Thoughts on the SW Soundtrack “Remasters”…

Full-disclosure: I’m a bit of a music nerd.

When Sony’s license on the Star Wars soundtracks dried up (around the end of 2016/beginning of 2017), I theorized we would see some variation of the movie scores re-released under a Disney label. My hope at the time was that we would get something akin to the 1997 Special Edition CDs or the 2002 Ultimate Edition soundtrack to TPM–presentations of the scores that were (more or less) complete, and even better, representative of what you actually hear in the movie. The 1997 CDs were very good, but not without some sound quality issues as well as mistakes (or perhaps editorialism) in using different takes from what was in the film. (Note that the TPM Ultimate Edition is what you hear in the film, but isn’t the complete score due to edits and tracking.)*

[*“Tracking” is another term for “overdubbing,” which is when you record or edit another piece of music onto another. Almost all music is subject to some form of overdubbing, but when it comes to cinematic music, a section that is “tracked” typically refers to already-existing portions of music that are edited into place or substituted for what was originally recorded. There is a lot of tracking in the prequels, and it’s one of the reasons why certain themes and motifs (think the droid army from TPM being used during battles in both AOTC and ROTS) reappear consistently through the films (although sometimes the music was re-recorded for the subsequent films, like the funereal choir from TPM and ROTS).]

So, when news of the Disney remastered soundtracks started to leak out near the end of 2017, I was kind of excited. Would we get something for the OT and PT like Disney has been doing with some of their own classics, reissuing expanded and remastered scores under the Legacy Collection banner?

Well, not…quite.

The announcement came, and I was left feeling…a little nonplussed? At the time, and up until they were finally released this year on May 4th, I assumed that what we were getting were CD versions of what Sony released back in 2016– the previously digital/vinyl-only LP configurations of the OT soundtracks (meaning what was released in 1977/1980/1983, respectively) and 24/44 digital remasters of the PT soundtracks. I noted the “24/192” for the mastering, but I assumed it only related to the OT (which was mastered 24/192 in 2016).

I was wrong. Very wrong. It turns out that what they did was much more interesting and complex than what I assumed.

Although the soundtracks released on May 4th are called “remasters,” the truth of the matter is that they’re actually “remixes”–the key difference between the two concepts being this: If you “remaster” a recording, you’re taking a copy of the song or track that was mixed in X year and applying a new mastering to it (applying EQ, trying to make it sound as good as possible for listening); if you “remix” a recording, you’re going back to the original tapes used to mix the song or track and creating a new one essentially from scratch.

The goal with these new versions of the soundtracks is actually right there in the blurb–“reconstruct[ion].” In remixing the OT and PT music, Shawn Murphy and co. weren’t aiming to make something that was a completely different listening experience, but wanted to use modern technology to maybe give a bit of a boost to the edits and versions of the music as they were originally released. The results, however, are…mixed? When you compare these 2018 soundtracks with previous versions, it’s an utterly fascinating experience to say the least.

Generally speaking, the sound quality is much brighter, so if you’re not a fan of that, chances are that you won’t really like these 2018 versions. I’ll come back to the sound quality in a little bit, but honestly, the most interesting thing about these is the actual content of the soundtracks: Overall, the OT is very good at mimicking the edits made on the original albums, with one or two differences in the takes used, but the PT is…weird. Real weird. Some examples:

  • There’s a section in “Duel of the Fates” where the 1999 version of the concert suite has some tracked music (from later in the same track, as it were)–but the 2018 version doesn’t use the tracking, so you actually hear what was recorded by the orchestra.
  • The ROTS soundtrack is weird because there are several cases where the percussion used in the film (which typically differed from the album) are substituted for what was originally on the album instead, the most striking example of which is the opening track. (Listen to the drums in the film, and then compare with the original soundtrack.)

Now, as a music/score nerd, I find this stuff awesome and cool (when it’s edited well or doesn’t sound like a mistake, that is), but at the same time I also feel like the marketing around the releases is…a little dishonest? They’re being marketed as “remasters,” but…that’s not true. And while I’d say that the majority of the work was good, there are a few disasters: There’s some shoddy editing all over TPM’s score with regard to fading/editing between cues…but the icing on the cake goes to two tracks from ESB’s soundtrack, “Battle in the Snow” and “The Asteroid Field.” I don’t know if they had to work from sub-par tapes or something, but…they’re a mess, bathed in reverb and echo and just really poorly put together. The original LP mixes–which were released in stellar quality only like a year-and-a-bit ago, remember–handily beat them.

Would I recommend them? “Maybe,” is my answer. If you have the digital tracks from 2016, I’d probably suggest passing–at least for the OT. The sound quality improvements on the PT might edge it into “Yes,” even with the issues in the TPM soundtrack. I really hope the fact that they have gone back and digitally transferred the multi-track recordings (used to make these releases) means that, sometime in the future, we’ll get something a bit more comprehensive and a touch better produced, but for now, these will give me something that’s a little bit new to listen to.

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