Fearless: How Difficult Is Taylor Swift's Re-Recording Mission?
The sound and impact of so many classic albums are intrinsically tied to where they were recorded: the acoustic space, the microphones used, the precise angle at which the vocalist stood at the mic – and that's before getting into mixing details like reverbs and shaping frequencies with EQ.
We all know of at least one track which was initially just a demo, but ended up making the album when the artist couldn't quite recapture the magic of that original recording. On 'Sad, Beautiful, Tragic' from Taylor Swift's 'RED', her demoed vocals made it to the final version because they contained a rawness that Swift wasn't able to recapture in subsequent attempts. All this to say, the specific way a song is recorded is a vital part of its magic.
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After a protracted and very public battle over the ownership of her masters, Swift is set to re-record her first six albums to take back control of her musical legacy. The first of these re-recorded albums to be released is 'Fearless', the seminal country-pop album that propelled her into the upper echelons of popular culture. Re-recording any album is a monumental undertaking, but even more so when the aim is to achieve a sound as close to that of the original as possible.
This undertaking is not without risks, however. Fans routinely begrudge even remastered songs and albums, where the original recording has been readjusted to suit modern listening experiences. An obvious example is The Beatles, whose music was remastered from mono to stereo. The band's earlier music was originally recorded and released in mono, as was standard at the time, rather than making use of the full stereo field as we're used to hearing today.
Many fans still prefer to listen to the mono versions and are especially disappointed that Spotify only offers the stereo version of much of their music. There's every chance fans will still prefer Swift's original recordings, although many fans are adamant they will only listen to these versions on pre-bought media, electing to listen to the new versions via streaming platforms to support their favourite artist.
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Obviously, Swift has the best producers and equipment at her disposal, but is that all you need to faithfully recreate an old recording? Producer and engineer Charlie Deakin Davies, who has worked with artists like Gary Barlow and Laura Marling, suggests that "the variable that will make the most difference will be the mix engineer" who oversees how the separate audio tracks are blended together using effects, volume and the stereo field.
Ideally, Swift will have brought either the original mix engineer on board or a mix engineer who is incredibly good at emulating someone else's mix. When it comes to replicating the mix, the ideal approach is to acquire the 'wet stems' – the isolated tracks with effects already applied from the original recording.
Charlie explains: "It's all very well listening to the whole track and trying to piece together what happened but the reality is that's like looking like a painting and having to try and pick out all of the layers and what order the pieces of paint were put down."
In contrast, it's not too important to record in the same space with the same musicians. For instance, Swift recorded 'Love Story (Taylor's Version)' with her 'Fearless' tour band rather than the original studio musicians. Similarly, an acoustic space can be emulated through recording and mixing techniques, so it's not always necessary to return to the original recording studio. However, the instruments used are important. "A Taylor guitar sounds really different from a Martin guitar," Charlie offers, going on to clarify that once you have the same type of guitar a producer can usually discern which type of microphone was used and where it was placed to record the instrument.
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For most listeners, the biggest difference between the original songs and the re-recorded versions will be Swift's vocal performance. Throughout her career, Swift's vocals have continually improved, taking on a new resonance and depth of tone. For Charlie, this is something to embrace rather than hide. Rather than trying to mimic how she sang in 2008, they propose that Swift "do the best performance she can," going on to suggest that she use the best vocal production too. "You could make absolutely everything sound the same but the vocals will sound different, so you might as well just use the best vocal chain that she currently has," they say, referring to the series of effects that work best for her voice today.
Looking forward, Swift will have an easier time rerecording her later synth-driven music compared to the more organic sounding country-pop. "The synth stuff will literally just be presets, they'll just be saved sounds which are synthetic. I mean she definitely would have used some analogue gear in there, some analogue synths and stuff, but all of those settings would be saved," says Charlie of recreating albums like '1989' and 'reputation'. Whilst this could mean an even closer copy of the original recordings, they don't think Swift will turn down the opportunity to make her biggest pop songs sound even bigger.
"80s pop style stuff had such a continued resurgence after ['1989']... The mixing techniques got really really good so I think '1989' could be even more punchy, more pop, if everything is just mixed slightly differently... it depends if she's trying to go for using modern techniques on the existing thing or if her main aim is to just make everything sound exactly the same."
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The most important thing to remember is that with these new versions, Swift wants to diminish the value of the original masters so those who want to license her tracks for film and TV will approach her for the rerecorded versions. Since 'Love Story (Taylor's Version)' has exactly the same arrangement, instrumentation and lyrics as the original, many listeners won't even realise it's a new recording, making the track entirely fit for purpose when it comes to licensing.
Not only this, but thanks to contemporary mixing techniques the new version sounds brighter and glossier than the original, Swift's vocals are smoother and her performance invokes a depth beyond what she was capable of in 2008. By striking a balance between faithfully recreating the original track and embracing subtle improvements made possible by time and experience, Swift has made the definitive version of the song.
Although betrayal and exploitation have led her to re-record these albums, the project has become a celebration of Swift's career milestones for both her and her fans. As well as giving fans the opportunity to discover deep cuts or revisit old favourites, the story behind these rerecordings has become part of her music's legacy.
Taylor's versions will forever represent how important it is for artists to own their work, and the public way this conflict has played out means an increased awareness of exploitative contracts and how the industry takes advantage of young artists. These new versions are set to be embraced by fans, the music industry and the public, which can only be a win in the fight for artists to own their work.
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'Fearless (Taylor's Version)' will be released on April 9th.
Words: Eloise Bulmer
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