Until a year ago, Roger Seibel hadn't even heard of Sun Ra. Now he's wondering if the jazz world's leading extraterrestrial is going to make him famous.
As the owner of SAE Mastering, a Phoenix company specializing in making master CDs and doing tape restoration, Seibel is the man responsible for rescuing the reel-to-reel tapes that Evidence Records head Jerry Gordon found under Sun Ra's living-room rug in Philadelphia.
"A lot of the Sun Ra tapes were in incredibly bad shape," Seibel says. "I've seen worse, but these were really, really terrible."
To get the kind of sound that now comes off the restored Sun Ra CDs, Seibel used a computer-editing and noise-reduction system called No Noise. Developed by a San Francisco-based company, Sonic Solutions (which is in itself an outgrowth of Lucasfilms, Inc.), No Noise is one of two dominant computer music-mastering systems out today. The other is the CEDAR system which was developed in England.
Although even Seibel calls No Noise "complicated and very hard to understand," these new generation computer mastering systems are to the old Dolby system what F-16 fighters are to biplanes. They allow a sound engineer to dissect, magnify and change music with single keystrokes.
To illustrate how the No Noise system works, Seibel explained the process of restoring a Sun Ra tape. He began by running the original analogue tape through a digital converter. Once converted to computer language, the music is then loaded onto the hard drive of a computer.
What puts computer mastering systems light-years ahead of the old razor-and-paste method is that both No Noise and CEDAR allow the engineer to hear and see the music as it plays. Music appears on a computer monitor as waveforms, pictures of the sound energy. A screeching guitar, for example, appears as a peak or spike on the screen. A bass line goes the other way, forming a deep valley or trough. By seeing what the music looks like and hearing it, Seibel can pick out defects in the sound, such as tape hiss, and erase it. He can also see highs and lows and adjust them to what sounds best. If a cymbal clash sounds dull, for example, Seibel can brighten it to a sharp edge. Even more amazing is the system's ability to replace damaged portions of a tape by borrowing from another part of the same song.
"On Sun Ra, there were places where the tapes had been stretched or twisted and the music at that point was damaged," he says. "I went along in the same song and found a place where they repeated the same line and copied it. I can even get down to replacing single notes if I have to."
Although Seibel's an accomplished technician, what draws record labels to sound engineers like him is his ear. When he rescues tapes like the Sun Ra sessions, Seibel is often the sole judge of how much noise stays in, what to bring out and what to push back in the mix--in short, how the final tape will sound.
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"I'm the last step before manufacturing," the 39-year-old engineer says with a grin. "People come to me and say, 'Here, brighten it up, fix it up, make it sound better.' So many people in this business are in such a hurry that often when I ask if they want to hear what I've done, they'll say, 'Just ship it to the plant, we trust you.'"
Because most major labels either own their own mastering facilities or take their projects to large mastering complexes in New York or Los Angeles, most of the premastering work Seibel does is for independent labels. Some of the labels he's worked with over the years include Rounder, Flying Fish, Delmark, Restless and Time-Life. Some of the current projects sitting on his shelves include a Cuban music compilation for Rounder, a Vassar Clements reissue for Flying Fish and a new jazz record by Jim Cooper for Delmark. One new area Seibel has moved into recently is mastering dance remixes. Seibel also works with local acts. He mastered Alice Tatum's recent release, Alice Tatum. Seibel's also been working with Tucson-based new-age label Soundings of the Planet.
Seibel came to Phoenix from Cincinnati in 1982 to work for CD maker Wakefield Manufacturing. In 1986 he and his wife, Mary, opened SAE. Three years ago, they moved to the present location on 24th Drive in north Phoenix. As Seibel's fame has spread, the work has piled up. One side effect of hearing so much music is that nothing sticks out in his mind. One exception to that, however, is Sun Ra.
"The other day, I was talking to a guy from a record label about another project, and one of his associates bursts into the conversation and started asking me, 'Oh, I heard you're working on Sun Ra, what's that like, he's so great,' and on and on.
"I'd honestly never heard of Sun Ra before this project. But now, having listened to his music and learned about him as a person, I think he's quite a guy.