Remasterer of Puppets

Fantasy tech guru Joe Tarantino makes Isaac Hayes sound even saltier.

Look way down in the small-print credits on Fantasy Records’ new two-CD Isaac Hayes Stax reissue set, and you’ll find it: “Remastered by Joe Tarantino.” Clearly, Joe’s not in it for the fame; he’ll settle for making the famous sound better.

Tarantino — an eighteen-year veteran of Fantasy’s Digital Restoration department, with a wide grin counterbalancing his small stature — has a buttoned-down, soccer-dad air to him, but when it comes to Hayes, he momentarily drops his attitude of professional detachment. Some personal epiphany from long ago flashes across his face, and for a brief second, you can picture him with long hair, a Nehru jacket, and bellbottoms, listening to “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” on vinyl, and saying “Right on, man!” a lot.

“He’s a great songwriter,” Joe finally allows of the man who once called himself Black Moses. “But the way he interprets other people’s music is amazing.” The Fantasy comp, Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can Ya Dig It?, revisits his finest moments — Hayes funkitizes Bread’s highly unfunky “Baby I’m-a Want You,” ramps up the cool factor considerably on Burt Bacharach’s squarish pop standards “Walk on By” and “The Look of Love,” and turns the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” into a spoken-word monologue about a hard-luck lover who takes a road trip, which segues perfectly into “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” The set also features several of Hayes’ own compositions, many subsequently sampled by hip-hop artist-fans from Public Enemy to Big Daddy Kane.

Just another day at the office for Tarantino, who estimates he’s done a thousand such reissue projects in just under two decades. Tarantino started at Fantasy at the dawn of the CD Age, when the then-new format’s market dominance was still in doubt; now he’s a full-time remastering guru. He works in Fantasy’s labyrinthine Berkeley complex, a building as highly decorated as an entire battalion of generals. The walls boast an endless wave of Platinum and Gold records, along with Ampex Gold Reel production/engineering honors and plaques of artists — from household names (Santana) to the ultra-obscure (Nameless & Faceless) — who’ve recorded at one of the compound’s four full studios. Then there’s the impressive collection of museum-quality photos: Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and other music greats who’ve recorded for Fantasy or one of its subsidiary labels (among them Stax and Prestige). “We have a big jazz and R&B catalogue,” Tarantino says, which is something of a major understatement, akin to saying the ’27 Yankees were an okay team.

There’s a stuffy librarian element to what Joe does; to start a remastering job, “I’ll go up to the vault, pull the analogue tape, run it through digital converters,” he explains. Or at least, he used to: “We have a tape librarian now.” Still, he looks back fondly on the times when he’d roam the archives in search of that elusive (and often improperly labeled) reel. The difficulty of rehabbing the analogue sounds therein into digital perfection “all depends on how bad the tape is,” he says. The odds are pretty good, though: Many recordings from the ’40s are still in decent shape.

Occasionally he’ll be asked to work on the musical equivalent to the Shroud of Turin: Take, for example, a historic live performance by Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall in 1943, recorded on transcription discs, a format so old it’s practically unknown now. Joe says his favorite remastering project was probably Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers: The Complete Specialty Recordings, a 2004 Grammy nominee for Best Historical Album on which his name surfaced as mastering engineer. He didn’t win, but he got to dress up, attend the ceremony, and hobnob with the music biz bigwigs — a point of great pride for a guy who’s one of the industry’s unsung heroes.

After all, Tarantino’s skills can make or break a project. He says that “Mastering engineers can go overboard” trying to do too much sometimes; his personal technique, like his persona, is low-key but effective: “I use my ears and try not to interfere with the music at all.” Sometimes, as with a 24-bit recording from the Miles Davis Quintet, “I have to dither it down.” With all the equipment at his disposal, he can completely alter a less-than-pristine recording, but removing all the sonic imperfections can eliminate something essential as well. “I can take all the hiss out,” he explains, “but the music’s gonna sound terrible.”

With Can Ya Dig It?, however, Tarantino had a few advantages. First, he’d worked on Isaac Hayes records before, early in his Fantasy tenure. And as far as reissue projects go, this one was a piece of cake. “Isaac was recording in multitrack,” Tarantino explains, so there wasn’t that much to clean up, as compared with, say, a big band recorded in monaural sound, or a patchy reel with spotty sound quality. His only regret with the project is that with just two CDs to cover Hayes’ essential tunes, “We couldn’t use the long versions” of some of the ’70s icon’s best-known songs. Indeed, while “Do Your Thing” is still funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter, at 3:19, it’s nowhere near as epic as the 19:34 album version.

It’s telling that Tarantino cares enough to consider such matters. The plain truth of the reissue world is that it often involves re-releasing the same recordings over and over again (just with more colorful packaging or different track sequences), so record labels can milk every penny out of their back-catalogue cash cows. But for Can Ya Dig It?, Joe went back in and redid the tracks, using up-to-date computer programs. It comes as a great relief to him that he didn’t have to use the same tracks as before — the digital transformation process has improved greatly since 1987, he says, due to better, more intuitive software that eliminates the “cold” digital sound often criticized by vinyl purists during the early days of the CD.

But reissues aren’t just for reformed vinyl purists anymore. For some youngsters, Can Ya Dig It? is their official introduction to Hayes’ canon. And while Tarantino thinks this set primarily appeals to older folks who used to own the music on vinyl or 8-track and have since converted to CDs, Fantasy clearly wants to market to the Hip-Hop Generation, folks who’ve heard Hayes sampled on songs like “Smooth Operator” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” but who know Isaac himself only as the guy who plays Chef on South Park. After all, why else include “Salty Balls,” a hilarious, salacious double-entendre-laden song originally written for the irreverent cable show, slotting seamlessly into a set piled high with hot buttered soul classics of unquestionable historical and cultural significance?

Ultimately, Tarantino says, what matters most is that younger fans can now “hear the real deal. Good music is good music, no matter when it’s from,” he says. Undeniably, “Salty Balls” never sounded crisper.

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