Vinyl 360: How Sony’s Mark Wilder Masters Miles Davis LP Reissues
Posted 6/4/2013

For Record Store Day 2013 (April 20), Sony Legacy released three Miles Davis titles exclusively on vinyl in their original mono formats: Milestones, Someday My Prince Will Come and ’Round About Midnight. Mark Wilder, Sony’s senior mastering engineer, frequently works with the original session reels of Davis’ Columbia catalog. From Battery Mastering Studios in midtown Manhattan, Wilder has brought Davis’ masterpieces into the 21st century, sometimes even bettering the original LPs, as is the case with the mono vinyl edition of Milestones.

Wilder has mastered multiple Davis titles for mono vinyl release, including 1958 Miles, Jazz Track, Kind Of Blue, Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess and Sketches Of Spain. Wilder says there is “talk of a Fillmore set,” and he’s about to work on volume 3 of the Miles Davis Bootleg series. He recently mastered Kind Of Blue in 96K high-resolution format for eventual release at HDTracks.com. The Tony Bennett/Dave Brubeck CD The White House Sessions, 1962 (Legacy) is yet another Wilder production. DownBeat was given an exclusive audience with him to discuss the recent Davis mono LP reissues.

DownBeat: I have listened closely to the original mono Columbia Milestones and compared it to the new mono reissue, and the latter is clearly better.

Mark Wilder: When doing these deluxe Miles reissues, we’re going the extra mile, spending the extra time, going through everything with a fine-tooth comb and making sure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed.

DB: What distinguishes the mono from the stereo mixes?

Wilder: At Columbia, sometimes the mono and stereo mixes of the same record were done by different guys. The monos were mixed first; that mix was king. The stereo mixes weren’t haphazard, but they weren’t given the same attention as the mono mixes. The mono mixes were really thought through to get everything they wanted out of them.

DB: What was your process for mastering the mono mixes to vinyl?

Wilder: First, we order in all the mono mixes, the album masters, the A side, the B side and all the session reels. Then it’s a matter of finding the best reel. In some cases, as with Sketches Of Spain and Porgy And Bess, that’s really deep editing; [producer] Teo Macero did a lot of post-production on those records. So you have to use those masters because they have that editing signature that Teo put together. With Milestones I had the original reels, and they had a specific sound.

At Columbia [30th Street Studios] they had two tape machines running on every session, which produced a master reel and a safety reel. They cut the A and B side from the master machine. The safety reel for Milestones hadn’t been played since 1958. Hearing that safety reel was a revelation. Everything was alive and vibrant. The machine for the safety reel may have been better aligned, and it was catching the same feed from the console. It’s the same balance and same feel on the safety reel, but everything had more life. How could I pass it up?

Then my job was to edit the reels together, figuring out where the producer and engineer did the original edits in mono. This is why the original LP is always handy, because it allows me to retrace all the edits; the LP becomes a roadmap. I can compare it note-for-note through the song. Also, the original LP gives us an idea of pitch. Kind Of Blue is the perfect example. When we put the Kind Of Blue safety reels up [against the master album reels], it was clear they were at two different speeds. [2008’s Kind Of Blue: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition featured the pitch-corrected version.]

DB: That explains why there is so much more presence and overall warmth and upright-bass clarity on the new mono Milestones.

Wilder: [The safety] allowed me to do far less in mastering to reach or even exceed the original vinyl. As opposed to the original master, where I would have done more work to get it to the point where it would have matched the original vinyl. You have to take into account the original equipment that was used for Milestones as well; you’re having to compensate to get that original custom mastering console and the cutter head, and trying to match all those things with EQ.

DB: What was the process for Someday My Prince Will Come and ’Round About Midnight? Was the original master used, or safety reels?

Wilder: For two out of all the mono releases I’ve done, we’ve used the safety reels. I used the original LP masters for the rest … . [And] there is talk about doing a couple more that leap into [Davis’] quintet era that were uniquely mono mixes.

DB: As with Bitches Brew, did you put the old mix in the left channel and new mix in the right channel to compare?

Wilder: Yes. When they’re in sync you can hear that the notes are the same. There may be a little drift because of the small variances in power and how the machines are running, but then all of a sudden if there is an edit, the sound field becomes unintelligible. You know something happened at that point. So then you roll tape back and investigate. Is it a different solo? A different take? So I listen to the different takes, and make the edits [digitally] and sync them up again. Now we’re rolling through the tune, and as long as it stays constant, I know I am matching the original LP. The original LP is the bar that you are always heading for.

DB: How much of what you do is literal and factual, and how much involves Mark Wilder, the artist and interpreter?

Wilder: It’s tough to find the balance. In the case of Milestones, I had to really make a choice. The bass had so much more clarity and depth on the safety reel, so do I roll the bass off because the bass on the original LP is sort of diminished in the bottom octave? I am doing less EQ and getting more out of it, so my heart is telling me this is closer to what was occurring in the studio and people would appreciate that more. It’s not me tweaking EQ; it’s me allowing this music to speak through to the consumer medium.

DB: So you have the original mono reel running and an HDCD converter handling digital. Where does recording to tape occur? Or is it straight from the mono tape into the digital domain?

Wilder: The latter. So I am listening to the LP, I am listening to the tape; I am listening back and forth. Usually during this period I am offsetting it a little, so I listen to the LP for a few bars, then I listen to those same bars on the tape. Perhaps the bass is sitting in a certain way with the piano, and after referring to the tape, maybe it needs a little extra dB. Or how is the trumpet sitting on the top of the right hand of the piano? Are the cymbals too loud compared to the LP? I analyze it as a whole, and then I break it down into more micro elements, almost as if I am mixing it. I’m listening and trying to understand whether I need to make a change to make those inner balances much closer to the original LP.

DB: Do you take test pressings home to listen to?

Wilder: Away from Battery and my Duntech and old Auratone monitors, I listen to the mixes on my iPod and Koss inner-ear headphones. My music system at home is ambient [1970s Tannoy floor-standing speakers, Harmon Kardon turntable, NAD integrated amplifier, Sony SACD player], not analytical. On my iPod I’m listening like anyone would, so I have an understanding that what I am hearing and doing is translating. I truly try to make sure that everything translates.

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