well, yes, of course. The old studios are mainly gone and so is the sound. Problem is, no one really cares, it seems. Not the musicians, not the label and not the consumer so what can one do? Not much...

Though the "reissue industry" has so far benefited from a resurgence of interest in many things past, it seems to me that most music writers and, judging from my personal experience, many music buyers are totally indifferent to the actual quality of the re-released items, with both sub-par editions - when it comes to source tape, remastering and (vinyl) pressing - and excellent editions receiving similar degrees of applause. Do you think that nowadays music is just another item in the parade of the fashion industry?

I think that historically, reviewers, artists and producers donít much care about sound quality the way audiophiles do. I've seen many homes of music stars and they have really bad playback systems. I mean, like a portable boom box or something. Shocking to me but if they want to hear themselves in great sound, all they have to do is to sing or play!

Talking about "classic rock", I have a weakness for the sound of Simon Kirke's drums on Bad Company's first album. I recently got to know that you remastered said album, which quickly went out of print. So now I have two alternatives: a) downloading the album from "somewhere" (a no-no for me); b) buying the album for $xxx on eBay (which I'd never do). Being a simple man, I ask: Why a "superior-sounding" version is allowed to go out of print, and all we are left with is an inferior, squashed-sounding CD?

You must understand, the producers, labels, artists, etc. think the inferior squashed-sounding CD sounds REALLY GOOD and my version does not. They like that bad sound. What can one do in the face of that? Sometimes they humor us audiophiles, but mostly they just laugh at us...

Anything else to add? (Ha! What about "the Cloud"?)

For me, any music delivery device is ok as long as it has some semblance of high fidelity. I mean, some of my favorite music of all time was recorded in the early 20th Century before Hi-Fi was invented or even imagined. Still wonderful to listen to. There are always people who just accept what they hear on the radio or whatever as the only way to listen to music. But, there are always people in every generation who want to listen to all kinds of music, delivered in many different ways. That's fine with me. As long as a young kid is discovering the Beatles or Jelly Roll Morton, the music lives on!

© Beppe Colli 2011 | June 28, 2011