As you know by now, our Record of the Month for May is the first ever vinyl pressing of Fiona Apple’s Tidal. In addition to this being one of the longest in planning Records of the Month ever--we started the ball rolling on this more than two years ago--this presented us with a challenge: the album’s master tapes had been sitting in the vault at Sony without a vinyl release, so we had to dust them off and have them remastered.
To get the full story of what makes the Vinyl Me, Please release of Tidal special, I talked to Head of Music, Cameron Schaefer, about all that went into the process of making Tidal Record of the Month, and getting it mastered by the guy who mastered the album when it was made in 1996.
Andrew: I don’t know if you remember this, but back when I talked to you about how we pick what goes in the store every month you told me the story of how close we had gotten to landing Tidal like 6 months before then. So, for at least 18 months we’ve been trying to land this. And I know that at that point last year we were sure this was never going to happen. How did we pull it off?
Cam: This album was never pressed, so right out of the gate, there’s this legendary album that for whatever reason never came out on vinyl. I should have asked...
Andrew: I suspect it’s because it came out in that weird nether time where things were only on CD.
Cam: But there’s this huge demand. So we told Sony that a huge White Whale record for us would be Tidal. They said, “You got it, we’ll talk to her management.” And this started this back and forth that was essentially me, to Sony Legacy, to Epic, to Andy Slater her manager, and to Fiona, and back. Part of my job on projects this big is to figure out what all of the different parties are looking for, and figuring out their relationships with each other, and trying to get all of them to see the value in the vinyl reissue & specifically doing it through Vinyl Me, Please. That process took two years.
And since this is a reissue, there’s not a huge incentive for them to speed this thing through, so there’d be times throughout where I’d sit for four months and not hear anything.
Andrew: And think it’s off the table.
Cam: And then they’d come back with an update that would make me think it could happen. It was about late October, early November last year that I got a call from someone at Sony out of the blue, and they were like, “We got approval for Tidal. You guys can do it. I had kind of written it off, and then it happened suddenly.
Cam: So then it immediately shifted from “Can we get this to happen,” to “Ok, if we’re going to reissue this on vinyl, we have to make sure we do it right.”
I went through my normal drill: Was this originally recorded to tape? If so, do we have access to that tape. If yes, let’s get them remastered. And then where are going to get them remastered?
In the case of Tidal, not only was it recorded to tape, I found out that every single song was recorded on it’s own individual reel of tape. And so, there were multiple takes of each track recorded on tape; louder vocals, alternate takes, etc. All of those tapes were preserved in Sony’s vault, and the question becomes where?
And it turned out Ted Jensen, the original mastering engineer back in 1996 who did the mastering of Tidal is at Sterling Sound, this really awesome mastering studio in New York we’ve used a couple times and they do great work. So we ended up having Ted do the remaster. He went through each tape, figured out which was the master take, and remastered it for vinyl.
Andrew: How much remastering did he end up having to do on the tapes?
Cam: Not a lot. He said the mixes were already superb, and he didn’t have to do a lot of compression or EQ.
Andrew: And this is something people should know too, right, is that this isn’t going to sound as “clean” or sterile as the MP3 version of Tidal, right?
Cam: Yeah, there are parts on some songs--like “Slow Like Honey”--that don’t sound as sterile per se, as in there’s complete silence in the silent gaps between words and music. There were little pops on that and “The First Taste” on the test pressing that were standing out to me, and it turned out--after checking in with Ted, Fiona’s people (including her manager, who was a producer on the album), a rep at Sony--and we realized that she was very, very close to the mic, and the mic picked up little sounds she was making with her tongue and her lips. Those sounds were straight through to the mic, to the tape, and onto the vinyl.
Andrew: That’s amazing. So people are hearing those songs like they’re sitting in the studio then.
Cam: It lead to an amazing moment for me, as the person who approves our test pressings: To me, this is what I love about vinyl. Could we have gone back and said we want that mouth pop erased? Could we have gone back and gotten it to sound “cleaner?” Sure. But whose decision is it that that mouth pop and some noise from her being close to the mic is an “imperfection”? Who gets to decide how Fiona makes a noise into the mic isn’t right? I know what the answer is not: It’s not a 55-year-old audiophile, you know? A lot of the mastering process ended up being more or less tape direct to a super high-res master, to plates at GZ, to the record people will get. It’s about as untouched from an audio perspective from what was coming out into the mics into the studio to what you’re hearing on your turntable. Everything about this was made for vinyl. This isn’t a mid-res electronic file; everything about this is what you want as a vinyl fan.
Andrew: This is the first black vinyl Record of the Month we’ve done since, what, Big Bill Broonzy 15 months ago. Why did we end up doing black on this release?
Cam: Fiona’s camp decided that since this is Tidal’s first release, they wanted to try to keep it as much as possible like it would have been if the vinyl came out in 1996. If they were doing the vinyl package in 1996, they would not have put it on color vinyl. They would have included a lyric book identical to what came with the cd. They wouldn’t have added bonus tracks or an additional disc or done alternate art work. It would have just been the album, on high quality black vinyl, and that’s it. So that’s what we went with. And I actually love the simplicity of it.
Andrew: We also ended up choosing 45RPM, right?
Cam: Yeah, on the first version of test pressing at 33RPM, the songs just didn’t pop like we or her team wanted them to. We agreed that we should go to 45RPM to get more musical info on the disc--which is what happens with a 45RPM master--and Tidal sounded a lot more dynamic at 45RPM.
Andrew: And before we go, since people will ask and insinuate, there are no current plans to do this reissue on the label’s side, right?
Cam: Correct. This reissue is coming out exclusively through Vinyl Me, Please.
You can sign up for Vinyl Me, Please here.
Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Classics and Country Director, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.