The Zaentz Media Center, in Berkeley, California, is not an especially eye-catching sight as you approach it from Parker Street and turn onto Tenth Street. Only a small plaque marks the building, and except for a sign on the two corners of the structure that meet the street, you wouldn’t know it’s the home of Fantasy Studios.
Inside the gate to the parking lot, a walkway passes through an attractive garden that includes sculptures depicting filmmaking and music, the two media to which Saul Zaentz, now 92, has made his greatest contributions. The walkway leads to the visually arresting seven-story office building, which is set back from the street, and whose tenants are all in media and entertainment. The technical facilities, which include the recording studios and film screening rooms, are in the wing visible from the street.
I had come to the Zaentz Center to meet Joe Tarantino, who has mastered many of the albums released by Fantasy Records and its subsidiaries, which include the jazz labels Prestige, Riverside, Milestone, Debut, Pablo, and Contemporary. Fantasy releases recordings from the libraries of those and its own label under the moniker Original Jazz Classics (OJC). Fantasy also owns Stax Volt, Specialty, Takoma, and Kicking Mule, which take in R&B and folk. The building’s lobby is decorated with an impressive collection of covers of albums it has released. In 2004, Concord Records acquired Fantasy and its associated labels.
In the lobby, Tarantino greeted me and my friend Harry Furst, who had arranged the meeting, then led us through the doorway to Fantasy Studios, its hallways lined with Gold Records won by recordings made there. The three studios are well equipped with state-of-the-art gear: in Studio A, a Solid State Logic (SSL) 8000 G+ 56-channel console; in Studio B, a Trident 80B 32x34 console; and in Studio D, an SSL 4000 E 56-channel console. All three studios use Pro Tools, and Studios A and B each have two Studer A-800 Mk.3 24-track analog tape machines, although Tarantino said analog recording at Fantasy is now rare. “Nobody makes tape anymore.” For monitoring, the studios use Bryston amplifiers, and Dynaudio and Ausberger speakers.
The control rooms are well isolated, but engineers and musicians can clearly see each other through large windows. The studios themselves are large, and some of their functions have changed as times and demands have warranted. For example, Studio D’s drum isolation booth is now often used by guitarists, as producers have moved drummers into the larger room for a bigger, more explosive sound. Tarantino told us that Neal Schon, Journey’s guitarist, usually stood in the control room with the engineer, to hear his guitar though the monitors.
The office in which Tarantino masters recordings is small and comfortable. He uses a Studer A80 for most tape applications, but also has two turntables, a TEAC reel-to-reel, and a cassette deck. Several boxes of reel-to-reel tape occupy one shelf. He uses Apogee A/D converters and Dynaudio monitors. I wondered why he had the TEAC in addition to the Studer. “The TEAC is a 1/4-track deck (consumer format). The Studer is 1/2-track (pro format). I like to have all the bases covered. I also have an 8-track cartridge player! You never know. The Studer A80 feeds directly into the A/D converter to Pro Tools. Dolby A and SR can be inserted in the chain if needed.”
He played us something from his current project, a remastering of Albert King’s Stax recordings in anticipation of a release celebrating King’s birthday. King, who died in 1992, would have been 90 in April. Tarantino played a track from an original master, then his remastering. The new version was cleaner and more detailed, but Tarantino hadn’t overemphasized anything or pushed the compression too hard.
I asked if original master tapes lose any punch with age, and if so, whether he accounts for that. “Not punch. I would say they lose a little bit of top end, because every time you play a little bit comes off, especially in that vintage. Not a lot. Tapes from the late ’40s and the ’50s were better quality than tape made in the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’70s, if you tried to play one of those tapes through, there’s a lot of gunk on the heads, and that’s all your top end. So, in that particular case, no, they don’t sound any worse than they did.
“Sometimes there will be dropouts,” he continued, “but we can fix that now without having to cut it with a razor blade and eliminating that piece of tape. Now we can put it in there [points to the Pro Tools unit] and it decides what should go in that space, provided the space isn’t real big. Otherwise, it will come up with some pretty weird stuff. It analyses what came before it and what’s gonna come after it, and it interpolates what should be there. It’s pretty amazing.”
I wondered about the decisions Tarantino makes while listening to a recording. “You draw the line where you want to re-create what the engineer had in mind when he made the mix. I don’t want to screw up what he did. Keeping with the original spirit of the original recording, I’ll try to enhance it but not change it.”
Tarantino came to mastering indirectly. “I started out at ten years old playing guitar, and when I got to high school I was in a band, and we were pretty popular. We had a keyboard player who wrote, for a 15- or 16-year-old guy, some pretty interesting songs. We got to go into a recording studio and record. That’s how I got into recording. I thought, ‘Wow, I like what goes on here.’ I was a professional musician for ten years or so, and then decided to go and get a real job, and so I went back to school and learned how to do recording. I went to this recording school where we actually recorded our demos back when I was in high school.”
Tarantino learned the trade in San Francisco, where he grew up, and began working at studios in the area. “I started here in the ’80s. I was an independent engineer, just doing sessions all around. There were lots of studios then. Wally Heider’s was one of them. Anyway, when CDs first started coming out, they were calling in independent engineers to help master these things because there were just so many they wanted to put out. It started out like onesie-twosie, but then all of a sudden it caught on faster than they thought, and so they had this giant catalog and they called independent engineers to help out.”
Tarantino has remastered nearly 1500 titles from Fantasy’s extensive library of master tapes, both original releases and compilations. “I was only supposed to be here six weeks and it ended up being 25 years. They built a room for me and wheeled in all these tapes and said, ‘Chip away.’ It turned into a 9-to-5 job, and I really liked that as opposed to having to record in the middle of the night, whenever the artist wants you to do something. So it was the best of both worlds. I was able to be home for dinner with my kids and still do this and work with all this great equipment. In those days it was, ‘Spend whatever you want, as long as we can get the best quality.’ And the first digital workstation I worked with cost $100,000. Now they’re like $10,000.”
I asked Tarantino if technical improvements have led to better sound. “The conversion is much better going in than it was back then. They’re not as brittle sounding. And that’s a reason they want to keep reissuing the same ones. There’s 24-bit high-resolution, hi-def, which allows you more detail. It’s a higher resolution where you can have a little bit more control, you can change frequencies in more detail.” Fantasy no longer does SACD releases, but Tarantino worked with the format. “They sounded good, but there wasn’t much out there. Luckily, Sony lent us the equipment to do SACDs; we didn’t have to invest. That was good. I liked it. Good experience.”
Although Tarantino doesn’t currently remaster for reissue on SACD or DVD-Audio, he does do projects that are not later reduced to 16-bit CD resolution. “I’m going to be doing Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section again, that and Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West. It’s going to be at 192[kHz], for HDtracks.”
Tarantino has mastered everything from pop to jazz to soundtracks; I wondered if he brings a different approach to each genre. “Not necessarily. It’s sound after that. There’s definitely not a lot of compression in soundtracks. [Listeners] like their dynamics. Digital allows you to do that without introducing a lot of noise. The noise floor is way down, so I can get real quiet. Most of the time they’re not driving around in their car listening. They’re sitting down to listen.”
Because Tarantino does no mastering for vinyl release, I asked about the turntables in the office. “Sometimes there’s a case where the master tape is lost and they want to put something out, and I have to do it from the vinyl record, and it will have clicks and pops on it and all that has to be removed. One [of the turntables] is dedicated to 78s. I do a lot of 78 transfers because I work with the Specialty label, and lot of that stuff wasn’t even made to tape. It was just cut directly to disc. That’s where the term ‘cut a record’ comes from: ‘Let’s go cut a record.’ Sometimes you can spend an hour or a hundred hours and it will still sound the same. But you try to make it sound the best you can. I think your ears are the best noise reduction. You can get into the music and forget about it.”
On rare occasions, Tarantino has even had to master from cassette tapes. “If the master tape is gone . . . nobody knew that, once the record was out, well, what if they wanted to reissue it or something or on another format? They weren’t thinking like that. They kind of left them everywhere. Well, not everybody, but some people did.” Tarantino shook his head in disbelief and laughed. “A lot of the Riverside stuff, they reused tape sometimes.”
Even though CD resolution is limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz, Tarantino likes mastering at higher bit depths and sampling rates. “You’re able to do more in there because it’s a higher resolution. You can get in more detail, and even when you sample it down, it’s still going to be in there.” The improvements in current D/A converters and other aspects of the mastering chain result in a sound that is “more musical, less brittle. The first generation was pretty harsh. We learn with each round of gear. ‘I can do it better now, I promise.’”
Approaching remastering from the viewpoint of a musician has given Tarantino an occasional advantage when researching an archived tape. “[When I was] listening to music as a kid,” he explains, “my dad used to play the radio all the time. He worked from home, so I’m familiar with a lot of these songs. Back in the ’50s and ’60s these jazz musicians would play pop songs from back then and do their jazz versions of these songs. So now when we have tapes that have no documentation or anything, it helps you to identify what song that is. I’m able to play ‘Name That Tune’ with these things and figure out what’s on the tape.”
When I asked him if, after 1500 remasters, he ever gets tired of listening to music, he quickly said, “No,” then added, “I don’t listen as much at home. I like listening to baseball and stuff. I don’t remember the last time I sat down and listened to something, whereas I used to be that guy.” He pointed to the Maxell poster and laughed. With so many reissues to his credit, one stands out. “Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard [The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961]. I went to the Village Vanguard on a New York trip. It was like church. Amazing.”
Fantasy’s series of Original Jazz Classics CDs has, from the beginning, sounded better and more natural than many other labels’ reissues. As Tarantino said at several points during our conversation, “It’s all about the music.” Because he listens as a musician, Tarantino’s work has always sounded warm and musical, and advances in digital technology have made it sound only better. While he knows the ins and outs of the technologies he uses, he’s not primarily a technician, and is somewhat skeptical of, for example, high-end audio cable applications, at least in his line of work: “You hear what you want to hear.” If Joe Tarantino’s at the board, what you hear is music.
. . . Joseph Taylor