Audio engineer Dave Gardner on making Bad Brains sound better than ever before

Lead 2 Steven Hanner

Bad Brains. // Photo credit Steven Hanner

Over the next couple years, hardcore legends Bad Brains will release remastered editions of their seminal albums through the newly-established Bad Brains Records, an imprint of Org Music. After decades, the band has reacquired the rights and the masters to many of their recordings, from their first single, “Pay to Cum,” along with I & I Survive, Quickness, Rock for Light, and their incendiary self-titled debut LP. The latter release is out this Friday, and sounds light years ahead of what you might expect from 40 year old punk recordings. Much of that is due to the band’s pure rock fury, but the new crispness and clarity are due to the tireless work of Dave Gardner, chief mastering engineer at Infrasonic Los Angeles, who’s overseen the remastering on all of the Bad Brains reissues.

I reached out to Gardner by phone to discuss the painstaking approach he took to bring these albums back to life.

The Pitch: Reading the initial press release, I saw that your initial discovery of Bad Brains was at a skate park, which I see as just being absolutely perfect. I mean, what better place?

Dave Gardner: Yeah. Actually, ’cause it was suburban Pittsburgh and there were no skate parks in whatever year that would have been–1984, 1985?–it was actually on a street, but yeah. Skateboarding with a dude with a Mohawk, with a boombox, and just totally caused a mind-expanding moment for me. I still own the copy of Rock for Light that I went out and bought that day. Got my mom to drive me to the mall one day, you know?

What was the first song that you heard?

Whatever track one, side one of Rock for Light is, just in a cassette deck. It’s funny ’cause I can still hear the chords. Rock for Light is actually not one of the records that we’ve processed yet, but yeah, the opening for Rock for Light is—it’s wild to be working on a project like that.

I haven’t lived in Pittsburgh since 1989 and it is a record that I took with me to college and it made it through a ton of moves and 20-some odd years later, it’s still with me and my record collection in L.A. We actually used it in in the process because so much of the first year plus of this project has just been just digging, sifting, and archaeology, because of the band’s catalog with various rights holders and what’s in print and what’s out of print and new versions and the versions changing and trying to make sure we had the right versions and assets from that period.

I think a lot of folks involved with kind of independent music–and especially in the early onset of the digital era, which I’ve been involved with–I don’t think where your masters were wasn’t necessarily what you were thinking about, you know? So I think so much stuff has kind of been lost or semi-lost. There’s just so much work that we’re still in the midst of and we’re going through in this campaign. I’ve been helping the band and their management, now that they’ve gotten assets returned to them.

We were just getting stuff brought into the archives and then stored and then scans of what the tapes are and digitizing and restoration because personally, I think Bad Brains as an artist has a really substantial place—an outsize place—in the cultural history in this country. So much has happened since the time these releases that come out that the assets are something that’s really historically important.

I know that some people, when they do reissue work, like to work from the original analog source. I actually would prefer to restore it and then use very, very specialized tools. Either we’re going to keep it all analog–which is a decision some people make–or realistically do an extremely hot, super high resolution digital archive and transfer of the analog assets and then put those analog assets back into a vault. That’s what we’ve been doing with the Bad Brains stuff.

There’ll be more. There is stuff that no one’s heard, just from a quick scan of what we have, aside from hearing the correct versions or the right mixes in the right format, really with intent and thought about it. That’s by no means saying that the previous releases didn’t necessarily have that, but they’re getting long in the tooth.

I have like a history and urban planning background so, before we even thought about working on the audio, it was important to research and establish a stabilized archive and then from that, gather what we have and move forward. It’s been interesting ’cause it feels like we’ve been in this thing for a long time and we’re just kind of now digging into the actual mastering of it. It’s exciting. I’m just really excited for the versions of this stuff to be out there and available on vinyl and streaming and for us to see what comes out of this.

This has to have been so much work. The thus-far announced and scheduled releases: they were originally on five or six different labels, going back almost 40 years in some cases. What has been the process of tracking down these tapes? It sounds like it’s this combination of both archaeology and probably a whole lot of detective work.

What’s been lucky about this is that, as someone who’s a really long time fan of the band, I was fortunate enough to own–actually, it’s interesting. The copy of “Pay to Cum” that I had was a bootleg that I purchased in 1990, because there was no copy of that in print in 1990, so I have a bootleg of it. But from Rock for Light on through the catalog that we’re doing and the end of the Caroline years, I owned original LP copies of all of it. I just, you know, I do. And then I had I actually had the Dutch East Indies vinyl press of the self-titled ROIR cassette record. So, you know, it’s one of those things where instead of having to go and try and find the right versions by chance, I had copies of almost everything.

I have a really good friend from Minneapolis who lives in L.A.

He went to college in Minneapolis and he is one of those punk rock record collectors, who is a completist. He had a first pressing of “Pay to Cum” that we were able to use and compare because there are so many different recorded versions of those two songs in that time period that theoretically could be the record.

Bad Brains Self TitledThe band just kind of gave us a bunch of assets. We pulled them together and then, it’s like, “Which is the right mix?” We literally have been comparing them back to original sources and in the case of “Pay to Cum” there, it was actually really lucky that I had my bootleg seven-inch because my bootleg is not the same mix as the real first pressing, but it seems like it’s more copies of that record existed in sort of quasi-illegal form, than it did in legal form. I think what has largely been seen as the “correct” version isn’t necessarily the correct version.

It’s been a lot of work, buddy. It’s been really rewarding and just luck and perseverance and research. I’m lucky enough to have Andrew Rossiter [Org Music] overseeing the project for the reborn Bad Brains records. He and I worked together on a lot of stuff. We’re friends, there’s a lot of communication, but also that understanding that it’s better to get things correct. If we have to push a release date back to make sure that we’re using the correct version, then the release date gets pushed back, you know? That’s, at times, has been frustrating but it’s also rewarding.

It’s tough. Some of the assets are not in the greatest shape and have taken a little bit of work. It’s really, exciting, you know, but yeah–there are times where it just felt like you’re underwater and you’re not sure which direction to swim for the surface.

Have there been any serious issues? I’ve talked with folks who run various reissue labels and there are so many things that can go wrong with a master tape that’s been improperly stored. I think a lot of folks are familiar with the concept of baking to keep that magnetic oxide on the tapes and stuff like that. There’s also the issues of like what mold can do to a tape and things like the fact that it’s plastic tape with metal on it.

It depends. I guess–because I do so much historical reissue work–when you say “serious problems,” I’m not sure I’ve ever worked with those. I’ve been a master engineer for 20-some odd years and done a lot of reissues. I’ve even recently done 20th anniversary versions of records that I mastered the first time.

Although, I guess I did a reissue two or three years ago now of the second Hold Steady record, which I produced and mastered. If I had not had my original mastering sessions archives, if I had not been able to restore that archive—and that record’s from 2004, not 1981–but pulling back from 2004, I was able to do it. You can spend hours and hours just trying to pick the right mixes. People can’t remember. There’s usually no notes. It’s amazing that stuff doesn’t go wrong more often.

I almost exclusively work with one guy. I can’t imagine doing the work that I do every day without him and his name is Dan Johnson. He deserves an unbelievable amount of credit. His company’s called Audio Archiving Services in Hollywood. His ability to deal with mold, to deal with all of the stuff that—just frankly, I’m not equipped to deal with. In the same way that he’s not a mastering engineer, I’m not a restoration export.

This is just my opinion, because there are other master engineers who do amazing work, who feel really differently than I do. They want to handle those original assets with their hands. They want to be the one who is baking the tape, who is dealing with the all stuff. I think this comes out of my academic background with urban planning, which is the same reason: you don’t have economic development specialists look at transportation patterns, and you don’t have a mastering engineer restore assets.

Dan is so good and so precise. The thing was really interesting is that a lot of the research into tape restoration with magnetic tape is at this point over 20 years old, and closer to 30 years old. When that initial research was done about temperatures to bake and the time you should be baking, you got to remember that they were a lot of that was done by Ampex.

Ampex hasn’t been a company in April since the late ’80s or early ’90s. They set these times for baking. They set the ways to do it, but at that point, the material that they were working with was max 30 years old. That same material now is 60 years old, right? I think a lot of people still follow the rules, but when you pull up stuff and you Google, “How long should I bake a tape for?” a lot of the conventional wisdom that’s out there is this research that was done half a lifetime ago for this material.

One of the things that I really appreciate about Dan is that he’s constantly researching: “Is this really the best way to do things? Do we change the temperature and the amount of time we bake? Do you change the tension in the way that you handle tapes? What machine should handle the tapes you have?” It’s so unbelievably complex that I can’t imagine trying to do my job without a partner like him, you know?

The trade-off for that is that I am not working from that. I don’t thread up your original master tape from 1981 and work directly off of that master tape. To me, the loss in resolution between the original analog master in its condition that it would be in and the damage that I would do potentially to this irreplaceable historical document is so secondary to an incredibly well-restored, super-high sample rate.

To me, it’s a no-brainer. I’m a facilitator. My job is to get the assets that I have into a format that does them justice and then apply the aesthetic decisions that are in line with, obviously we all have ideas of what sounds better or worse. That’s subjective. I think what’s objective is the historical importance of the material you’re using and step one of the mastering process is, “Am I fucking this up?” Before you can even make it better, you have to really make sure you’re not making it worse.

The restored and remastered edition of Bad Brains’ self-titled debut is out this Friday, June 11, from Bad Brains Records. You can order the album, as well as the “Pay to Cum” single, at their website.

Categories: Music