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It Was 31 Years Ago Today - EMusician

It Was 31 Years Ago Today

It had to happen. Some day, some way, somebody was going to remix The Beatles for 5.1. As it turns out, all it took was a lot of perseverance and a little push from Hollywood, for a film called Yellow Submarine.
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It had to happen. Some day, some way, somebody was going to remix The Beatles for 5.1. As it turns out, all it took was a lot of perseverance and a little push from Hollywood, for a film called Yellow Submarine.

No doubt, there will be purists who scream, "Sacrilege!" And debates will rage about the simple-yet-detailed beauty of the original mono mixes. But The Beatles were experimental, and had 5.1 been around in 1968, it is likely that the lads would have been driving the surround bandwagon. P>Now, with the blessing of the three remaining Beatles, moviegoers will have a chance to hear "When I'm Sixty-Four," "Sgt. Pepper," Eleanor Rigby" and "Nowhere Man" in stunning wraparound sound. The film will be shown in art houses in nine U.S. cities during the week of September 6, followed by the DVD and home video debut on September 14. P>The project began, innocently enough, in the fall of 1995 in a Los Angeles video store, where Bruce Markoe, VP of feature post-production at MGM/UA, went looking for the film to show his 5-year-old daughter. Markoe took home a 1987 laserdisc but found that not only was the picture quality poor but the sound-originally mixed in mono but now billed as "videophonic stereo" (with the songs direct from the album mixes)-needed major improvement. Markoe's daughter, however, "loved it." Markoe then began exploring the idea of restoring this neglected modern animation masterpiece. P>Markoe went back to the office and started his research in anticipation of a full theatrical re-release. Finding that the rights had been tied up in a legal dispute since 1988, he called John Calley, then president of United Artists. Calley, in turn, prodded the legal department to settle the suit, which took a year. Meanwhile, Markoe looked into the status of the original elements, knowing that he wanted to remix digitally for the 5.1 format. His first call to Abbey Road was met with some skepticism, along the lines of, "That's never been done; they're not going to allow it." So he pulled back, figured out the process he wanted to follow, and called Neil Aspinall, the head of Apple. P>"I explained how I wanted to take the songs and remix them from scratch to 5.1," Markoe recalls. "I said that I didn't want to just take the 2-track album mixes and spread them, because I thought that would be a compromise of the sound. In movie theaters, people are used to 5.1 digital sound, and 2-track mixes would just sound wrong. [Neil] got back to me and he agreed to let us do this, with the understanding that these 5.1 mixes were specifically for the [theater] format. I think that was key. Obviously, The Beatles would have to approve, and if they didn't like what they heard, the whole project would be killed. It was the first step, and it was baby steps."

ORIGINAL ELEMENTS

Yellow Submarine was shot in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the UK and European standard, and will be letterboxed that way for DVD (theaters will project it at 1.85:1, cropping a little of the top and bottom). Two versions were made back in 1968, with the UK version including the song "Hey Bulldog" and a few extra minutes of animation that U.S. audiences never saw. For the renovation, the UK version was used, and Markoe went on a search for the best available print. (Note for hard-core fans: The final reel is from the U.S. version, as the last reel of the UK print was a mono composite, meaning that effects and dialog could not be separated.)

The original negative, he found, was in horrendous condition. It was all beat up, and the color was bad. Lots of dirt and scratches." So Pacific Ocean Post (at the time owned by Alan Kozlowski, a friend of Paul and George) did a full digital restoration of the first 40 minutes of the movie. For the last three reels, Markoe located an interpositive element that was in "excellent, excellent condition. It even had the 'Hey Bulldog' sequence on it," he adds. "My big concern was color, because the movie is very vivid. We did the color timing at Deluxe, and it took awhile, but we were able to bring the colors back."

A transfer of the original film mix was sent in late 1997 to Ted Hall at POP Sound, Santa Monica. Provided with the original mono DME (dialog, music, effects), Hall started working on the dialog and effects. Markoe, in the meantime, flew to London for the first week of song remixing.

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"I foolishly thought we could remix all the songs in a week," he recalls. "I had no idea about the complexity of how these songs were produced originally. The engineers at Abbey Road, and Peter Cobbin in particular, were very aware that we were treading on sacred ground and that we had to be very true to the integrity of the original songs. Beatles fans would be completely upset if these songs wound up sounding different. At the same time, we needed to enhance them and take advantage of the 5.1 format. Abbey Road set up this incredible marriage of the old technology that The Beatles used when they recorded and mixed these songs, combined with our state-of-the-art 24-bit digital machines."

ON TO ABBEY ROAD

The 5.1 mix project was started at Abbey Road in October 1997, with project coordinator and Beatles authority Alan Rouse acting as liaison between Apple Corp., EMI and Abbey Road. Rouse has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Beatles' archives and provided the necessary masters. As mixing engineer Peter Cobbin explains, most of The Beatles' recordings after the first two albums were made on 4-track, usually the Abbey Road 1-inch format Studer J37s, though some of the tapes he saw had been recorded on 1/2-inch 4-track at independent studios such as Olympic Sound Studios. [For session details, see Mark Lewisohn's The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Harmony Books, New York.]

"Between '64 and, I would say, halfway through '65, most of the things they did were on 4-track alone," Cobbin explains. "Then they became a bit more adventurous and wanted to go beyond 4-track. They would fill up one 4-track and then do a 'reduction' down to one track of another 4-track, then fill up the other three tracks [on the second 4-track]. If they still had other ideas, they would do another generation down to another 4-track. For the really adventurous songs, there could be up to three or four generations of 4-track tapes."

Though few would argue with the results, these progressive "reductions" inevitably reduced the options for subsequent stereo mixing. Cobbin cites "Eleanor Rigby" as an example: "The strings octet was the first thing recorded," he says, noting that the original 4-track tape features two instruments per track (two violins, two violins, two violas, two celli). This recording was then bounced down to one track of a second machine, to which Paul McCartney added two vocal tracks. "So even though they had the elements for a stereo mix, from that day on, the strings have only been heard in mono," says Cobbin. "Today, we can sync up the [component tracks], thus enabling us to use first-generation material. And it gives us options for placement and panning-for 5.1 that's a very significant advantage."

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW

The signal chain at Abbey Road combined equipment and technologies spanning the past 30 years. From analog 4-track tapes, the archival recordings were converted to digital for manipulation and restoration in a Sonic Solutions workstation, then stored on a Sony 3348HR digital multitrack or playback at the mix.

The premix assembly process was laborious. First, the selected masters, predominantly 1-inch 4-track tapes, were transferred from the playback machine, a Studer A80 Mk1, onto a Sonic Solutions workstation via Prism AD124 converters. Cobbin was agreeably surprised by the quality of the original tapes, all of which are now more than 30 years old. All of the Abbey Road sessions in the late '60s were recorded on EMI tape, a house brand that the company manufactured for its worldwide studio operations.

"When you look at the tape, it's still in immaculate condition," says Cobbin. "Not the slightest sign of shedding, and its got an incredible full sound to it." Once on the workstation, the tracks were "NoNoised" and then transferred back onto a Sony 3348HR. "I'm not a firm believer in just denoising everything, because sometimes it does change the sound quality," notes Cobbin, who made sure that both the original and denoised tracks were copied back to the 3348 so as to have the option to use either when mixing.

Composite tracks were split into their components inside the Sonic Solutions system. "There could be five or six different elements on one track," recalls Cobbin. "There might be some sound effects, a backing vocal, a guitar solo, all on one track. I would actually split that off and create a separate track for each of those components. And suddenly, with some songs, I ended up with a fairly full 48-track. And, of course, that meant that when I came to mix, I could treat them differently, in terms of sound processing or EQ or surround placement. So that was one technique I used quite a bit, even for some of the simpler 4-track tapes."

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MIXING FOR 5.1

Cobbin actually mixed the songs twice, once in 5.1 for theaters and DVD, and again in stereo for the "songtrack" CD (a soundtrack album containing all of the songs heard on the film soundtrack). Both mixes were done in Abbey Road's Studio 3 control room, which is equipped with a 72-input SSL 8000G console. Twenty-four-bit signals were monitored through Genesis converters and then-prototype B&W Nautilus monitors.

For the 5.1 mix, Cobbin routed outputs from the SSL to three 2-channel Prism AD124 A/D converters. "I knew that the mixes had to go to Los Angeles," recalls Cobbin. "I rang around and found that Tascam seemed to be the most acceptable format." Though the Tascam DA-88 is normally a 16-bit machine, Prism's MR2024 interface allows the extra bits to be stored on the last two tracks, which enabled true 20-bit recording. The final 5.1 mixes were to 20-bit DA-88 for delivery to Ted Hall at POP.

"It's a fairly radical thing to go hack to the masters and actually remix them," says Cobbin. "Keeping to the spirit of the songs meant being fairly detailed and accurate in re-creating the original effects. We are lucky enough to have a lot of the old equipment still here [at Abbey Road]. And there's a wealth of knowledge of what happened-there are people still here today who were involved in the tail end of the Beatles' recording career."

VINTAGE ECHOES

For reverbs, Cobbin was able to make use of the famed Studio 2's echo chamber. "Abbey Road has three chambers, or they did in the '60s," says Cobbin. One is now used to hold four vintage EMT plates, and the other is being used for storage, but we've still got Studio 2's chamber which is basically the one that they used the most." Featuring a selection of clay sewer pipes scattered around the room, the chamber is miked with Neumann tube KM56s. "It's a unique sound, a very short reverb but it's the sound on a lot of the recordings and mixes that they did," Cobbin notes.

Another vintage touch that Cobbin replicated was the mild distortion that can be heard on many of The Beatles' vocals. "Often they recorded through Fairchild limiters, and the preamps would just gently overload; that became the sound," explains Cobbin. "I don't think they were necessarily trying to hide or hold that back, it was just part of the sound of the day. It almost sounds desirable, particularly the tube-related distortion."

In addition to vintage Fairchild 660 limiters and Pultec equalizers, which were often used on Beatles sessions in the '60s, Cobbin also made use of Abbey Road's inventory of EMI equalizers and compressors. "They were part of the TG series that EMI made and they evolved through the '70s, but they offer a kind of characteristic that is different to modern EQs," he notes. "The other main thing, of course, was tape machines, which they used for tape delays and echoes and predelays to the plates, and ADT. Abbey Road could put all that stuff back together."

As Beatles aficionados are aware, several songs were pitch-shifted during recording or remix sessions, resulting in final mixes that run faster or slower than the multitrack masters. To ensure that his remixes were at the correct speed, whether for the songtrack or 5.1, Cobbin first created a reference by transferring the original 1/4-inch master to digital. "That ensured that we had the final definitive version at the correct speed," he says. "Once we got the right speed, we've got an old Q-Lock system which event-fires any machine, so with timecode we could trigger the machine to start at any point in time. We would then, if necessary, adjust the speed of the machine to match the master. The Studer has a varispeed card with a very fine adjustment control, so we could match them up. I found that the best way to do that is to listen to what you're laying up and the final version as a sync reference. If you listen to one on one side and one on the other side the image should be perfectly in the center."

NEW PERSPECTIVES

At the time, Cobbin had never before mixed for 5.1. "I think it was still fairly new at that stage," he says. "Needless to say, some songs lent themselves to a more involving experience. The title song, 'Yellow Submarine,' has lots of weird and wonderful effects and waves and bells, so I could naturally be more adventurous. But given that we're talking about an important catalog item, I didn't want it to be gimmicky in any way.

"If something on the original stereo mix was coming out of the center, out of the phantom center or mono, and I wanted to replicate that, I found that the best way to go about it was to put it into the center speakers, and also put it in the left and right at a lower proportion," he says. "If I wanted something to the right, I might put 20 percent in the left, 40 percent in the center and 100 percent in the right speaker. That would give a strong feeling that something was panned right, without losing intelligibility if you happen to be sitting to the left of the screen."

In general, Cobbin created a surround mix that offered a strong reinforcement from the front and used the surround speakers to create a sense of space. Often, he directed effects returns to the rear speakers. "It's amazing the perspective that you can achieve," he comments.

RE-RECORDING AT POP SOUND

While the Abbey Road team was working out the songs, re-recording mixer Ted Hall worked up an effects library by pulling elements from the mono DME. Hall's experience with surround formats dates back to the early '90s and ranges from remastering The Blues Brothers to recent work on Tom Petty's live performance broadcast over satellite, and he has worked on music DVD projects including Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill Live and Eric Clapton Unplugged. He was given the mandate by Markoe to "be aggressive. We want to give everybody's home theater systems a big workout here. If it moves on the screen, move it."

Hall shies away from putting too much information in the subs or the surrounds, and he's adamant that renovation projects must maintain the integrity of the original mix. After attending a screening of the original mono print at MGM, his first thought was that lie liked the character of the movie, "the whole feeling from this cruddy little soundtrack. But the idea," he says, "was to make this an E-ticket ride."

Hall first conformed the DME into his 24-bit AudioFile workstation, edited it, then passed the tracks to Norm McLeod, who cleaned up the dialog and effects in his Sonic Solutions NoNoise system. After getting the tracks back, Hall began pulling out individual effects and amassing his Yellow Submarine library, dividing it between hard effects and backgrounds.

"It was convenient for me that, back then, all their editing was pretty much linear," Hall explains. "There weren't many crossfades between sounds, so there would be a hit, then a kick, then an explosion, and they'd be pretty much separated. I could extract each of those sounds and label them, say, 'Blue Meanie Bonk.' Pretty soon I had a library of 200 or 300 effects that we used throughout the movie."

Hall proceeded to build ambiences and stronger effects, "opening them up," as he calls it, for 5.1. He would double tracks, apply radical EQ from the AMS Logic 2, drop explosions down an octave and layer them, and spatialize sounds in the time domain. Often, he would pull effects from one part of the movie and apply them to another. "The original film is pretty thin," says Hall. "Whether because of time constraints, budget constraints or purely by design, many obvious effects are missing. Sometimes footsteps, for example, disappear when there's a perspective cut.

"And sometimes the Meanies would be shooting arrows and you would see maybe 50 shots from these cannons," Hall says, "but you would only hear two or three. So, of course, I put them all in there. Not only that, I would double them so they could fly over your head. The nice thing about doing it nonlinear is that on the AudioFile I have 24 tracks, so I can dedicate channels, say, to the flying glove sample and put it on its own joystick and do pans while all the other elements stay where they're supposed to."

Though the big Pepperland battle opener and some of the other busy shots might gather the most notice, the subtleties in the Sea of Silence back grounds and other scenes also benefited from the 5.1 spread, where Hall's own stereo-izing techniques and phase manipulations created enhanced spatiality.

PANNING IN THE HALLWAYS

The trickiest scene turned out to be the Hall of Doors scene, in which Ringo sets about gathering the lads for the trip hack to Pepperland. A lot of left-right action goes on in the hallway, leading to a complicated effects mix. "At that point, they actually did have overlaps on the sound," Hall explains. "Of all points in the movie, that was one where they definitely spent time cutting the sound design together. I tried to take each of those moments and put them on a different track with their own panner. But sometimes the sound would include the sound of the next incoming object. When the pans are happening fast, you don't notice it as much, but if you were to isolate one sound, like a snail going right to left, you would notice that as it got to the left, you would hear, say, a bike effect in the right channel. So I would cut the beginning of that bike onto another track so I could accentuate the motion and hide the fact that I couldn't get in and cut them hard without the crossfades."

The dialog track on the 1987 home video is nearly unintelligible, and there are hard bumps when it cuts in. Hall fixed as many edits as possible and smoothed out the track, but in a few places it remains hissy, he says. He again applied EQ from the Logic 2 to take away some of the harshness, focusing on the 2k to 4k range, where it had been heavily boosted on the optical track.

MUSIC TRACKS

When the music tracks arrived in March 1998 from Abbey Road, Hall and his assistant, Shane T. Keller, put them up and "got goosebumps, totally mesmerized. You hear 'Eleanor Rigby' with a string quartet wrapped around you and just go, 'Oooohhh.'" But the music was not in sync with picture, and Hall began a bar-by-bar, song-by-song varispeed session, using a Hewlett-Packard function generator to vary the wordclock input.

"I would varispeed the DA-88s against the original print and just phase it in by ear," Hall recalls, "As soon as you start hearing that Jimi Hendrix sound of phasing, you're really close to sync. Then I would digitally sample rate convert back to a stable 44.1 clock. People say you shouldn't varispeed the Beatles recordings-they're sacrosanct. Well, that's what they did on the original film."

The George Martin underscore came in from two sources: a mono track that Hall spread out (about 65% of the underscore) and a 5.1 spread of a stereo version that Martin re-recorded a few months after the film came out for the soundtrack album. "There were slightly different arrangements and sometimes radically different tempos. So it was lots of edits, lots of varispeeding, time compression and time expansion," Hall says. "Trying to get the themes to line up and the key changes to be correct. I think I got it pretty close."

In April 1998, Hall and Peter Cobbin brought the 5.1 stems on Sony 3348HR tapes to Disney Stage A to make the print master, so they could hear it in a 250-seat theater. Noted Hollywood rerecording mixer Mike Minkler sat with them and offered advice-a few minor tweaks, some more for the rears. Cobbin boosted some low end. The theatrical version was print-mastered in the DTS format, where, incidentally, the only other conversion outside the original A-to-D took place. The DVD was a straight 24-bit D-to-D into the Dolby AC3 processor.

"The film is an amazing visual treat, in terms of being different and crazy and wild and a whole new world," Markoe concludes. "To me, a renovation is when you take something that's a classic piece of work-whether it's art or architecture or film or whatever-and you actually improve it while being very true to the integrity of the original piece. We set up playback of the songs for Neil Aspinall and Geoff Emerick because we figured if these guys didn't like what they were hearing, we needed to either change what we were doing or the whole thing would be killed. A week or two later, the three Beatles came in, and I'm told they were very happy with what they heard. Everybody who heard it was blown away." Tom Kenny is the editorial director of Mix. Chris Michie was a Mix technical editor and tape-op'ed for Geoff Emerick during the 1971 stereo remix of "Baby You're a Rich Man" at AIR Studios, London.