Audio Cleaning Lab Brings New Life to Stale Discs
by Jim Bray
Compact discs were sold to us as the ultimate in audio reproduction, a computer-controlled recording and storage medium that was truer to the original source than the old fashioned vinyl we'd been using to that point.
And it was true to a point, but what also became clear was that many older CD's didn't sound as good as their LP brothers, despite the hype. I can think of several right off the top of my head that I've never found satisfying.
This, undoubtedly, is one of the reasons (another being the constant quest for revenue) record companies have released remastered and rejigged versions of the same old CD's over the years, the new versions supposedly sounding better than the original (even though the original was supposed to be "perfect").
Sometimes it worked out, sometimes not. Some reissues also tweaked the mix, changing the placement and/or prominence of particular instruments and effects. I've always thought of this as akin to painting a moustache onto the Mona Lisa, pompous ass that I can be (just ask my kids!), but what can you do when the rights holder decides to do such a thing – besides not buy the product?
But what if you could take that sterile and weak-sounding old CD and tweak it yourself, to return some of the life the digital bits seems to have drained from it? Or how about painting your own moustache onto the Mona Lisa? Why shouldn't you or I be able to do that as well?
Well you can, at least to a point, and that's a darn good thing or this column would have to end now.
Okay, maybe that would be a good thing, too…
Anyway, Magix' Audio Cleaning Lab is designed to let you do just this type of thing to your recordings, and much more. Version 14 is the latest, though they sent me V12 by mistake and my nose is seriously out of joint because of it. But my ears still work, which is a good thing considering the product being reviewed.
Audio Cleaning Lab can handle the restoration and remastering process from beginning to end, and it has an even easier to use interface than the version I tried a few years back (which was pretty much a no brainer back then). It also includes enhanced features such as a universal recorder that lets you capture whatever your sound card can receive, special "cleaning presets" (with a video view) for cleaning up the audio from your videos, and much more.
You can output your files to a variety of formats, including (fudged) surround sound DVD-Audio discs. Not only that, but if you're big into compilations, or just want enough music on a single disc to choke a horse or provide an evening's entertainment, you can burn up to seven CD's onto a single DVD, which is pretty cool.
You start in a straightforward enough way: by importing your files – capturing or downloading them from your hard drive, a compact disc, from your stereo system and/or turntable, or from wherever the music may be. Once you've done that, the software gives you a graphic representation of each file, kind of an oscilloscope-type look, then offers you a plethora and a half of options for tweaking them.
Besides de-hissing and popping and the like, you can equalize the volumes, so one track doesn’t sound louder, expand the stereo image to create a wider soundstage, and even add special effects that have the potential to completely change the way the original recording sounds. Hence that crack about Mona, above.
The process(es) can be done individually, in groups, or via a Wizard interface that takes the thinking out of it (though of course it also limits your choices to the most popular/generic ones).
One of my favorite albums of all time is The Who's Quadrophenia or, as I like to call it, "Townshend's Last Masterpiece" – at least so far. The vinyl version sounded great, but the CD lacked the oomph Who music deserves and requires. The remastered CD released in the 1990's sounds better, but they messed with the mix. Could Audio Cleaning Lab shave off that moustache, or would I turn it into a bigger and more obtrusive handlebar?
As it turns out, the answer to both questions is "yes". I tweaked the album in various ways, adding loudness and a bit of reverb and widening the stereo image. I burned the mixes to a DVD-RW (my preferred method of working because it let me audition the results on my home theater system rather than trying to guesstimate the results via the tinny little speakers attached to my PC). Using a rewritable disc let me experiment to my heart's delight without creating enough potential coasters to cover the neighborhood, only burning to a non-rewritable disc when I was happy with the results.
The results were, indeed, more dynamic than the original CD, but at the cost during some attempts of muddled vocals or unreal-sounding whatever. I was particularly disappointed with my attempts to fudge surround sound from the stereo original, ending up with an interesting but not happy-making quadraphonic Quadrophenia.
I wish The Who would do the job for me and release a legit, pristine 5.1 DVD-A, SACD or Blu-ray version, but so far this wish appears to have fallen upon deaf ears – no "Townshend's hearing" pun intended.
Anyway, after messing around with Magix' myriad settings and tweaks, I finally got a stereo version that I liked and burned it as a stereo DVD-Audio disc (though the software doesn't like it when you "waste" the rear channels), then repeated the process and the settings with the second disc of the two-disc set. Now I have a Quadrophenia I can live with until Pete and Roger stop touring long enough to create the real 5.1 deal. I'm still not thrilled with it, but at least it doesn't sound as sterile as that old CD does.
One thing I liked about Audio Cleaning Lab is its ease and flexibility. And while the Quadrophenia experiment left me with some audio angst even after much messing about, the software can come in really handy for other purposes – such as converting vinyl albums to digital files for burning to CD or whatever. The cleaning process can correct pops and hisses and the like to a certain extent, though in my experience you also remove some of the baby with the noise bath water so it's best to be careful.
As with anything, Garbage In yields Garbage Out so, all things being equal, the better the source the better the destination,.
I also used the product to make a couple of compilation discs with a mix of files downloaded from the Internet and others I recorded from vinyl LP's and compact discs. The results were as mixed as the original files' qualities, but overall I was satisfied with the results.
The universal recorder includes timer recording capability, so you can set it to pirate stuff for you even when you aren't even around (perhaps a good strategy if you're looking to create an alibi).
I've been using Audio Cleaning Lab versions for a few years now and prefer it to the software that has come included with such products as a USB turntable and an outboard analog/digital converter used for the same purposes of capturing and burning. It's easier and much more flexible, and it's tough to argue with that.
One particular anomaly struck me, in that a couple of dialog boxes came up in what appears to be German. Fortunately, it's easy to fathom what they're getting at, so this wasn't a big deal.
Copyright 2008 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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