Tom Waits's Island Records Reissues

In 2022, Tom Waits decided it was time to remaster the albums he made during his stint at Island Records. The Waits classics Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), Franks Wild Years (1987), Bone Machine (1992), and the Waits (with Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs) musical fable The Black Rider (1993) are the first new remasters to be released.

Remastered from the original tapes (except one, for which a digital source was used), all five are available on LP and CD as well as streaming and download. At and UDiscover Music, the LP versions are available in colored-vinyl variations: The Black Rider in opaque apple red, Bone Machine on translucent milky clear, Swordfishtrombones in canary yellow, Rain Dogs in opaque sky blue, and Franks Wild Years in opaque gold. Of the seven albums Waits did for Elektra/Asylum early in his career, only Closing Time, recut at half-speed at Abbey Road studios, has so far been remastered. All the new UMG LPs were pressed in Burlington, ON, Canada, by Precision Record Pressing, which is owned by Czech record pressing giant GZ Media.

To lead the project to remaster his catalog, the wizard-poet of sentiment and grit chose Karl Derfler, who has been Waits's chosen engineer—his third set of ears if you will, assisting Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan—for all new Waits recordings since 2006's Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. Working from California, Derfler is a seasoned engineer with a résumé that's swung back and forth between music with more commercial potential like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Dave Matthews Band, Smash Mouth, and Mötley Crüe to more eclectic projects like albums by Roky Erickson and Waits. Lately he's been working in film and television as the music business has grown less active.

"Tom was working on a song in a studio in Richmond, California, where I had my own room, and we met and he came in and cut a track with me," Derfler said in a recent interview. "I said, you don't owe me anything. If you're into it, great, if not, that's cool too. He called me back from the road and said, 'Man, this is awesome,' and since then I've been very fortunate and privileged to be part of the Waits team."

To lead the remastering project, Waits chose Karl Derfler, who has assisted with all new Waits recordings since 2006.

When Waits and Brennan became interested in remastering his catalog, Julianne Deery, Tom's assistant and part of his management team, asked Derfler to oversee the project. Derfler requested Chris Bellman from Bernie Grundman Mastering as the mastering engineer. "I have been working with Chris, and I think he has the versatility," Derfler explained. "I think he has an understanding of music. And Tom has such a breadth of musical genres, from soft to very hard and angular, that Chris in my opinion would be able to deal with. And the Bernie Grundman team is just spectacular; I have only positive things to say. They've remastered many records I have been involved with, and I have never had to go down there. I just know I can trust him. And if I have changes, he'll jump on it and take care of it.

"Also, there were a couple of Waits records on Rhino that Tom and Kathleen were initially very unhappy with when they first came out and had all kinds of trouble. Chris remastered them, and everything was smooth, so it was an easy pitch to get Chris to be our mastering engineer."

Typically, Derfler would have had Bellman cutting the lacquers, but another cutting engineer, Alex Abrash of AA Mastering, was brought in by Universal Music Group (UMG); as relayed by Derfler, Waits thought Abrash did a great job. Abrash's recent résumé includes remasterings of Bob Marley & The Wailers' Songs of Freedom, Rodriguez's Cold Fact, Frank Sinatra's Watertown, and Steely Dan's Aja.

The focus here is on the first two Island Records releases, both career highlights. Neither Swordfishtrombones (engineered by Biff Dawes and Tim Boyle) nor Rain Dogs (engineered by Robert Musso) had serious obvious sonic flaws, so the new team's mission, as they saw it, was to enhance the overall sonic image of the original mixes while preserving the strengths of the original.

"How I got it was, we want to match if not beat the original sound," Derfler continued. "To really maintain the integrity of the OG sources that the fans love, especially this being the transition period of Tom's career musically speaking and his songwriting and so on. Not make any drastic alterations, not depart from the intent of the original mixes, but take it to the next level. There's now an added depth on the vinyl that wasn't there in the originals. And it's all subtle stuff; it's not like it's dramatic day and night. A little warmer and overall a more pleasant sound. A little more air has been added, and the whole thing just has a little more quality in my opinion."

Derfler and Deery went through the Waits archives at UMG to find the sources, some of which were, Derfler said, "kind of strewn about." While they had digital backups for all the albums, the original sources for this new remastering were ½" or ¼" analog reels, except for Swordfishtrombones; for that album (despite claims in a press release about the series) Bellman worked from a 24/192 digital transfer of original tapes. Abrash used Bellman's 24/192 master files to cut the lacquers.

Mastering Engineer Chris Bellman

Bellman, who started out mastering LPs in the 1970s and has worked on thousands of records across nearly every genre, from dance music and disco to Poison, Charles Mingus, and The Band's The Last Waltz, has a simple equation for remasters. "I always refer back to what it was and what people have been listening to, so I don't stray too far," Bellman said in a recent interview from the Grundman shop where he was working. "I don't want to reinvent it. If I can get the source that I'm using back to what it was, or maybe it's already there, then I can make judgments on what could be better depending on what format I'm going to.

If it's vinyl or SACD, there can be subtle differences."

One sonic oddity is that the original vinyl albums done in the 1980s (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Franks Wild Years) had masters that were direct metal mastering (DMM) cuts. Instead of cutting LP masters into a soft lacquer disc of aluminum coated with nitrocellulose, DMM recordings are cut into a copper plate. Primarily a European technology, DMM was something of a fad for a while in the 1980s, particularly in jazz. DMM facilitates narrower, more tightly spaced grooves, allowing the 1980s Waits albums to have very long sides. Bellman, though, is not a fan of the sound of DMM masters.

"We never jumped into it here at our studio, and we weighed it out a few times over decades back when it first came out, and it really didn't appeal to us a whole lot," Bellman said. "Now where DMM shines a little bit, for instance on Franks Wild Years, the A side is 28 minutes long. So with DMM you can maybe cut a little bit louder. I'm talking like a dB or less, but there is that. But the sonics it imparts on the project are not appealing to me. It's too sterile; it loses some of the musicality. It's really apparent if you have a digital source, then it's like fingernails on a chalkboard."


Glotz's picture

I own the originals as well as these new pressings and the results are noisy and sloppy pressing issues: warping, with concentricity issues.

The digital download counterparts seem very nice and do benefit from the substantial efforts by Bellman and Derfler. The 'gold' of the work is there, but it's buried under a ton of dross for the LP's. HUGE disappointment that a ton of people know about. This disappoints me that it wasn't addressed by Robert here. I still see this as scope of review stuff.

Any prospective buyer needs to research this extensively to justify this or other used purchases, IMO.