The Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper’s album was mixed twice on its original release. So why mix it again, 50 years on?
No-one in their right mind would consider repainting the Sistine Chapel, or ask Damien Hirst to rearrange the stones at Stonehenge. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is arguably of similar cultural significance, so why would you choose to remix it? The question is pertinent, because this is exactly what producer Giles Martin and Abbey Road senior engineer Sam Okell have done to commemorate the album’s 50th anniversary.
“It’s a question we asked ourselves!” replies Martin. “The main reason we did it is because we knew we could, from experience. I’ve been working on Beatles material since the Love project, and Sam and I have done various other Beatles projects together. A while back the remaining Beatles asked us to remix all their number ones for 5.1 for the song videos that were to be included in the 1+ boxed set, and to do good 5.1 mixes we had to go back to the original four-track tapes. A fake 5.1 would have sounded terrible. In the process we also thought of ways of turning early mono mixes into stereo, so we started remixing all these number ones both for stereo and 5.1. The reactions were amazing! People really liked them. So while we certainly were worried about being accused of repainting the Sistine Chapel, what we had done before gave us the confidence that we could successfully remix Sgt. Pepper’s.”
The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s between November 1966 and April 1967, spending most of an unheard-of 700 hours studio time in Abbey Road Studio 2. Producer George Martin, often called “the fifth Beatle”, called it a time of “almost continuous technological experimentation”, and could have added that it also was an era of almost continuous musical experimentation.
Amongst the technological innovations Martin Sr. oversaw during the making of Sgt. Pepper’s were the first use of DI, extensive pitch control using varispeed, elaborate bouncing between four-track tapes, a process called ADT, aka artificial double-tracking, close-miking the drums, and more. A dazzling blend of rock & roll with vaudeville, big band, blues, jazz, Western and Indian classical music, music hall, chamber music, circus music, psychedelia and more, Sgt. Pepper’s became the best-selling album of the 1960s, and remains the Beatles’ best-selling studio album of all time, with an estimated 32 million sales to date.
In short, Sgt. Pepper’s is the most iconic album by the world’s most iconic band and the Big Bang of rock music as we know it today. If anything in rock music is sacrosanct, this is it. However, there are two reasons why the news of a Sgt. Pepper’s remix to celebrate its 50th anniversary wasn’t immediately met with howls of derision. The first was that Giles Martin, the son of the late, great Sir George Martin, is widely respected and regarded as a safe pair of hands. The second reason, as Martin Jr. already alluded to above, was that the previous remixes of the Beatles’ back catalogue that he had been involved in were met with a chorus of widespread approval.
Even so, fans’ heads must have been spinning when the 50th anniversary remix of Sgt. Pepper’s was announced, released in four different versions, ranging from a single CD to a six-disc boxed set Super Deluxe Edition. They surely were wondering: “Giles Martin’s mixes are sure to sound good, but do we really have to shell out again? What’s the deal?”
It turns out that Martin has some solid answers to these concerns: “The thing with Sgt. Pepper’s is that the band was far more focused on the mono version at the time. The team spent three weeks mixing to mono, with the band there, and only three days on mixing the stereo version, and the band was not even present for that! John Lennon once said that you hadn’t properly heard the album unless you heard the mono version. And indeed, the mono mixes sound great. In fact, both the stereo and mono mixes sound great. But if you compare the mono and the stereo versions, they are very different. The original stereo mix has major flaws, like songs being played back at the wrong speed, while the mono mix has all sorts of little quirks that the band wanted but that no-one even hears. So we decided to create a new stereo mix, using the mono mixes as our template. We felt that we could create the stereo mix that the band would have wanted 50 years ago. Plus it is 2017, so Sam and I said to each other: ‘Let’s push the boundaries.’ We had been quite safe with the 1+ remixes, and I’d been much more brave doing the Love mashup, so with Sgt. Pepper’s we ended up somewhere between the two. Our mixes were not purely a tribute, we were also trying to break new ground.”
The issue with songs being at a different pitch in the mono and stereo mixes was the result of the Beatles using varispeed as a creative tool, to create a different feel, to record things that would otherwise have been unplayable, or to make impossible edits possible. The most famous example of the latter was the edit one minute into ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (a song not on the original album, but part of the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions), which joins Takes 7 and 26, originally in different keys and at different speeds, by lowering the speed of Take 26 by 11.5 percent. Meanwhile, the song ‘She’s Leaving Home’ was raised a semitone for the mono version, apparently because it made McCartney’s voice sound younger, while ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘Lovely Rita’ are lower in pitch. None of these pitch changes were included in the original stereo mixes.
With tape transfers to Pro Tools at the speeds the Beatles intended completed, and all audio in each Pro Tools session aligned, Martin and Okell set to work in Abbey Road Studio 3 for the actual mixes, trying not only to make them sound the way the Beatles and Martin Sr. would have liked them to be, but also to push beyond that. Surprisingly, perhaps, given their desire to not introduce any digital artifacts in the recordings, they conducted their mixes entirely in the box. Okell, who has worked at Abbey Road since 2000, and who has during his time there worked with anyone from One Direction to PJ Harvey and on soundtracks for blockbuster movies like The Hobbit and Harry Potter, has the lowdown.
“With regards to then mixing in the box, this was partly to do with that we also were mixing in 5.1, and that’s far easier to do in the box. We patched in tons of outboard on the inserts, all of it gear that was used in the time of the Beatles. Staying in the box meant that we could easily A/B this outboard with plug-ins. It also allowed us a really quick workflow, with us swapping songs without having to re-patch, and being able to recall mixes instantly later on.”
The latter was particularly practical because Martin and Okell conducted the remixes over a period of nearly three months, starting in November 2016 with two weeks of working on the stereo mixes, before spending another two to three weeks revising these and putting in another two weeks on the 5.1 mixes. Finally, the two also spent two weeks on a Dolby Atmos mix. Before November, Okell and Matthew Cocker (Abbey Road’s Archiving & Transfer Engineer), with regular input from Martin, had done the tape transfers, and during the entire mix process Martin also worked on the out-takes. “We tried to do a song a day in each session,” he recalls, “because it’s all about energy. You have to be technically correct, but if you take too long over a mix, you can lose the energy.”
With regards to outboard versus plug-ins, Martin explains: “The rule that Sam and I had was very simple: ‘There are no rules, let’s just do what sounds good.’ And generally speaking, when it comes to compression you can’t beat the really good old Altecs, Pultecs and Fairchilds. There’s nothing that compares to them. It’s similar with the old EQs. We have all the original stuff that the Beatles used at Abbey Road, so we could wheel it in. We also sometimes used the REDD desk and the TG MkIII desk, again on the inserts. For reverb, we used the studio’s original EMT 140 plate, and sometimes we sent things out into the room. We had the advantage of having everything in Abbey Road at our fingertips, but sometimes if you want a super-clean signal path you’re better off keeping it in the box and not converting it back to analogue.”
According to Okell, he and Martin began the remix process by listening to the 1967 mono and stereo mixes of each song, which would be at the top of each Pro Tools session. Okell would then recreate these as a starting point. “There were no mix notes or anything like that, so it really was a question of listening carefully. We used Mark Lewisohn’s book [The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions] but he’s not an engineer and some details have been missed out, or are incorrect. Obviously, the content of each four-track tape was scribbled on the box, and they’d write ‘best’, and ‘4 to 4’ for a bounce, with the tape number it was bounced to, and the varispeed info, but that was it. And even these notes were sometimes incorrect, because things were changing all the time.
“Once I had gotten close to the mono and stereo mixes, Giles would come in, and we’d talk about what we were going to do next and how we could push things further. I’d have a go at the mix again, finding out which of our ideas worked and which didn’t. Then Giles would come in again and give comments and come up with fresh ideas. Although I did most of the mix engineering, Giles is pretty hands-on as well. We didn’t really have an order in which we focussed on any particular elements of the mixes first; it was more a question of chopping bits off a block of marble.”
Martin: “No one has ever said that Sgt. Pepper’s sounds bad. The original mixes have a great immersive quality to them, and it was really important that we retained that. However, they were made for speakers and systems that were made 50 years ago, and they were mixed on speakers that were made 50 years ago. And we did not have to worry about the needle jumping out of the vinyl groove in the same way that they would have 50 years ago. And people are used to hearing things far louder. All that allowed us to push things. Some people say that our mixes are too loud, but they are not. My father went to Capitol Studios in 1956 to work out how to get records to sound louder!
“The essence is that we wanted these songs to sound like themselves, and that you only realise when you go back to the original mixes that you’ve been listening to a new mix. The idea that I always use is that the music you love is never really how you remember it. I worked with Martin Scorsese on his George Harrison film, Living In The Material World , and he said that he did not want me to remix anything. When we met I played him ‘All Things Must Pass’, which is his favourite George song, and he said: ‘That’s the mix I remember,’ to which I replied: ‘It’s the new mix we have just done.’ That is key. When Sam and I were mixing ‘Fixing A Hole’ we felt that what we did sounded good, but it did not sound like ‘Fixing A Hole’. We were missing that 1kHz honk, so we changed it. It’s about improving the mixes, but retaining the original feel and the character of the music.”
Achieving this balance between improvement and faithfulness required many delicate decisions from Martin and Okell. To begin with there was the issue of panning and placing everything in the stereo spectrum. The original stereo mix was of little help here, because the limitations of the four-track bouncing process during recording meant that the panning options for stereo had been very limited, and choices were made that were not necessarily the ones that the Beatles would have wanted, nor that made the most sense musically. For example, the backing vocals in the original stereo version of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ are oddly placed in mono in the left channel. In the new stereo mix they find a much more natural place panned left and right. However, the team didn’t always go for the more obvious or natural solutions.
Martin: “If you take ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, it has piano, guitar and drums on the first four-track tape, which are then bounced to one track on the second tape. In going back to the first-generation tape, we could hear the drums on their own, and they sounded much more dynamic, which was an advantage in the mix. But Sam had panned the bass to the right, just like in the original stereo version, and when I tried it in the middle, I realised that having the bass in the centre made Ringo sound different. Because he also sings the song, and the lyrics he sings, he needs to sound lonely, on his own, and the bass almost got in his way. So we left it on the right.
“Another example of us working with panning is that the original stereo mix of ‘Lovely Rita’ is very left-heavy because of the way they had bounced things, and by going back to the original tapes we could have the drums in the centre and pan the vocals left and right and create a far more balanced mix. Apart from in ‘Help From My Friends’ we did usually place the drums and bass in the centre, because it is what makes the most sense and gives the most weight. In ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ we spread the keyboard left and right to make space for the vocal in the middle. Mixing is all about feel, and not necessarily about technical stuff. We were simply trying to create mixes that feel right.”
Sam Okell illustrated what Martin and he did in more detail by focussing on the opening and closing songs of the album: the rocky title track and the iconic ‘A Day In The Life’. The former was recorded on two four-track tapes, though material from a third four-track was added to the session in order to recreate the transition into the next track, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’.
Okell: “The first four-track, which is at the top of the tape transfer session, contains Take 9, which consists of the rhythm track, at the top, which is drums and two guitars. The next track down is a bass overdub, and then there are two tracks of vocal overdubs. The first two tracks are bounced to the first track of the second tape, ie. drums, two guitars and bass, but we muted that bounce track because we went back to the first generation original two tracks at the top. Below that bounce track is an effects track with crowd noises and applause and stuff, and then there’s a bounce of the two vocal tracks above, which we again also muted. You can see that they didn’t bounce Paul’s vocals for the last verse. The fourth track of the second four-track contains the horns, guitar solo and lead guitar interjections. The third tape contains keyboards, timpani, crowd noises and applause and vocals that all make up the segue into ‘Help From My Friends’.”
In other words, the core of the song consists of just six tracks, plus four for the transition, which is almost unimaginably austere by modern standards. The final mix session balloons from 10 to 41 tracks, and so looks far more familiar, but also comes a little as a surprise. The expansion comes courtesy of four mix reference tracks, two mixdown tracks at the bottom, and several aux effects and ADT tracks that were added to the session. Okell: “The reference tracks are at the top and consist of the vinyl version, the 2009 remaster, the original CD version, and the 2009 mono remaster. We did go back to the original analogue tape masters, but we felt in most cases that the 2009 remaster was an improvement, so we decided that it was the best reference. Also, please note that many of the plug-ins in this session are greyed out because I took the screenshots on a system that didn’t have all the plug-ins we used.”
Okell: “Below the reference tracks is the muted rhythm track bounce, and below that the first-generation rhythm track of drums and two guitars. Next is something that looks like a sample, and it is, but it’s a snare I cut out from the rhythm track above it, so we could EQ and process it differently. We often did that, to try to beef up the snare, rather than automate a track for every snare hit. We were trying to get a lot out of each one of these tracks!
"Next down is a drum room aux track, which is us adding an Altiverb chamber preset. We sometimes re-amped things, or played tracks in the studio and re-recorded them, or used a plug-in. In this case the snare samples are sent to the drum Altiverb. There was some chamber on the original track, but we decided it wasn’t really doing it, and needed something different and a bit longer, and in this instance we tried a plug-in, and that sounded good. The ‘r’ in the sends of the rhythm and snare tracks goes to the rhythm parallel track below which is an insert to the hardware Abbey Road-modified Altec RS124 compressor, which sounds fantastic and really fat.
“The bass tracks are in green, and consist of the original bass track, and a copy I made called Fuzz, to which I added some bite using the Waves Abbey Road Vinyl plug-in. I used it as a parallel to mix in with the clean bass track as part of our efforts to make it sound more modern. Another aspect of that was to make the bass sound bigger and brighter, which was mostly a question of EQ and compression. The two bass tracks also go to the RS124 aux track. The RS124 really brings out the punch and the low end of the bass. There’s a second rhythm parallel track, but we did not use it in this track.
“There are a few plug-ins on the inserts of the bass tracks. In general we used plug-ins for tweaking, if we wanted to do some detailed things. We used the stuff everyone uses, but we also used some of the plug-in recreations of old gear, like the Waves Abbey Road Reverb Plates, EMI TG12345 and REDD, and also a lot of UAD, like their 1176 and Pultecs. It was trial and error to find what sounded best. But when you push up the faders on the second four-track generation of this song it sounds pretty much like the mix. They’re really good musicians and sounded really good, so there was little EQ and no over-the-top effects in general. If there was radical stuff it was more to do with effects like ADT.
“There are two guitar tracks, one being the original and one ADT track that I created. The original track is panned right, and the ADT centre. That was a typical technique we used to make it sound bigger. The first guitar has a send to the RS124 parallel aux, and also a ‘P’, going to the ‘Plate A’ aux, which is a physical EMT 140 plate running on a hardware insert — the aux track also has a Soundtoys EchoBoy for some pre-delay. All the rhythm tracks are routed to the ‘Rhythm’ bus, which is going out to a pair of hardware Fairchild 660s for overall compression. There’s a Waves Kramer PIE compressor plug-in on that as well. The rhythm parallels are also hitting that bus.
“Part of the reason for the Fairchilds is that when you go back a generation, the music has more dynamic range, because there’s less tape compression. This often sounds great, but in this track we wanted to get back to the quality of the original mixes. They recorded stuff as hard as they could, which added tape compression, and tape bouncing also creates a certain vibe, which we wanted to recreate to some degree, which is why we had this bus in this mix. By the way, we also tried an ADT on the horns, in red, but we did not like it, which is why it is muted.”
“The first vocal track, which says ‘Take 10’, is second-generation, and muted. The green tracks are Take 9 vocals, which I split out over several tracks for different verse and chorus vocal treatments. The first verse lead vocal is in black, on track ‘SPLHCB44911’, and below that is the lead vocal ADT. The green clips are the chorus vocals, with two ADT tracks added. It’s us trying to create a nice wide chorus vocal sound. The ‘8’ on the vocal inserts is the Waves Q8, doing a bit of subtle EQ. The main vocals are going to the ‘Vox Parallel’ bus, which has a Chandler EQ and the RS124, and all vocals go to the ‘Vox Bus’, which has the UAD 1176, Waves Abbey Road RS56, UAD Chandler Limited Curve Bender EQ, and the Waves REDD 37 EQ, and a bit of a C6 multiband, which is probably notching something harsh in the upper mids. There’s also a ‘Plate B’ aux track and an effects spread track, but we did not use those.
“It says ‘the real thing!’ in the comment box of the ‘Stereo FX’ track, because although it says in Mark Lewisohn’s book that the crowd noises were taken from a Hollywood Bowl concert, most of them were in fact taken from a bunch of quarter-inch sound-effect tapes at Abbey Road, which an engineer here had been collecting. So they actually had a sound library! In fact, many effects on the album, like the fairground organ and calliope stuff that is in ‘Mr Kite’, are also taken from these sound-effects tapes. I managed to track down the original tapes they used. Obviously they had bounced this down to mono in 1967, but we used the original source tapes, in stereo, which is great. In this session they’re the three blue tracks towards the bottom of the session.
“Right at the bottom of the session are a mix process and two mix print tracks. ‘Mix 3’ was our final print, and there’s a ‘Mix 2’, without the bus processing. The latter consisted of a hardware insert to an Alan Smart C2 and an SSL compressor, and the Prism MEA2 mastering EQ. We had these three on the mix bus for most songs. For mastering we used the processed mix print in the session. We did not print to tape. We had printed everything to tape and digital for the 1+ remixes, but we did not end up using tape that much, because this material already has so much tape. It was not a matter of an edgy digital mix needing some tape quality! So we went straight to digital.”
Sam Okell: “Just like with the title song, there also are only two generations of four-track tape in this session — the biggest original session was ‘Getting Better’, which had four generations. The ‘A Day In The Life’ session is a bit of a hodge-podge. The first track of tape one, in green on the screenshot, called ‘rhythm’, has acoustic guitar, shaker, some bongos and some piano. The other three tracks are vocal tracks with bits of piano. The ‘rhythm’ track was bounced to track one of the second-generation four-track, in blue, and quite a lot of editing was done to bounce the three vocal tracks down to track three of the second-generation tape. Track two of that second-generation track has bass and drums, and track four has piano right at the beginning, and orchestra. That piano bit was a weird anomaly, overdubbed after the original mix was done, and it was not used, so we did not use it either.
“The other two four-tracks in this session are add-ons, meaning they were not bounced from earlier generations. When they recorded the orchestra they pressed ‘record’ on two tape machines, one with the second-generation tape, on which the orchestra was recorded to track four, and another four-track on which the rest of the orchestra was recorded (in red). They literally marked the beginnings on the two tapes with Chinagraph, so the sync between them was not terribly locked. That maybe adds to the chaos of this track, and we tried to recreate that during the tape transfers, so these are not phase-locked! In addition there was another add-on tape for the famous final chord (in purple), played on pianos with George Martin on harmonium. That final chord was recorded and mixed separately and spliced onto the mono and stereo mixes. We did the same.”
In the ‘A Day In The Life’ session, the original 16 tracks from the four tape transfers once again balloon to 41 tracks, in this case mostly through added aux and bus tracks. Okell takes it from the top: “The first track is CD reference, then the Love remix, and then the stereo and mono 2009 remasters. We brought the Love remix in because Giles really liked the quality of John’s lead vocal in that mix, so we referenced that as well.”
Martin: “One of the challenges with ‘A Day In The Life’ was that the mono is an extraordinary mix. Sometimes you envy that something is in mono, because everything coming out of one speaker creates a certain feel. For instance, when the drums enter in the first verse, they take over the mix for a moment. In the original stereo it is not like that, so Sam and I tried really hard to recreate it. Paul [McCartney] also warned us that because our mix of the track before, ‘Sgt. Pepper (Reprise)’, has so much weight behind it, we had to make sure that ‘A Day In The Life’ doesn’t sound too quiet. When you are mixing an entire album you need a sonic flow between the songs.”
Okell: “I split the middle section of the rhythm track, where Paul sings, and which has acoustic guitar, shaker and other stuff, out to the next track to treat that differently. The plug-ins I use on both are the UAD Pultec and Waves Q8, just with different settings, and I sent the track to the same rhythm parallel that was in the title track session, again with the RS124. We played a lot with the bass and drums track. There are these distinctive tom fills which have a great sound, and we spent ages trying to get them right. The plug-ins on the main bass and drums track are the Soundtoys Sie-Q EQ, the Waves Kramer PIE compression, Waves TG12345, some subtle EQ from the Q8, and there are an outboard Fairchild 660 and a Pultec as hardware inserts. So there was a lot of fiddling around with this one! I also copied the middle section of this track out to another track to get it to sound different. The sends go to an EMT 140 plate plug-in with a pre-delay, a chamber, which is muted, and to the rhythm parallel with the RS124.
“John’s lead vocals are directly beneath the second ‘Bass & Drums’ track, and the very first bit of it is a piano, which I pulled down to the track below to treat it differently. In this case we are using the bounce of the vocals rather than the earlier-generation tracks. It was, once again, one of these situations where the bounce had a quality that we could not improve on. Yes, there are a lot of plug-ins on John’s lead vocal! They are a UAD Pultec EQ, a UAD 1176, a bit of Waves Q8, and the Waves C4 multiband compressor, which took out some dynamics that we did not like in the vocal. The ‘40’ in the comments box is the number of the analogue insert, on which we had a hardware Pultec EQ. John’s lead vocal also is sent to the parallel rhythm aux track, as well as an aux track with an EchoBoy with a 160ms, 15ips slap delay and some EQ, and that then goes to an outboard EMT 140 plate.
“Paul’s main vocal track is in stereo, because we gave it some spread with the Waves S1 Stereo Imaging plug-in, so it has a different sound than John’s lead. We also split off two little bits to be able to pan them left and right. His fourth vocal track is the ‘aaah’ section, and below it is an ‘Aah delay’ aux track. Further down are the three first-generation vocal tracks, out of which we pulled the non-singing material, like a bit of piano, the alarm clock, and Mal Evans doing the orchestra bar count.”
“First off is a VCA riding the level of the five orchestral tracks. They would have ridden the dynamics in similar fashion in the original version. All the orchestra tracks go to the ‘Orchestral Bus’, on which there is no outboard, just plug-in EQ from the Waves RS56 and Q8 for something clinical, and a compressor. The orchestral bus sends are also hitting the rhythm parallel so that is slightly ducking the rhythm elements going on as the orchestra takes over. There are two sends, ‘1’ is to a real EMT 140 and the ‘0’ to the UAD 140 plug-in plate.
“There’s not a lot happening in the end chord, just the Soundtoys Sie-Q EQ on the bus, and the UAD SSL G bus compressor. You can see some Waves X-Noise marked on a couple of the files, which is the only instance in which we used de-noising technology, because you could begin to hear the hiss as the chord decayed and the faders went up. There is quite a loud chair squeak near the end of that decay, but we did not go to town trying to clear that up. We decided that it was part of the character of it. Like the vocals, the orchestra bus is sent to the real 140 and the UAD 140.”
“Like on the other tracks I processed the mix in outboard, through the Alan Smart C2 and an SSL compressor, and the Prism MEA2 mastering EQ. We used our sixth mix. You can also see the segue from ‘Sgt. Pepper’s (Reprise)’ at the beginning. We were trying to get that transition right so we had the end of the previous mix playing over at the start of this one. But at the end I transferred all the mixes to a separate session, and then I did all the segues between all songs in that session, as if I was pre-mastering, and then I printed that for Miles Showell to master from. During mastering we tried to hit that middle ground, keeping the older fans happy, who I’m sure already think this is too loud, but also to make the mixes work in a modern context. Both during mastering and mixing we tried things and if we felt, ‘That does not sound like the Beatles,’ we rolled it back a step.”
Martin: “We mastered six times! It is really important that we are doing something that new generations of fans will listen to and hopefully will love, and it is also important that we get it right for older fans. Paul came into Abbey Road to listen to the mixes and give comments, and I sent the final mixes to Ringo, who is in the US, and spoke to him on the phone. The families of John and George also gave their feedback. They are my bosses! If they don’t like it, I change it, or they pull the lever and I fall through a trapdoor! It is their music so they need to be happy with it. But I don’t think there were any issues at all. If they had not been happy, it would not be out.”
Martin & Co even took the unusual step of playing their final mix to a group of diehard fans for feedback, to make sure they were not going to be accused of trespassing on hallowed ground. They needn’t have worried. Reaction to the new mixes has been universally euphoric, and the 50th-anniversary version topped the charts in the UK and was a top 5 in dozens of other countries, including the US. Against the odds, the 2017 remix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band looks set to become the definitive version.
Having decided to use tape varispeed rather than digital time-stretching or pitch-shifting to recreate these variations, Giles Martin and Sam Okell also resisted any temptation to ‘improve’ the original performances. “No, we did not tune anyone or anything!” exclaims Martin. “Maybe it is me, and I am becoming an old git, but I think that in the modern world we demand perfection far too much. Humans are not perfect, and it is really important that we preserve that. So with regards to Sgt. Pepper’s, we did not fix anything. If you listen to the first chorus of the opening song, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, one of the boys is singing a semitone out. There was no way in which we would repair that, because it is part of the song. In general, everything we did was about capturing the performances.
“In that context, I’d like to add that the tapes themselves were in remarkable condition. They sounded dynamic and vibrant, because they had hardly been played. At the time the band did not mix from the earlier generations of four-track tapes, and these were one-inch tapes, a far more high-quality format than the 24-track two-inch tapes that became standard later on. For this reason any noise or hiss was minimal; even on bounces it was negligible. We did not need to clean or de-noise anything. In general we also did not mute when nothing was played, because you lose the room. There is an ambience that exists on the tracks themselves. You want to feel as if you are in the space with the band, and if you clean the tracks up too much, you can lose that. There were a few exceptions. There is a bit in ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ where a guitar thing George or John played during the drum fill at the end of the first chorus leaks onto the drums, and we removed that, because we were sure they would have liked to have gotten rid of it, if they had been able to.
“The most striking and important thing about these original four-tracks for me was how good the band sounded. I had first noticed this when my father and they were working on the Anthology albums. I was 19 or 20, and I could not believe what I heard on these tapes. I felt in such a privileged position, and one of the things that I have been trying to do since then is to get other people to experience the same. It’s the ethos behind the mixes, and most of all behind the inclusion of the alternate takes, which are straight transfers from the four-tracks, without any mixing. It allows you to hear the Beatles exactly as they sounded in the studio at the time.
“The thing that also surprised me about this record is how live it is. I’d always thought of it as a studio album, with tons of overdubs. For example, I had always assumed that the bass in ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ was overdubbed, but it’s basically Paul playing bass, Ringo on drums, my father on harmonium, and John singing. They were just really good at what they did, and as a band they had the most amazing sound. When people wonder what the magic of Sgt. Pepper’s is, they seem to think that some unicorns delivered the album down from a cloud. But it’s not, it’s about a band who knew how to play. At the same time, the essence of this album was not that they wanted to celebrate live performance; they wanted to create a studio sound collage, an otherworldly experience. And it was really important for us to preserve that as well.”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was originally recorded using Studer J37 four-track tape machines. When the band had filled up four tracks, these would be bounced to a single track on a second machine, whereupon further tracks could be overdubbed, and so on. These multiple bounces compromised the audio quality and also severely limited the panning options for the stereo mixes. Happily, all of the original working multitracks had survived, so Giles Martin and Sam Okell were able to use the original source recording for each part — once they’d managed to synchronise them all!
The transfers of the four-track tapes to Pro Tools were done by Matthew Cocker and Okell, with input from Martin. Having made the decision to regard the mono mixes as the gospel, Martin and Okell transferred the tapes at the pitch of the mono versions, using tape varispeed. They even used varispeed rather than digital time-stretching to make sure all material loaded into each Pro Tools session from different generations of four-track tapes was lined up.
“We wanted to stay clear of any digital processing that adds artifacts to what was on the tapes,” explains Martin. “So there was no way in which we would time-stretch, which does change the sound in a particular way.”
Sam Okell adds: “One of the earliest examples of the Beatles using varispeed as a creative tool was when they recorded George Martin’s piano at half speed on ‘In My Life’ in October 1965, and played it back at normal speed, giving it a weird, harpsichord-like quality. By the time they recorded Sgt. Pepper's they were using it a lot. For us, playing tapes back a semitone higher or lower when loading the material into Pro Tools was easy, but making sure that the different generations of bounces of the same audio tracks were exactly in phase with each other was a case of trial and error.
“We did all transfers from scratch for this album. Some transfers had been done in the past, but we decided to go back and make them as good as they could be. Doing this literally is a case of sitting with a set of headphones on and making sure the two audio streams are totally locked together. You keep the image in the centre in your head while you make very tiny adjustments with the tape recorder’s varispeed. The way we did this was to first load the mono mix into the Pro Tools session, which obviously was our reference, and then we’d transfer the earliest generation of four-track tape, keeping that in sync with the mono in Pro Tools using the varispeed. After that we’d lay in the next four-track, and again we synchronised that with the mono, and so on. We built up entire Pro Tools sessions for each song like that. It’s an acquired technique, but when it’s right, you know it’s right.”
A mix effect that was as much about retracing the Beatles’ steps in 1967 as about improving the mixes was ADT, aka artificial double-tracking, which Giles Martin and Sam Okell applied liberally. Like direct injection, used on McCartney’s bass, ADT was invented by Abbey Road engineer Ken Townshend. Okell explains: “John Lennon loved this on his vocal, and they used it in many places on Sgt. Pepper’s. It’s an effect that can only be applied during a bounce or a mix. You take a signal off the sync head of a tape machine and send it to a second tape machine set to record, and you then apply varispeed to the second tape machine, to get that signal a few milliseconds apart from the original signal. You then mix in the signals from the repro heads of both machines. This created a phasing, or wobble effect, depending on how you handle the varispeed.
“We decided to recreate ADT in the same way, with the only difference being that we took a track from Pro Tools, advanced its time to whatever the delay was between the sync and the repro head of a J37, sent it to that tape machine, did the same technique with the varispeed, and then we’d print the output of the tape machine back into the session. I have to say that it is an amazing-sounding effect. It’s a really good tool for trying to create some spatial elements in things that are mono. We didn’t only recreate the ADT effects they had originally used, like famously on John Lennon’s voice in ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, but we created ADT tracks for many parts to give us more to play with in the mix. It also was really useful in 5.1. Yes, there’s the Waves Abbey Road J37 ADT plug-in, which is good, but the real thing totally trumps that.”