The man in charge of the first-ever remastering of the Beatles’ catalog says the resulting recordings sound ”the closest they’ve ever sounded to the original master tapes.”
Allan Rouse, an engineer at EMI’s Abbey Road studio, heads the team that remastered all the original Beatles albums and singles for release Sept. 9 — the same day that the Beatles Rock Band video game is released.
Rouse told me in an hour-long telephone interview from Abbey Road that his team tried to restore the sound of the band’s music as closely as possible to its original condition, before the group’s catalog was first transferred to the CD format in 1987.
The goal: to allow listeners to experience the Beatles “as they heard themselves here in the studios.”
“Quite honestly, you cannot get a lot better than that,” he said.
And yet, Rouse and his team have chosen to go beyond a straight analogue-to-digital transfer of the master tapes, leaving the door open to criticism and second-guessing from audio purists and some devoted fans.
At times, Abbey Road’s mastering team used tools such as limiting — which reduces dynamics to raise the overall loudness of a track — and removal of “errors” like imperfect edits and noise. These tools, Rouse stressed, were used conservatively; noises that were deemed part of the group’s performance of a song, such as lip smacking or a squeaky drum pedal, were left in.
The engineers, he said, were well aware that they were working on an historic collection — “the real holy grail,” in Rouse’s words — in which every flubbed lyric and background click was known, debated and loved by millions.
And he knows that anything they do to pop music’s most celebrated catalog will be dissected and debated, starting Sept. 9. (UPDATE: I received my packet of CDs from EMI, and I share my initial reactions here.)
Rouse certainly knows his Beatles songs.
He joined Abbey Road in 1972, just two years after the Beatles’ breakup, and worked under Norman Smith, who had been the Beatles’ first balance engineer. Rouse has worked on several solo Beatle projects as well as the Beatles Anthology project in the 1990s, and he was in charge of the first-ever remix of Beatles songs for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack CD released a few years ago.
The pressure, he said, was enormous.
“No one had remixed Beatles music before,” he said. After he and his team remixed several iconic songs, including “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine,” he recalled, “Suddenly I’m in the studio with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr….. We’re all sitting in Studio 3 and we’re about to play them material that had never been remixed by anyone besides Beatles engineers.”
Luckily for him, the project got the two surviving Beatles’ approval. “During playback, they were smiling,” Rouse said. “They were loving it.”
No remixing was done on the project that’s about to be unveiled. Remixing means taking the individual tracks of a multitrack recording and re-combining them, treating each group of voices or instruments to their own sound effects. Most of the Beatles work was either two-track, four-track or eight-track, so lots of fundamental changes are possible.
In remastering, by contrast, only the final stereo or mono master is treated to changes.
However, significant differences are still possible — especially in the Beatles’ case, because everything the group recorded was captured in analogue tape. When the Beatles CDs were released in 1987, those tapes were transferred to digital information using technology that was still evolving. The result: Most anyone who has compared the CD sound to the original vinyl finds the digital versions harsh and lacking in depth.
This time around, Rouse said, Abbey Road used modern, extremely high quality digital converters.
“There’s been a huge improvement in digital in over 22 years,” Rouse said. After the digital transfer, he said, “We already had an improvement” over the 1987 CD releases.
But Rouse’s team went further.
Long and Winding Road
The remastered songs are divided into two major categories: First, the original albums and non-album singles are being released in stereo, some for the first time ever in that format. The albums will be available individually or as a boxed set. Of more interest to die-hard Beatles fans, perhaps, are the second group — the original mono mixes of each album and the non-album singles, to be available only as a boxed set. For more details, see the official press release here.
Rouse and co. decided on a two-pronged strategy: The stereo versions would be subject to some limiting, equalization and de-noising. The mono versions, however, would be free of limiting, with only minor de-noising and EQ.
Why the different approaches? Rouse said he expects the stereo releases to attract the bulk of attention from the public. His team chose to do more of the technical work on these versions to make them more palatable to a modern audience accustomed to hard-limited — i.e., extra loud — production now in vogue.
“The reason we limited the stereos is because we wanted them in particular to be able to stand against some of the material today — but not compete with it,” he said.
In other words, Rouse continued, he wanted the remastered stereo versions to be heard back to back against modern music without a dramatic loss in volume. To do any less, he asserted, “wouldn’t have been fair to the Beatles music.”
But the team, he said, resisted the temptation to try to make the sound too modern.
“Our restraint was based on the fact that to have made them sound contemporary with music of today is also wrong, because it isn’t today’s music,” he said. “The most important factor is, the dynamics have been retained.”
Here’s what EMI has said about the remastering process:
The re-mastering process commenced with an extensive period conducting tests before finally copying the analogue master tapes into the digital medium. When this was completed, the transfer was achieved using a Pro Tools workstation operating at 24 bit 192 kHz resolution via a Prism A-D converter. Transferring was a lengthy procedure done a track at a time. Although EMI tape does not suffer the oxide loss associated with some later analogue tapes, there was nevertheless a slight build up of dust, which was removed from the tape machine heads between each title.
From the onset, considerable thought was given to what audio restorative processes were going to be allowed.It was agreed that electrical clicks, microphone vocal pops, excessive sibilance and bad edits should be improved where possible, so long as it didn’t impact on the original integrity of the songs.
In addition, de-noising technology, which is often associated with re-mastering, was to be used, but subtly and sparingly. Eventually, less than five of the 525 minutes of Beatles music was subjected to this process. Finally, as is common with today’s music, overall limiting – to increase the volume level of the CD – has been used, but on the stereo versions only. However, it was unanimously agreed that because of the importance of The Beatles’ music, limiting would be used moderately, so as to retain the original dynamics of the recordings.
When all of the albums had been transferred, each song was then listened to several times to locate any of the agreed imperfections. These were then addressed by Guy Massey, working with Audio Restoration engineer Simon Gibson.
Mastering could now take place, once the earliest vinyl pressings, along with the existing CDs, were loaded into Pro Tools, thus allowing comparisons to be made with the original master tapes during the equalization process. When an album had been completed, it was auditioned the next day in studio three – a room familiar to the engineers, as all of the recent Beatles mixing projects had taken place in there – and any further alteration of EQ could be addressed back in the mastering room. Following the initial satisfaction of Guy and Steve, Allan Rouse and Mike Heatley then checked each new re-master in yet another location and offered any further suggestions. This continued until all 13 albums were completed to the team’s satisfaction.
Rouse expects the mono boxed set to be of the most interest to the serious Beatles fan – people who, for the most part, grew up with the music and wish to hear the mixes that the Beatles, original producer George Martin and original engineers Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick and a few others spent the most time on.
In the mid-1960s, the English market for pop music was dominated by mono. Stereos were generally owned by older, more prosperous folks, and EMI and other British labels at the time assumed they were more interested in classical rather than pop music. So, the Beatles and the Abbey Road staff for the most part labored over the mono mixes of material – a fact confirmed by Emerick, the Grammy-winning balance engineer for Revolver, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.
“Through Pepper, the Beatles were actually present..when those mixes were refined,” said Emerick from his Los Angeles home. “That was the way the Beatles wanted to hear it. That was the mono.”
Emerick described how he, producer George Martin and Emerick’s assistant Richard Lush would labor over every nuance of the mono mix. In many cases, special effects and additional sounds were “flown in” during the mix itself.
“With all the sound effects, such as on ‘Good Morning, Good Morning,’ some of those sounds weren’t on the four track. So we had to inject sound effects ourselves.” (For Emerick’s fascinating account of the Beatles years, read his excellent book, which you can order here. And to hear parts of my 2007 interview with Emerick centered on his work on Sgt. Pepper, go here.)
The mix, then, was its own performance — one that in some cases never could be repeated.
The stereo mixes, by contrast, were done much faster, usually without the Beatles’ involvement. “When it came to mixing the stereo, on Pepper, they’d gone on holiday,” Emerick recalled.
And the result is that there are sounds on the mono mixes that don’t exist on stereo — more clucks of the hen that introduces the Sgt. Pepper reprise, for example. And the effects on the vocals are different, sometimes substantially, as on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”
But mostly, the mono mixes represent the Beatles’ and the Abbey Road staff’s best work — the Beatles as they wanted to be heard. And that, perhaps, is what is most thrilling to longtime Beatles fans: the chance to hear the music in a state closer to the group’s intent.
For his part, Rouse has deep respect for the work of Emerick and the other original engineers in creating those mono mixes, which by their nature are more difficult to perform than stereo mixes.
“What I find most amazing about the monos was the level of detail that was put into them, particularly when they became more complicated, to create a balance where you still hear everything,” he said “I find it quite astonishing.
“They managed without all that technology, and they did it incredibly well.”
Still, Rouse and his Abbey Road colleagues declined to invite Emerick or the other original engineers who survive to participate in the remastering process. Emerick said he doesn’t want to say much about that decision, but it’s clear that he was hurt by the slight.
“I don’t want to make it sound like sour grapes. It’s not sour grapes, it’s just disrespect,” Emerick said. “How stupid can anyone be not to ask the original engineer to at least listen to them and react?”
Rouse said it would have been appropriate to ask each engineer to react only to those songs that each worked on originally. Moreover, Rouse said, the original engineers might have been too close to the original recordings to be objective.
“It might have been nice, but I think it would have been wrong” to invite them, Rouse said. “Geoff would have been too close to it. I think our distance and the fact we weren’t involved in it just gives it a slightly different way of listening to it.”
And, Rouse added, the new versions have been approved by the two surviving Beatles, along with Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison.
What will millions of potential consumers think when they hear the remastered music?
First, and perhaps most obviously, EMI hopes it will attract new, younger fans to the band’s unequaled catalog.
“What I think you’re going to hear is something fairly magical,” Rouse predicts.
I haven’t heard the new versions yet, although the CDs have just in the last hour arrived from EMI. I will share my initial thoughts on them tomorrow.
As far as attracting new fans, I certainly believe that will happen. I bring to your attention a comment I saw from a young web surfer who had stumbled upon a video promotion from the soon-to-be-released Beatles Rock Band video game. The viewer liked what he or she had seen and heard, apparently for the first time:
“I was never much of a Beatles fan but after watching this trailer I definitely had to look them up on Youtube,” the person wrote. “Damn Their songs are amazing. I missed out on a great band. I’m a fan now.”
Rouse says he doesn’t expect everyone to appreciate the way Abbey Road handled the remastering process. Emerick, understandably protective of his and the band’s work, says he worries about the changes the studio made. And die-hard fans may well take offense at any use of limiting, digital de-noising or equalization.
But in the end, I suspect that the incredible music that the Beatles produced, with substantial assistance from George Martin, Emerick and other key personnel at Abbey Road, will win over the vast majority of new listeners.