When The Cosmic Storyteller master tapes were discovered in 1999, they were in pitiful shape. After more than three decades, the ferrous oxide was sloughing off. That the album should sound so fresh and contemporary is a miracle, owed to digital magic.
While there were those who felt that the album should be mastered to include the limitations of the sound processing that was available in 1967, the surviving members of the band Unicorn felt strongly that it should be given the best that contemporary electronics has to offer, to do justice to the music and its legacy. This way, instead of remaining merely interesting artifacts, the songs and music are competitive and relevant today.
The sound design had to be re-invented from memory, but much more could be done to enhance the quality of the recordings. Since we had the original multi-track master tapes, we could manipulate every individual track.
The first step was the transfer of all the tapes to a digital medium. ADAT was selected. The tapes were in fact worked on in several studios where the ADAT format made it possible to take them back and forth between Macintosh and PC platforms.
In some cases, this was quite challenging. Some of the master tapes were on four-track masters on which elements were sub-mixed. Needless to say, these could not be remixed, although a mastering program brightened and enhanced every instrument. Thankfully, they were great mixes to begin with.
Most of the songs were originally done on an eight-track Ampex recorder, believed to be the third or fourth built. In some cases, a four-track recorder was synched up to the eight-track, providing 12 tracks. On these multi-track tapes, we had the luxury of being able to clean up a lot of problems before actually mixing and mastering.
The band was experimenting with various drone sounds, such as the innovative twin synthesizers on “Ideal Lady” and the East Indian tamboura on “The Cosmic Storyteller” and “The Final Run.” Unicorn also created sounds that were ahead of their time both intentionally and unintentionally. These included some of the stereo effects using a custom-built panning gadget. Some guitar sounds were also very advanced. “Johnny’s In A Corner” has “crunchy” guitar tone which today is obtained with a pedal or a patch. But it was accidentally created here when the guitar amp was improperly miked. Unicorn actually intended to re-record it correctly but never had the chance. The record company pulled the plug on the project.
After using these state-of-the-art techniques, we conclude that the brilliance of the album is to due not to anything we were able to do, but because the performances themselves stand up after all that time, a testimony to the music, the band, and their theories about converging many styles.