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Cryptocurrency Bitcoin How Audio Pros ‘Upmix’ Vintage Tracks and Give Them New Life


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Cryptocurrency Bitcoin How Audio Pros ‘Upmix’ Vintage Tracks and Give Them New Life

When James Clarke went to work at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios in late 2009, he wasn’t an audio engineer. He’d been hired to work as a software programmer. One day not long after he started, he was having lunch with several studio veterans of the 1960s and ’70s, the pre-computer era of music recording…

Cryptocurrency  Bitcoin How Audio Pros ‘Upmix’ Vintage Tracks and Give Them New Life

Cryptocurrency Bitcoin

When James Clarke went to work at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios in late 2009, he wasn’t an audio engineer. He’d been hired to work as a software programmer. One day not long after he started, he was having lunch with several studio veterans of the 1960s and ’70s, the pre-computer era of music recording when songs were captured on a single piece of tape. To make conversation, Clarke asked a seemingly innocent question: Could you take a tape from the days before multitrack recording and isolate the individual instruments? Could you pull it apart?

The engineers shot him down. It turned into “several hours of the ins and outs of why it’s not possible,” Clarke remembers. You could perform a bit of sonic trickery to transform a song from one-channel mono to two-channel stereo, but that didn’t interest him. Clarke was seeking something more exacting: a way to pick apart a song so a listener could hear just one element at a time. Maybe just the guitar, maybe the drums, maybe the singer.

“I kept saying to them that if the human ear can do it, we can write software to do it as well,” he says. To him, this was a challenge. “I’m from New Zealand. We love proving people wrong.”

The challenge dropped him at the leading edge of a field known as upmixing, in which software and audio engineers work together to transform old recordings in ways that were once unthinkable. Using machine learning, engineers have made inroads into “demixing” the voices and instruments on recordings into completely separate component tracks, often known as stems. Isolating the components of songs is a surprisingly hard problem—more like unswirling paint than using a pair of scissors. But once engineers have stems, they can take the isolated tracks and “upmix” them into something new and perhaps improved. They might enhance a muffled drum track on an old recording, produce an a capella version of a song, or do the opposite and remove a song’s vocals so it can be used as background in a TV show or movie.

As an Abbey Road employee, it was only natural that Clarke would soon focus his experimentation on Beatles songs. But he wasn’t the only one trying to pull apart old music. Around the world, other audio aficionados were tackling the same challenge with their own favorite tracks—and converging on some of the same methods. In the years since Clarke’s fateful lunchtime chat, the number of apps and tools for splitting songs has exploded, as has the community of academics and enthusiasts that surround the practice. For creators of sample-based music, demixing is conceivably the greatest sonic invention since the digital sampler that fueled the explosion of hip hop four decades ago. For karaoke fans, it’s a game changer. For the people (or private equity firms) who own the rights to classic but inferior recordings—or enthusiasts willing to wade into legal gray areas—upmixing presents a whole new way to hear the past. After decades of slow advancement, deep learning has now sent both technologies into overdrive. The uncanny valley is alive with the sound of music.

New Old Sounds

Two decades ago, one of the first people to experiment with demixing was Christopher Kissel, a professional electronics test engineer from Long Island. Kissel didn’t have easy access to a recording studio. But he was a lifelong music fan, and he dreamed of making old tracks sound new.

Until the 1960s, almost all popular music was recorded and listened to monaurally—all the instrumental and vocal parts were recorded onto a single track of tape and played back through a single speaker. Once a song was on tape, it was basically finished. But Kissel had an inkling that it might be possible to update old mono recordings in a profound way.

In 2000 he purchased his first Mac for the express purpose of transforming single-track pop songs from the ’50s and ’60s into two-channel stereo versions fit for headphones or properly separated speakers. “Compared to mono, stereo sounds more lifelike and allows you to more viscerally hear and appreciate the interplay between the musicians,” he says. Most listeners probably prefer their music on two speakers (or headphones), and Kissel cared enough to try forcing the old recordings into stereo.

The first night with his new Mac, Kissel used floppy disks to install an early digital audio workstation called sonicWORX. It was the only software capable of running Pandora Realtime, a plug-in that could selectively boost the volume of vocals on recordings. “It was very advanced for its time,” Kissel says. He wanted to see if the tool could do something more interesting. He loaded up Miss Toni Fisher’s 1959 hit “The Big Hurt” and attempted to pull it apart.

Tinkering with the song using sonicWORX’s waveform visualizer and settings, Kissel says, he was “able to separate the lead vocal, backing vocals, and strings and move them to the right side, and the rest of the backing instrumentation to the left.” It was crude and a little glitchy, but the effect was powerful. “It was quite thrilling to hear,” he says. Decades later, Kissel remains blown away by that first experience.

He experimented with more ’50s and ’60s classics, including the Del Vikings’ “Whispering Bells,” Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive,” and—perhaps most appropriately—the Tornados’ “Telstar,” a futuristic DIY wonder produced and composed by the influential sound engineer Joe Meek.

Kissel immersed himself in the developing fields of demixing and upmixing—though the names came later—by moderating forums and maintaining a website chronicling advances in the disciplines. He started playing around with a technique called spectral editing, which allowed people to treat sound as a visual object. Load a song into a spectral editor and you can see all of the recording’s many frequencies, represented as colorful peaks and valleys, laid out on a graph. At the time, audio engineers employed spectral editing to remove unwanted noise in a recording, but an intrepid user could also zone in on specific frequencies of an audio track and pluck them out. When a freeware spectral editing tool called Frequency popped up, Kissel decided to try it out.

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