Things We Lost in the Fire; the Masters Lost in 2008 Universal Backlot Fire

There is no commercial analogue playback format that is capable of reproducing the sonic quality of an analogue master. Unless you’re into storing and playing back your digital music as 24 bit WAV files at a sampling rate of 192kHz, there’s no way to come close in the digital realm, either (and how close 24 bit/192kHz actually gets to accurately representing the soundwaves captured, well, that’s a huge can of worms it’s better not to open right now as it’s a side issue).

Whether held on 2-inch analogue tape, or 1-inch, or as digital files on a hard drive, masters are the recording, from which all commercially released mixes of a song are derived. They are the primary source. Let’s say it again: the masters are the recording.

It’s only when we grasp this that we can understand what was lost in the fire on the Universal backlot in 2008, the full details of which have apparently been something of an open secret within the industry but are only now being reported to a wider public thanks to Jody Rosen’s excellent piece for the New York Times Magazine.

In 2008, a fire swept through the backlot, destroying several iconic sets (the New York skyline, the town square from Back to the Future and more) and swiftly consuming a building known to Universal employees as the video vault. That would have been bad enough, but the vault also contained a large store of audio masters. Rosen itemises what has been lost:

There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland. The tape masters for Billie Holiday’s Decca catalog were most likely lost in total. The Decca masters also included recordings by such greats as Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and Patsy Cline.

Virtually all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost in the fire. Most of John Coltrane’s Impulse masters were lost, as were masters for treasured Impulse releases by Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and other jazz greats. Also apparently destroyed were the masters for dozens of canonical hit singles, including Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88,” Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley/I’m A Man,” Etta James’s “At Last,” the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”

[Also probably lost in the fire were] recordings by Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. and Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.

I’ve quoted from Rosen at length as it’s only when we see his lists written down that we begin to grasp the full extent of what was lost.

Why does this matter so much?

Two reasons: firstly, session reels contain sessions, not just the final take of a song and its attendant overdubs. Every time you buy an expanded edition of a record with alternate takes and unreleased songs, someone has been going through the archive to source that material. Who knows how many incredible alternate tales of canonical recordings we now have no chance to discover in future, how many stunning outtakes? You may think, well, we still have the released records, and that’s right, we do. But I’ve been delighted by too many work-in-progress versions and rough mixes and outtakes in my lifetime to be cavalier about what may have gone up in smoke.

Just yesterday, I listened to some of the material that Radiohead have made available from Thom Yorke’s leaked Minidisc archive from the OK Computer sessions. Within 10 minutes of the first disc starting, there is an astonishing early version of Airbag – a much looser, live-sounding take with Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway playing very different parts to those that made it to the album. What burned in the fire are the millions of potential instances of the delight I took from hearing that kind of audio snapshot of a song’s development.

But that’s not all. As I said up top, commercial playback formats lag a long way behind both analogue and digital masters in terms of the sonic quality. Neither vinyl nor any commercially widespread digital standard get close to the 24bit 44.1kHz masters of the recordings I make, let alone a 2-inch 24-track analogue master made by a good engineer in a world-class studio.

While new, higher-resolution digital formats are becoming a little more widespread among listeners, we have lost the ability to go back to the master tapes to create higher-res digital masters. You can’t simply take a CD and upsample it – you can’t put back what wasn’t captured in the first place. You need the masters. This is before we begin to factor in all the “audiophile” vinyl releases sourced from copies of the master or even the CD mixes. That’s why many of us prize the expanded/remixed/remastered editions of catalogue releases. Going back to the source is the only way you can improve on older-generation transfers made in a hurry on inferior equipment, as was the case for the first CD releases of the majority of heritage artists.

My apologies to Rosen for stealing his metaphor but it’s the best way to explain the issue. Listening to a vinyl record or a CD or an MP3 is like looking at a print of a great work of art. Some formats get closer to capturing the true experience of seeing the artwork, but there’s always a gap between the two. What burned in that fire were the paintings, not the prints.

The prints we still have, the paintings are lost for ever. And until yesterday, most of us didn’t know what we’d lost.

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