Remasters and remixes are proven means of exploiting old records — but as the recent success of music-based video games has shown, there might be more mileage in un-mixing them...
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces about 1600lbs (726kg) of trash a year. However, we're happy to point out that audio professionals in the US have been making great strides in recycling the materials used to make music over the decades. Rock Band and Guitar Hero were likely the two biggest repurposers of recorded tracks, and they opened the doors to ways that those once-cast-off reels of Mylar-backed ferric stew can be re-used. Digitech also pushed the envelope a few years back when they got engineer and producer Eddie Kramer to access the Jimi Hendrix master audio archives, to create emulations of his guitar sounds for a stomp box.
But a Californian company is taking the concept a step further. Jammit is the outcome of producer Scott Humphreys' inspiration to use music production as a way to teach music. The software, intended for use on tablet-type platforms, takes the original tracks from classic songs, remixes them to stems and lets users not only remix but solo and change tempo on individual tracks.
This kind of feature has been used before as instructional technology — guitarists, for instance, regularly use tempo-slowdown capabilities to pull apart light-speed solos, or track-muting features to play along with the band — but the real news here is the access that Humphreys has finagled from labels and artists. The app's YouTube demo features Deep Purple's 'Smoke On The Water', and the ability to solo that iconic guitar riff and hear close-up Richie Blackmore's asperous AC30 generates a genuine frisson.
Humphreys, who produced Hellbilly Deluxe for Rob Zombie and Mötley Crüe's Generation Swine, among other records, is cautious about spilling too many titles early on, but says he has secured the rights to over 500 master recordings — 40 from the band Rush alone, and he let on that the Ramones are also represented — which are now filling up the 32TB of storage he has on his servers. The aforementioned video games paved the way in terms of making rights holders amenable to letting their masters be used in unconventional ways, and Humphreys says that a one-size-fits-all approach to licensing fees (though he won't divulge precise numbers other than to say that the capital outlay is "ginormous”) has streamlined the process by standardising costs and minimising negotiating.
But while there might be a market for the app's educational intent, the ability to go into the archives of modern popular music and listen to each element as it was recorded 10, 20 or 30 years ago recalls how Howard Carter probably felt when he entered Tutankhamun's tomb for the first time. What the 'Classic Tracks' articles in this magazine accomplish editorially, Jammit might do aurally. It will offer an insight into the production process for everyone, from audiophile to fan.
"It's remarkable — when you put the faders to zero on [an original] 16-track master, it comes out almost perfectly mixed by itself,” Humphreys marvels. "You can hear the art of the recording,” the vision that was completed in the process of making it, not as a result of a 200-track Pro Tools session FTP'd to a mixer to make sense of.
In this regard, Humphreys' role is as much curatorial as entrepreneurial. He's had to bake many of the tapes and carefully spool them in the process of transferring them to digital. What will come out on the Jammit app will be whatever went in decades ago; Humphreys says he's not cleaning up any artifacts, and adds that what makes these vintage tracks less than perfect from a recording and musicianship point of view is what makes them valuable in the first place. "I love hearing mistakes; it puts the humanity back in,” he says. "Sometimes you can't believe how bad some things sound, but that wasn't the point, to make each individual instrument or note perfect. It was about making everything work together.”
Humphreys' efforts are paying off even before the app comes to market. He got an email from Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens asking if he could hear the solo tracks from Yes' Fragile LP. "That was my Sgt Pepper's,” Stevens reveals in the message.
Based on how late they came to the table for video games and iTunes, don't expect Beatles tracks on Jammit (though a basic stereo pan control can take apart the bounces on their earliest recordings rather easily). But if even a fraction of the tracks that Humphreys says are coming do materialise, the educational purpose of this app will have more layers than William and Kate's cake.