As might be expected, remastering The Beatles’ entire catalog for EMI/Apple Corps.—a four-year-long project that included 12 studio albums, Magical Mystery Tour, and Past Masters Vol. I and II—brought some stress for the chief engineers at London’s legendary Abbey Road studios. There were, oh, about 10 billion people’s expectations to consider in the proper handling of the iconic band’s storehouse of treasures.
“Pressure?” offers project chief Allan Rouse with a laugh. “The thing is, over the last 10 to 12 years we’ve remixed quite a lot of Beatles material, and while there was pressure in that, it was only our interpretation of what we thought it should sound like with a new stereo mix. What we have now been working on is the real masters, the music that was approved by The Beatles, by George Martin and all the engineers that worked on it originally. I don’t think for one minute any member of the team took this lightly at all.”
Beatles fans should rest assured that the remastering work was placed in the right hands. Rouse is a 38-year Abbey Road veteran who was at the helm of remastering duties when The Beatles catalog was first reissued on CD in 1987. He has also acted as project coordinator for a number of Beatlesrelated remix projects, including The Beatles Anthology, Yellow Submarine Songtrack, Let It Be. . . Naked, and John Lennon’s Imagine. Among Rouse’s assistants on the remastering projects was Merseyside native Guy Massey, a freelance engineer who was on staff for 10 years at Abbey Road and worked on such Beatles projects as the 5.1 surround mixes for the The Beatles Anthology DVD set.
The pair’s experience in past remastering and remixing of Beatles material aided them in the delicate work they had to apply to the new remasters, which presented numerous challenges.
“We’re well aware of what can be achieved with remixing,” Rouse says. “The problem is, we knew that we couldn’t achieve those results in remastering because it’s just physically impossible.
“With a remaster, if you want to do something with the vocal, you can only do so much—whatever EQ you put on it you’re putting on everything else; you might want to put 4dBs of something on a verse, but the effect it has on the guitars is extreme. So the remasters are subtle.”
But Rouse points out that with current remastering tools, his team could make improvements that couldn’t have been achieved 20-plus years ago when The Beatles CDs were first released. Now, special attention can be paid to sibilance, clicks, dropouts, bad edits, and vocal pops.
“These are things that we were prepared to deal with, the highly technical things, without going into what we considered to be part of the performance,” he says. “It might be just breathing noise; Ringo’s squeaky bassdrum pedal, which occurs throughout a number of tracks; or a squeaky chair at the end of ‘A Day in the Life.’”
The remasters were created from the original master tapes, which were in excellent shape considering many of them hadn’t been played in nearly 40 years. (The exceptions are the remasters for Help! and Rubber Soul, which George Martin remixed in 1986 because he was unhappy with the original stereo mixes; technology at the time dictated that they be mastered onto digital tape.)
To start, the team first located three 1/4-inch mastering machines spanning the early to late ’70s, then assessed two different test tones from the ’70s along with a modern test tone. Transferring a couple early tracks from the Beatles catalog, followed by later tracks, they carried out blind tests with all the engineers involved and came to a decision on which tape machine they thought sounded the best and would give them the best possible transfers.
Selecting a Studer A80 1/4-inch machine, they archived the master tapes, ensuring that the tape machine was running at a constant speed by installing a speed-reader on the capstan throughout the transfer process. Transfer from the Studer into Pro Tools involved a Prism ADA-8XR converter to 24-bit.
As many tracks on The Beatles’ earlier recordings were achieved in mono, decisions regarding “stereo-izing” from mono sources were made as a team. “We had two people dealing with the stereo and two people with the mono, primarily so that no one person had to make the decision; they could argue amongst themselves on how to deal with it,” Rouse says. “The mono and the stereo were each treated as a separate job, and each track within an album was treated as a single track. It was looked at on its own merits, so if they felt a song was lacking in vocal, guitar, or bass, which was probably most noticeable in the earliest albums, then that would be the area they’d be looking at.”
Compression and limiting was carried out with ultimate restraint, if at all. “We decided to be very subtle with any limiting in the final process, Massey says. “On average, the remasters are 3 to 4dBs louder than the original CDs, so they’re only limited 3 to 4dBs at the loudest point. We didn’t want to destroy the dynamics of the original master tapes, but we did want to make them a little louder than the original CDs.”
“The monos are predominantly going to be of interest to those people who grew up with them,” Rouse says. “Today’s generation is less likely to be into the monos, so we didn’t limit the monos at all; they’re exactly as they were. Any compression or limiting is only that which was on the original master tapes.”
While remastering The Beatles’ catalog at Abbey Road was meticulous and at times stressful, Rouse counts his blessings that he’s had an engineer’s dream job. “I occasionally have to kick myself that there’s a few hundred thousand people who would like to swap places with me,” says Rouse with a laugh. “No engineer necessarily likes everything that they have to work on. One of the nice things about this particular team of guys is that they all happen to be Beatles fans, as well. Everybody not only did the job professionally because they can, but also enjoyed doing it.”