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New Order’s remastered Substance might not be all good news

  • It’s been a long time coming but this November, New Order will finally re-issue Substance 1987. Substance might not be the best New Order album (that’d be Technique) but it is undoubtedly the band’s most iconic – no doubt assisted by Peter Saville’s austere cover art. And if not iconic, it’s the one that many people own (and go back to).

    Originally issued by Factory Records across 2LPs, Substance 1987 gives us a dozen twelve-inch versions from the band’s inception up to 1987’s “True Faith” and, much to the chagrin of purists, included reworks of “Temptation”, “Confusion” and the second version of “Ceremony”. The second disc of the 2CD set added a reasonably comprehensive range of b-sides whose number was further extended by the double cassette edition.

    The 2023 2LP edition – including a limited indie-only red and blue vinyl version – mirrors the original vinyl’s tracklist and the 2023 twin cassette edition also mirrors its 1987 cousin. However, the new CD edition has been expanded from two discs to four to include the previously cassette-only b-sides, the original versions of “Temptation”, “Ceremony” and “Confusion” and Shep Pettibone’s Morning Sun remix / True Dub of “True Faith” (which aren’t easy to find on CD), all on the third disc. The fourth CD features a live concert recorded in California in 1987 which sees New Order play the entire Substance set in track order. Weird — but OK.

    So: should we pre-order the new version and sell our original vinyl – which might fetch a pretty penny on Discogs if we’re quick – or throw our original chunky-cased 2CDs and double cassettes (in some cases with slip cover) onto the fire?

    Not so fast.

    The 2023 edition of Substance is not only a re-issue but a remaster. And sound quality-minded buyers know to dig into a remaster’s dynamic range score before dropping their cash on a reissue or – worse – disposing of an original edition.

    What in the Martin Hannett is a dynamic range score?

    Dynamic range compression is often used by mastering engineers (often at the behest of the label) to make a record sound louder and more exciting to the listener. But to those who care about sound quality, dynamically compressed masters can sound exhausting to listen to, especially when listening to an entire album. Why? Because (and I am oversimplifying for clarity) the quieter sounds have been brought up to (almost) the same volume level as the louder sounds by the mastering engineer.

    The more liberal use of dynamic range compression began in the mid-1990s and led to an audio arms race that is often referred to as The Loudness Wars. This is where modern remasters compete for our attention via more dynamic range compression, which often results in a low DR score.

    Case in point, New Order’s 2005 Singles compilation suffers from heavy dynamic range compression. When analysed with MAAT’s DR Offline MKII app, the two CDs return average dynamic range scores of DR5 and DR6. These low scores confirm what we hear: that a significant amount of dynamic range compression was applied by the mastering engineer. They sound loud and are tiring to listen to.

    2011’s Total compilation was a one-disc affair that took in a handful of Joy Division cuts for a score of DR9. It sounds clearly better than Singles. What about Retro, the 4CD (or limited 5CD) set issued in 2002? Its discs come in at DR7, DR8, DR8, DR10 and DR10 respectively. Not terrible but not great either.

    And yet none of these New Order compilations is a match for the original Substance 1987 2CD which remains a joy to listen to and where each CD greets us with DR13.

    In recent years, New Order has issued ‘Definitive’ box set editions of the band’s early albums. And those box sets contain remastered audio. The original CD of Movement registers DR13 in DR Offline MKII but 2008’s 2CD remastered Collector’s Edition gives us DR9/9 and 2019’s ‘Definitive Edition’ (a different remaster) DR10. Power, Corruption & Lies’ remastering treatment has seen it go from DR14 for the original CD to DR11/11 for 2008’s 2CD Collector’s Edition to DR9 for 2019’s ‘Definitive Edition’. Low Life? It has fallen from DR12 to DR10 to DR8 as remasters have been issued down the years.

    To be clear: I am not saying that a recording’s dynamic range score gives us a singular definitive take on its sound quality. What I am saying is that a recording’s dynamic range will impact what we hear more than the format itself. In other words, listeners will hear the quality of the master before they hear the advantages (or disadvantages) of their chosen playback format. This is me pushing back on “remastered = better” because, in my experience and for the reasons outlined above, remastered editions predominantly sound worse than the originals. I can’t stand seeing this happen to classic albums that we have loved for decades but I fully realise that most listeners won’t care — but audiophiles will.

    I’ll be buying the 2023 4CD edition to have on CD the cuts that were previously only available on cassette but given New Order’s past form with compilations and remasters, I remain concerned that the 2023 take on Substance 1987 will be blighted by the mastering studio’s excessive use of dynamic range compression. (I’ll be reporting back when the time comes).

    It doesn’t have to be this way. We only have to look at – and listen to – the 2023 editions of Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones (DR14), Rain Dogs (DR12) and Frank’s Wild Years (DR13) to see and hear just how modern remasters can be done without the need to make ’em louder.

    Further information: New Order Store

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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