Remastering projects don't come much bigger than this: a team of engineers spent four years in Abbey Road creating the definitive Beatles collection.
"Today's stuff has no dynamics at all,” says mastering engineer Steve Rooke. "It's really squashed, and if the Beatles were recording today I'm sure they'd be squashing their music. But we've all lived with the sound and the dynamics we've got. We didn't want to destroy that at all, but it's got to appeal to today's CD‑buying public.”
The question of whether or not to apply limiting was just one of many dilemmas that faced the Abbey Road team — headed by Allan Rouse, and including Rooke and engineers Guy Massey, Paul Hicks, Sean Magee and Sam Okell — who worked for four years to create the definitive digital versions of the world's most important pop music catalogue. "We know it's going to be put under the microscope,” admits Guy Massey, "but you can't think about it in those terms, because you'd never get anything done. You'd be like 'The people who talk about this sort of thing, are they going to like this? Maybe we shouldn't do it.'”
Faced with, on one hand, the demands of purists, and on the other, the expectations of modern listeners, the team chose to take two directions at once. For collectors and audiophiles, they created a box set comprising all the original mono versions of the Beatles' albums (less Abbey Road, which was not issued in mono, and Yellow Submarine, where the original mono was a straight fold‑down from the stereo), which for the most part was as faithful as possible to the source. Simultaneously, they reworked the stereo catalogue for release in a second box set, and also as individual albums — again treating the material with respect, but not shying away from the application of modern technology, if it was felt that fidelity could be improved.
So why the need for remastering in the first place? Well, for one thing, the existing Beatles catalogue on CD was incomplete. When the albums were first made available digitally, George Martin took the decision to use the mono versions of the first four albums, and the stereo versions of the rest — even though, as Guy says, "The mono was always The Mix. On Pepper they spent three weeks mixing that, and the stereo was done in three days.”
"I found it quite fascinating,” says Paul Hicks, "because I wasn't that familiar with all the monos, and it is interesting listening to how different the crossfade is from 'Sergeant Pepper Reprise' to 'A Day In The Life' — that's very different from the mono to the stereo versions — and on 'Lucy In The Sky', the mono's got loads of phasing all the way through the verse vocals that the stereo doesn't. It's fascinating, what is now considered to be the masters and what in the '60s was considered to be the masters, and the differences.”
What's more, as Paul explains, "When the CDs were released in the '80s, George Martin decided he wanted to remix Help! and Rubber Soul. So basically, the CDs that everyone knows of those two albums are actually new mixes that were done in the '80s by Geoff Emerick and George Martin.” (The original stereo mixes of these two albums are included in the mono box set.)
There's also the issue of audio quality. The catalogue was first digitised in 1986, and although it was done well by the standards of the time, the improvement in digital audio since then has been vast. "People slag off the original CDs, and I definitely think what we've got is a step up, but I don't think they sound awful,” says Guy Massey. He believes that the '80s team did apply some digital noise‑reduction, to the original CDs' detriment, but credits the improvement in sound above all to the new transfer from the original tapes: "We always had the original CDs in a [Pro Tools] Session and I'd always refer to that. Immediately, they were better.”
The transfer process was certainly treated with the utmost care. "We had a good few weeks of basically checking things like the tape machines,” says Paul. "Obviously, somewhere like Abbey Road has got a lot of different test tapes from over the years. The main thing was we didn't rush this! We experimented with different machines. We tried some with valve preamps and things, but we didn't let any of that bias us. We ended up going with the Studer A80 — we just used our ears.”
One machine that never entered into the equation was EMI's own 'British Tape Recorder', which would have recorded the masters in the first place. "They have some in storage in Hayes somewhere, but they're not in working order,” says Guy. "They would have been pretty hard to get back into the scratch they would have been in in the late '60s.”
Because of their importance, the analogue masters had been scrupulously maintained and archived. "All the Beatles tapes are in fantastic order, the multitracks as well as the quarter‑inches,” enthuses Paul. "Guy and I have been doing Beatles stuff for about 15 years, on and off, and we've never baked a Beatles tape. The formula on that EMI tape was just fantastic. The only thing we did find, which we had to be incredibly careful with when we were transferring it — and especially with the monos, which hadn't been played in 40 years — was that a lot of the glue had dried up on the edits. So on the first wind‑back you had to be incredibly careful, because a lot of the edits just split apart when winding. We had to get the gloves on!”
"For the transfer and archiving part of the process, we did it song by song,” continues Guy. "So if the tapes had come apart when we were spooling back, we'd replace all those [splices] — same length, we'd measure them all and make sure it was all pukka — and then song by song we'd transfer them. We'd transfer the first one, go back, clean the whole tape path again. Beginning of each week, we'd de‑mag the heads. We had a speed reader on the capstan all the time so we knew it was running at the right speed.”
"We'd line up and then we'd always play through, manually checking the azimuth,” says Paul. "It was amazing just by tweaking that, if nothing else, how much more top end you could potentially get. That was a significant part of the transfer process.”
The digital files were recorded in Pro Tools at 24‑bit, 192kHz through a Prism A‑D converter. "The Pro Tools system was treated as a tape machine,” says Paul.
Guy takes up the story: "There was a listening period once we'd transferred an album and were happy with the transfers. We would have detailed lyric sheets and timing sheets, and between us all, we'd identify areas that we thought we would want to remove — clicks, de‑popping, if we could do it. We've got the luxury of going back to the multitracks and saying 'Is that an electrical noise? Yes it is, let's take it out.' In 'Kansas City' [from Beatles For Sale], the stereo version, there's quite a big drop-out that's very noticeable. We used Retouch in the CEDAR world to fix issues like that. And then we'd cut those fixed portions into the master file, so it wasn't a complete process we were doing there. On some tracks there were quite a few little edits we had to do.”
De‑noising, meanwhile, was confined to gaps and fades. "Until there's a de‑noising system that works properly and doesn't take the air and all that stuff that de‑noising takes off, we didn't want to use it,” insists Guy. "We'd use it in gaps. If there's no programme, just tape hiss, we would use it very subtly. It's less than one percent of the whole thing.”
The amount of restoration that could be done was, of course, limited by the fact that they were working only with the master recordings — even though, in some cases, it would theoretically have been possible to go back to the multitracks for a cleaner fix. "If there's some low‑end stuff under a vocal wind pop, or something, we wouldn't be able to achieve as great a reduction as if the vocal was by itself in the right‑hand channel,” admits Guy. "People have asked us whether we could slot in a bit [from the multitrack], but it was like 'No, we're dealing with the master mixes. That's what they did then. That's what we're presenting.'”
"This is a remaster project,” agrees Paul. "It's basically taking what George Martin, Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick considered to be the masters and making them sound as good as possible.”
Even then, the very idea of issuing the earliest Beatles albums in stereo blurs the boundary between remix and remaster. These were recorded on two‑track, but mono dominated the market at the time. "The stereos are theoretically multitracks, because it was the predecessor of the four‑tracks,” explains Paul. "You've got the band on the left and the vocals on the other side. The purpose of them being done like that was so they could then balance the mono in more detail.”
In theory, then, it would have been possible to re‑balance the vocals against the instruments, but as Guy explains, they were careful to preserve the levels as they made it to the mono originals. "Obviously, if we decided that we'd like a little bit more guitar within the balance that they'd had for the band, if that then increased the left channel a fair amount we'd rebalance the vocal to that; or similarly, if we wanted to EQ a bit of vocal out, if that upset the balance in any way we'd do a bit of jiggery‑pokery in that sense, but we didn't remix it. If we upset the balance in any way because we were EQ'ing quite narrowly, we'd always mono it and make sure we hadn't destroyed the balance.”
After the transfers and restoration were complete, the actual mastering began, with Guy and Steve tackling the bulk of the work on the stereo albums, while Paul and Abbey Road's Sean Magee handled the mono set. Steve Rooke takes up the story: "Guy and Paul came up to my room, we had a listen through to what was now the cleaned‑up master version, and decided how we were going to tackle each track. We took each track in turn and tried to get the best out of it sound‑wise. We were always careful not to go too far, because we were dealing with the Beatles, and everyone knows the Beatles sound, but we wanted to give the public the best possible sound we could. So we were trying to get as much separation between the instruments, as much clarity as possible. If we could put a bit more bass line or kick drum in and give it a bit more punch, we would do. So we listened to each track in turn, once we were happy with the sound, we'd put it onto my workstation. It took about a day to do 14 tracks, something like that.”
Apart from surgical tweaks, which were done using a Prism digital EQ, equalisation was done using an almost period‑correct piece of Abbey Road history: "We came through an original EMI TG desk, which dates back to about 1972,” explains Steve Rooke. "We went through that, and once it was all in the workstation we would then compile it in the running order we wanted, gap it, and whatever, limit it and then capture it to CD.”
"A lot of the stuff we transferred flat and left, because there's no point fixing stuff that's perfect,” adds Guy. "A hundred of the tracks, maybe, we did tiny amounts of EQ'ing if we felt something was lacking in the mix. A lot of it was very subtle.”
What, then, of the controversial limiting applied to the stereo albums, which yielded a level increase of 3‑4dB? "On this we used a Junger D01, which we felt suited the sound we were after,” says Steve. "We've got several limters in the room. They've all got different sound and different effects, but this seemed to be the flattest, if you like. We didn't want the limiter to change any of the sound we'd got, and used it very discreetly.”
"When we did the limiting, we would then level‑correct that with the original capture and listen for any artifacts, make sure there was no pumping or anything odd happening,” explains Guy. "We purely used that as a level gain stage, as it were. So the loudest song's loudest part would be limiting a little bit, but the rest of it would just be level correction.”
Extensive reference was made not only to the original CDs, but also to the vinyl albums — which, in some cases, represent the definitive versions as far as listeners are concerned. These had been cut at Abbey Road, meaning that the team had access to the original cutting notes as well as the resulting discs. "It's very interesting to see what was done,” says Guy. "Quite often, not that much. They had to filter quite a bit of the low end off to get it on and cut a loud vinyl, and then obviously add top towards the centre [to compensate for so‑called 'diameter loss'].”
Yet another debate in which purism and modern tastes clash is over the question of gaps between songs. "In the '60s, there was a set rule that when they were banding an album together, it was six seconds per song, which obviously is incredibly long by today's standards,” says Paul. "So on the monos we did decide to keep it exactly as it was, but on the stereos we got a bit more creative.”
"Even on the '80s CDs we felt some of them were a bit long,” says Guy. "Some of them were maybe a bit short. So we did them on a more musical basis.”
The remasters were revised several times as a result of further listening, before test CDs were sent to the band's Apple HQ for approval. Such was the surviving Beatles' faith in the team that they had allowed the project to run to completion with no intervention at all. "Basically, Apple told us to get on with it!” says Paul. "We did it, and when we were happy we sent discs out to Apple, which went out to the shareholders — ie. Paul [McCartney] and Ringo [Starr], Yoko [Ono] and Olivia [Harrison].”
"And the phone didn't ring,” says Guy, with obvious relief. He pauses for a second. "Yet!”
Few were surprised that the Apple Corporation had decided to revamp the Beatles catalogue for the iTunes age, but the announcement of a special Beatles‑branded edition of the Rock Band video game raised plenty of eyebrows. "Dani Harrison, George's son, was a fan of the game,” says Paul Hicks. "I think he got to know one of the members of the team who make Rock Band, and one thing led to another, and it ended up going to Apple, and everyone thought it would be a good idea to do it. I think more and more people are realising that it's a legitimate outlet for music.”
You can play as any of the four Beatles, and the playing principle requires that their individual instruments be streamed on separate tracks — something of a challenge when, in many cases, they were all recorded to one! Paul worked with Giles Martin to prepare the music for the game. "A lot of people have said, 'Do you just put the stereo mixes in?' Well, no, because if you stop playing the guitar, the guitar has to stop playing. If you stop playing the drums, the drums have to stop playing.
"There's guitar, drums, bass, vocals and, on this game, backing vocals as well, and there's a backing track which is everything else, so maybe strings or something. We did push the boundaries with that sometimes — if there isn't a guitar for three‑quarters of a song, we'd put a string element in or a piano element in, so at least the guitar can still be playing something.
"We start with the multitrack. We basically mix it, we get happy with the sound of it — we've still got the plates and everything here — you make it sound like the mix and then you have to 'de‑mix' it. Every era has its own challenge. When you get to the end [ie. the Abbey Road album] it's a little easier because everything went to 8‑track. Again, Giles and I went through a lot of thought processes, and we ended up utilising Simon [Gibson] here with his Retouch system. With a lot of the processes we'd been fiddling round with on the remasters, it was like 'Maybe we can push it further and try some advanced filtering.' And a lot of the time we'd get it back and Giles and I would look at each other and be like 'Bloody hell, that's brilliant.' We'd be taking the bass line out and this and that — it's one of those things that you don't know until you try it — but obviously, if you just filter the low end out, you're going to be getting rid of the kick drums and stuff, which we weren't comfortable doing. We knew there would be limitations, because a lot of the time you've got drums, bass and guitar all on one track, so you have to look at it as an advanced bottom/middle/top instance.
"Once we were happy with that, it would go off to Harmonix‑MTV Games. They would encode it and we would get it back and play it, and Giles and I would sit down and think 'Maybe for the sake of the game...' We did a few little tweaks, like 'You can't quite hear that guitar.' And for some of the live ones we brought things in a tiny bit.”