CD mastering a lost art?

Okay, so a lot of my stuff is packed for my move, including vinyl. I have been listening to my digital collection (ripped CDs and downloads). I was thinking how it is interesting how harsh all this music sounds. That "digital" argument.

Then a song from Nine Inch Nails' "Pretty Hate Machine" (Ringfinger) came up (a FLAC rip from the original release..yes 1988.) It sounded amazing. Clear, no harshness..almost analog.

So what's up? Studio tricks from over 20 years ago or has an art-form been lost?
I wonder sometime as well, who is engineering some of these recordings. I recently purchased Adele 21 on vinyl and the recorded distortion is a disappointment to a great performance. How does that get past anyone in the chain producing any music in this day and age?
most of all of the art is lost nowadays.....not to mention skills.....
IME, there is little to none respect for physical media these days.
I think its more pining for days gone by than anything based in reality.

The fact is everything about digital has only improved over time and continues to in general.

Often, economics dictate that cheap products be made. Other times, not. Nothing new here. It's always been this way.

If you really beleive this, stick with your original master CDs and save a lot of money on remasters when they come out. I find most to be a big improvement though there are always a few clunkers now just the same as always.

The best sounding CDs made in the last 10 years sound better than ever. Crap still sounds like crap, same as always, though I'll go so far as to say that I think even the worst crap made today still sounds better tnan in years past.
I think new digital music releases are engineered for iPod like devices and lack the dynamics needed for good system playback. The market has adapted to the needs of the mass consumer.
Cannot beat a poor recording. No format can erase poor production. This is why SACD of a poor sonic recording will not really show just how good the medium is.

Same for 24/96 or vinyl. Today with the heavy use of compression and electronics during the recording process you will be hard to find well recorded music, and now with MP3 and mass downloading of just tracks the issue will only become worse.

Want good recorded music then go back to the golden era when they still cared and quality. 1945-1960 and into the early 80's, starting in the 90's they issue started.

Look for remastered CD's from the 90;s onward of the classic albums. Digital really got good in the mid to late 90's and the remasters even up to the Elvis & the Beatles stuff is just superb, the Stones still sound like crap on their 60's stuff. They could do much better for this group even my SACD sound fair at best.

I'd argue that there's nothing at all lost in terms of capability or artistry in
mixing / mastering. Nothing. That said, a great deal of software these
days is mixed for very different priorities than absolute fidelity on an
exacting system. In fact, quite the opposite. There's quite a bit of skill and
artistry behind being able to mix a track so that the vocals pop and it
sounds compelling played from a lossey mp3 over the car stereo with all
the windows down going 75mph. Said same track is going to be damn
near unlistenable on a reasonably accurate system with someone looking
for fidelity in the listening chair, however. It's about choices. Can't say I
like many of the choices behind the mass-market stuff these days -- but I
think it would be a mistake to ignore that they are deliberate choices
grounded in perfectly legitimate economic goals. The lowest common
denominator is a bitch if your preferences trend towards the top of the
curve, but it doesn't change the fact that there are various economic
realities (e.g. most common format(s) and installed equipment platforms
among the consuming public) that are driving this bus, not some arcane
lost art. Agreed, the direction the bus is headed stinks, think we're just
quibbling over who is driving....
I prefer original CDs by quite a margin - those made in Japan or West Germany in the period 1982 - 1990.

Most non-specialist mainstream remastered CDs reduce the dynamic range and increase the level which has a bigger downside than the marginal increase in fidelity that comes from better ADCs and techniques in use today.

This is not true for many of the audiophile labels - listen to the Audio Fidelity remaster of "Sweet Baby James" as an example.

I cannot think of any remasters in my collection that I prefer over the original "first pressing".

Vegasears and Mezmo have expressed well the informed opinion. Audiophiles most definitely aren't driving this bus or influencing those who are. A few concerned artists have publicly expressed criticisms we can all relate to, but few of these have the clout to do much beyond influencing a limited release of something better, in what typically stands more as a symbolic gesture than as a commercially attractive entity in itself. The Beatles, of course, get their clout from simply having existed.

For more on this, Bob Katz's book, 'Mastering Audio' (2nd ed.), is a worthwhile read even if you aren't involved in a studio environment. You might get another perspective here on 24/96K releases vs. 24/192K that you probably won't get from audiophile sources, just as an example.
There in article over at where a recording engineer lays down the sad truth. It seems that most artists want to be the loudest in order to stand out amongst the rest while audiophiles want dynamics to better appreciate the recording. That, and the mediums dominating the market nowadays don't take into consideration the serious listener.

There is no doubt that the technology is available in the here and now and wonderful recordings can be made but it all boils down to the intended audience.

No amount of technology can save a bad recording so one must look for the better ones to fully appreciate this hobby. The results can be very rewarding.
Siding with what Nonoise says, it's my experience that most of my older CD's sound better than my newer... compressed CD's.

Off the "cdbaby" website, I just ordered two CD's by the New Orleans Jazz Vipers that I'm hoping were mastered uncompressed by some esoteric lab. I mention this only because Amazon wanted $41.00 for one of them, but the "cdbaby" website is selling them for $15.95.
It never was "art". In the 80's it was a new technology, lot of new processors, no noise from tapes, endless digital mixing were possible, more data speed, re-clocking for laser burners and so on. When CD sales went down, there was only ONE priority: cost reduction.
No one talked about sound "quality", everything had to made cheap, no, wrong, super cheap, close to nothing. Next was: Internet downloads, no one needed "quality", CD sales went downstairs, the Standard for everything is MP3, Radio Stations send from Harddisc and use limiters to push the midrange frequencies.
I agree, when you want digital "quality", go for CD's from the 80's.

This should answer some of the points raised above. Some talk of the war being over....I'm not sure and haven't heard enough very recent stuff to know.

The very first CD I ever bought...John Mayall, Eric Clapton as the 'Blues Breakers', recorded in some garage in the '60s still sounds amazing. Bought it the day I bought my first CD player....A Magnavox / Phillips FD1000. A 14 bit reference player.
I agree that most cds aimed at the top 40 sound like crap, but I find that many artists out of the mainstream put out very good sounding cds. Most of the remasters of classic rock, country, blues and jazz sound very good also.

There's more good stuff out there than I can afford to buy.

Agreed. There are some really great recordings out there off the beaten path that don't require that big of a walk to find. One just has to widen their tastes a bit, and look outside the mainstream labels. The sonic rewards can be breathtaking.
Dynamic compensation, equalization, whatever. Tonally they are unlistenable. This major fault of most recordings is intentional. I know this to be the case because a "poorly recorded" CD sounds listenable on my ipad or in my car, and is horrific on my hifi. Maybe someone should make a modern high end audio CD player that is voiced accordingly.
Nicely said Mezmo. Too bad.
IMHO, most of the remastered CDs I have bought (Bowie, EJ, Floyd) sound better than the original CD I purchased 10-20 years ago, although usually the difference is subtle. But Jimmy Page's Zepplin re-masters suck. The engineer doing the mixing and his priorities are a huge factor here.
There is a disturbing trend in recording/producing these days that compresses the dynamic range and just makes the music sound screechy. Arctic Monkeys is fun music, but it sounds like hell on my system. The indie rock genre is the worst purveyor of these ill-sounding CDs; its almost like a lack of quality sound is becoming a way to protest against the establishment.
Recent CDs I've bought that have good-to-great sound quality: Maximum Balloons, LCD soundsystem, James Blake.
Another trend seems to be multiple remasters and remixes of alread popular material in order to broaden the appeal.

A lot easier than coming up with something totally new to get peoples interest.

I think its a good thing though in that it adds more variety and avenues that you can go down when you find something you like. Very practical!
Some of my early cds sound better then some of the sacds I have of the same recording. There are some talented people mastering some great stuff these days just as they were 25+ years ago. There are also some hacks that shouldn't touch a recording at all.
Find a great sounding recording and look behind who did the mastering. You will be surprised how often only a few names come up.

True that in most professions, especially those involving application of technology, there are usually only a select few that truly excel.