Reissue producer/audio restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn was born in Philadelphia in 1956, and began piano studies at an early age. In 1978, while attending Williams College, he researched and restored the original piano part for Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and was soloist in what was believed to be the first complete performance of the work since its 1924 premiere. It was around this time that he began making his first transfers of historical recordings, for broadcast over the college radio station. He continued his work in radio by creating and co-hosting a series devoted to historical recordings which featured his restorations and aired over Philadelphia's National Public Radio affiliate, WHYY-FM, in the early 1980s.
Obert-Thorn started transferring professionally for CD reissues in 1988. Since that time, over 200 CDs' worth of his restorations have appeared on such labels as Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone, Cala, and Music & Arts. He began to work for Naxos Historical in 1998, and his best-selling restorations of Rachmaninov playing his works for piano and orchestra, Menuhin performing the Elgar Violin Concerto with the composer conducting, and a collection of opera arias with Jussi Bjorling, among others, have earned critical accolades around the world. He was also chosen by the Philadelphia Orchestra to be the Artistic Consultant for their centennial CD collection.
With regard to his approach toward audio restoration, Obert-Thorn describes himself as a "moderate interventionist," in contrast to those who do little to clean up the sound of the source material and others whose overuse of audio technology alters the characteristics of the original sound. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not draw attention to itself, but rather should allow the performance to be heard with the greatest clarity. To this end, he avoids the use of artificial reverberation and pseudo-stereo imaging, as well as computerized processes that eliminate disc surface hiss at the expense of high frequency information and hall ambiance.
He begins by locating top-quality source material, both from his own archive and from a network of fellow collectors. As a longtime collector of 78 rpm discs himself, he knows which editions are preferable in terms of quiet shellac - Victor "Z" pressings, Columbia "Viva-Tonals," laminated Brunswicks and the like - and seeks them out for his restorations. He draws upon a wide array of stylus widths to find the one which best fits the grooves of the particular record at hand, and then carefully pitches the disc, using an autochromatic tuner to ensure the proper playback speed. The sound is fed through a pre-amp which matches the original recording curves and contains filters for hiss and rumble, and is further shaped through the use of a parametric equalizer. Finally, the CEDAR-2 declicking module is used to remove pops, clicks and surface crackle from the disc before it is put onto tape.
The results have garnered praise from critics throughout the world:
This Naxos compilation is by far the finest CD transfer to date of Bjoerling's best-known opera aria recordings. Not only is the voice more present and natural-sounding, but so is the orchestra and until we can find a way to bring Bjoerling back from the dead, this recording takes its place as the truest and most satisfying means to appreciate his inimitable way with an aria. Whatever Obert-Thorn did here, please let him do lots more.
- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com (USA) on Naxos 8.110701
The clarity and warmth of the Naxos transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn achieve wonders with these recordings, made in the mid-1930s. They enable us to appreciate the art of Alfred Cortot as rarely before.
- The Sunday Times, (London) on Naxos Historical 8.110612
[T]he Naxos transfers, supervised by Mark Obert-Thorn, are easily the cleanest, best sounding ones made from these masters. They easily supplant the RCA CD and LP transfers made for the Rachmaninov centenary set, and set as high a standard for digital restoration as the players do in music making. If you had any doubts about purchasing these recordings because of the sonic limitations of historical recordings, then fear no more.
- Jonathan Yungkans, Inkpot.Com (Singapore) on Naxos Historical 8.110601 and 8.110602
Early CD transfers [of the Heifetz/Toscanini Beethoven Violin Concerto] . . . barely anticipated the extraordinary fineness of sound we now have on this transfer by archivist and restorer Mark Obert-Thorn.
Richard Osborne, Gramophone (UK) on Naxos Historical 8.110936
J'ai toujours admire le travail
de restauration sonore de Mark Obert-Thorn dans ce qu'il a de plus honnete
et de plus respectueux vis-a-vis l'ingenieur du son a l'origine de ces 78
I always admire the sound restoration work of Mark Obert-Thorn, which achieves the most honest and the most respectful balance between the restorer and his 78rpm recordings.
Michel Tibbaut, Radio Liege (Belgium)
Some of Obert-Thorn's upcoming projects for Naxos include the complete Toscanini/New York Philharmonic recordings, including every issued alternate take; Schnabel's complete Beethoven and Brahms Piano Concertos; a series of violin concerto recordings featuring Joseph Szigeti; the classic Lotte Lehmann/Elisabeth Schumann Rosenkavalier, and much more.