Abbey Road and the Beatles – the story behind the remasters

Abbey Road and the Beatles – the story behind the remasters

By Jason Kennedy

Coming to the Beatles stereo box set with a fresh pair of ears, or at least ears, that have rarely encountered the original mixes on a revealing system is quite an experience.

Beatles remastered, packaging

On the one hand you hear a lot more of the energy and detail that went into the recordings; on the other a lot of them are distinctly short on actual stereo. And we’re not just talking about the first four. But you can’t really judge a forty-year-old body of work by contemporary standards, and as Allan Rouse from Abbey Road Studios, pointed out when we spoke to him, “George Martin wasn’t really thinking in stereo until the last two albums – Abbey Road and Let it Be.”

Allan co-ordinated the re-mastering project at Abbey Road Studios, a process that took four years to complete and which has resulted in the 13 albums that the Beatles released in the UK being reissued in stereo, and the first ten of these albums being reissued in mono as a very handsome box set. The latter is a delight for those of with a nostalgia for vinyl, each album comes in a miniature LP sleeve which contains an appropriately sized inner sleeve with polythene liner for the disc – it’s no surprise to find that the monos were made in Japan. This box set is very much aimed at the audiophile market.

Abbey Road: Home of the Beatles

Abbey Road studios

Speaking to Allan Rouse, we wanted to know what they had used in the form of analogue masters for this project. “We have them all here because this is where they were made. The only problem we had was that we were going to use the original mix tapes that were created in the sixties; because that was what this project was all about. But about ten years ago we did a lot of remixing that commenced with Yellow Submarine because United Artists were re-releasing the film and they wanted surround sound. So for that project we ended up actually remixing Beatles material for the first time since the sixties. That lead us to the Anthology, Let it Be Naked and then Love. So there was all these remixes out there, but the original masters had never been re-mastered, up until this point, and it was definitely time for them to be released in a better state than perhaps they might have been before.”

You have to wonder whether, with all the scare stories about tape disintegrating over time, what sort of state the Beatles’ original mixes were in. Allan’s team “transferred the tapes into the computer one album at a time (using a Prism ADA-8XR A/D converter at 24-bit/192kHz). We did this primarily so that we could clean the tape heads between each title but next to nothing came off. EMI 811 tape was just perfect, the same applies to the four and eight tracks, they are all in remarkable condition for their age!”

When Mono ruled the world

Abbey Road Engineers

Listening to the stereo mix of the first album, Please Please Me – which was made in 1963 – you can hear that there is still an awful lot of energy on the tape. It’s a very ‘dual mono’ affair with everything in the left or right channel, but it’s still less congested than the mono version. However, the latter does have a slightly more natural sound, which is probably because there was no limiting or compression applied to the mono re-masters – something that was done because these albums have a relatively limited commercial lifespan, and are intended for the people who grew up with mono versions of the vinyl albums.

It’s easy to forget how big mono once was but Allan explained: “In the sixties a three-hour session was booked to remix four tracks of which two and a half hours were spent mixing the monos and 30 minutes on the stereos. Which gives you an indication of the relative importance of the stereos.

It wasn’t till beyond Sgt. Pepper that they started to think about the stereo in a much more serious way. The last two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, were only mixed in stereo.”

Please Please Me by The Beatles, remastered 2009

By the second album, released only seven months after the first in November 1963, you get John Lennon’s vocals placed centrally on the track Money, albeit with little in the way of stereo depth. Probably because “Please Please Me and With The Beatles, aren’t strictly stereo, they were recorded on two track tape, and all George used that for was as a multitrack with the band on one track and the vocals on the other,” Allan told us. “Even when he came to mixing the four track for the next two albums, A Hard Day’s Night and Beatles For Sale, the same principle was used vocals on one side band on the other.”

Comparing the latest stereo version of Please Please Me with the first CD release (1987) the immediate difference is that it’s no longer in regular mono but two-track mono as Allan describes. This makes for a bigger soundstage in the context of a similar tonal balance but not necessarily such an appealing presentation. A more straightforward comparison is the latest mono version: this sounds significantly cleaner with more fine detail – things like Ringo’s snare have more subtlety to them. It also seems slightly quieter but this is because there is less distortion.

The loudness issue

We asked Allan whether he was under any instruction to make the remasters sound louder as has been the case with re-releases of other classic albums from the sixties and seventies – Led Zeppelin’s Mothership comes to mind. “There wasn’t any pressure to make them louder. In fact there was no pressure from anyone telling us what to do, which is nice. As far as making things sound louder is concerned, modern music can cope with it because it is made with a modern approach and the artist is seeking a limited sound.

“But when you start drifting into remastering music from 20, 30, 40 years ago, doing the same thing restricts the amount of dynamics the songs have. We entered into this project agreeing to limit, but we were going to be very cautious about how much we did it, and in the end with the stereo mixes the limiting is in most cases very subtle. The level has been raised but the important thing is that it hasn’t chopped off anything at the top that’s of any great relevance.”

More detail on display

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, remastered 2009

Listening to the latest print of Sgt. Pepper’s against the 22 year old remastering, the difference is not small. For a start a significant amount of reverb has been added to the midband, which makes the soundstage deeper and wider. The bass has also been boosted quite substantially, and this not only brings out Paul’s often remarkably inventive bass playing, but adds a warmth to the sound that is totally missing from the earlier version. It would suggest that while the 1987 remaster aimed for a similar tonal balance to the original LPs, albeit not with a great deal of success, the new cut has more bass than your average sixties LP, but comes closer to the original in other respects.

The go-to Beatles guy

We asked Allan how he managed to get this high profile job: “I’m the person who’s been doing it for the last twenty years. I started off working on film scores at Abbey Road but got the job of making safety copies of every Beatles tape. At that time they’d never been backed up – this was about 19 years ago. Not just the albums, but every reel of tape.

“Midway through that process, George Martin was making a programme about the making of Sgt. Pepper and needed to go over the tapes again, and needed some help. So I did that, and at the end of the process he said I’ll probably be seeing you again, but he didn’t elaborate. He came back to do the Beatles at the BBC and I spent six months remastering that. And then this was followed by another stint where we worked together for a year on the Anthology series. By then I was becoming the person people turned to when they needed some Beatles work done and for the last 12 years I’ve done nothing else.”

The remastering team

Bowers & Wilkins 800 series speakers at Abbey Road Studios

Allan chose Steve Rooke to remaster the stereos and Sean Hicks for the monos (using Bowers & Wilkins 801D loudspeakers as monitors), but they weren’t alone. “Normally a mastering engineer works on his own, but in this instance I put a recording engineer in with each mastering engineer. The recording engineers were Paul Hicks and Guy Massey – Guy did the stereos and Paul did the monos. Guy was the assistant on Yellow Submarine and Paul helped on the Anthology, and I continued to use them so by the time we got to the remastering they’d done a number of Beatles projects with me. Guy’s last job was to remix the music for the Help DVD, Paul was responsible for engineering Love.” So clearly a well-qualified team, the only obvious omission from the credits is that of George Martin (retired), who had done such an excellent job on earlier remix projects!

Past comparisons

The Anthology series makes an interesting comparison with the Remasters, and on the whole can sound better, less compressed and more natural. But this is because the tracks were remixed rather than remastered. Original Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick sat down with George Martin and the multitrack originals to thoroughly overhaul them, which made a notable difference.

Revolver, The Beatles, remasters

I asked Allan how much involvement the record company and representatives of the band had in this latest process. “Because it was nearly 30 albums when you consider the monos and the stereos, you couldn’t involve them in any great way other than the way we would do normally which is to do the job in the hope that they trust us. The first job that we ever did the Yellow Submarine movie, and we did playbacks because it was in surround. Nobody had surround at home, so Paul, George and Ringo came in and listened to it. Over the 10 or 12 years we’ve built up a trust with Neil Aspinall (the late head of Apple Corps). So this time we made CDs and sent them out to the band, Apple Corps and EMI at the end of the project.”

Listening to the beautiful While My Guitar Gently Weeps you can hear why they probably liked and clearly approved what they heard; it has a warmth and weight to it that makes for a tremendously rich sound. It might not be a purist sound and it certainly isn’t what you get with most late sixties albums, but it’s both revealing and expansive.

I asked Allan whether any particular albums were more difficult to remaster than the rest. “Things did progressively get slightly more difficult from a mastering perspective from the first to last album. Revolver was slightly difficult primarily because it was the first change of engineer, Norman Smith did the first six and then Geoff Emerick took over on Revolver. The band’s style was changing, and Geoff played a part in that by bringing a fresh approach to the process. There is a big change again for Sgt. Pepper because Geoff had gained the band’s trust so he had more freedom to do new stuff in the studio. After Sgt. Pepper Ken Scott came in to do the engineering but Geoff was still involved. He did a tiny bit of The White Album and worked with Phil McDonald on Abbey Road, Let it Be was done by Glynn Johns.”

Making your choices

Beatles remastered boxset, stereo edition, 2009

Listening to the remasters back to back you notice the changes in their sound that relate to the way they were recorded. After the upbeat excitement of Please Please Me, With The Beatles and Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale has a more relaxed feel that is largely to do with the nature of the songs, and which results in a more sophisticated and ‘produced’ feel to the sound thanks to the introduction of double tracked vocals.

Help! offers a wider stereo spread and places the vocal clearly in the centre with some depth provided by reverb, the bass also gets stronger on tracks like Ticket to Ride. Rubber Soul introduces a bit more in the way of dynamics and a distinct kick in the bass line of Drive My Car. Norwegian Wood on the other hand has a bit more treble air and vocal transparency. Revolver is quite similar despite the change of original engineer, which is a testament to the skills of the Abbey Road team.

Beatles box-set, mono-edition 2009

Sgt. Pepper has had the bass ramped up and it’s easy to hear the effects used on voices and instruments thanks to the richer tonality, a sound that continues through Magical Mystery Tour and into The Beatles (The White Album) which also sounds very beefy. There is a clear increase in transparency of vocals on Abbey Road and plenty of image scale something that is if anything improved upon on Let It Be which has a bit more precision to it thanks presumably to improvements in the studio at the time, but made all the more obvious by the latest remaster.

Along with the 13 core albums, all of which feature a mini documentary, the stereo box set contains Yellow Submarine the original film score and Past Masters a two disc collection of the band’s single releases – 32 songs in all. Which one does Allan think sounds the best? “For me personally, by the virtue of when it was recorded, that would be Abbey Road, but The White Album is an extremely good recording as well.”

Vinyl lovers will be pleased to hear that the same remasters will be used to produce both stereo and mono versions of all the Beatles albums in these CD box sets for release in 2010.

103 Comments

  • Pete Shaw says:

    Like many others I grew up with The Beatles and, over time, have collected all their albums. They still sound great – fresh after all these years. Having read Jason’s review I now know that I must do what I’ve been putting off for a while, due to the cost… buy this set! Unless I get one for a birthday present, that is.

  • Erhard Vatter says:

    Never heard better remastered music than this – great job and thank you!

  • Magnus says:

    I’ve had experiences with “Yes”-remasters where a fade in (!) was missing on the remastered version of a song, compared to the original LP version. With two different songs actually. At the beginning of “Our song”, and 1 minute from the end of “Does it really happen”.
    The original fades must have been done at the mastering and not at the mix, so the master mixes doesn’t have the fade, and it has to be done again when remastering.
    Of course a lot of remastering is done without previous knowledge of the material, but still it’s sad.

  • Rolv-karsten says:

    I have these on LPs and CDs already. But it seems these sets are must-haves. What is holding me back is the possibility they will arrive in 24bit/96kHz (or even 192khz – after all the masters were sampled to 192kHz via Prism ADCs for this project) in a near future. Downloads as FLAC? Maybe, but I guess sets like these must be owned as real hardware. So THAT holds me back from buying the USB 24/44.1 dongle.
    But soon it is birthday time….

  • Ned says:

    I like music at all, to buy a new album I prefere remastered albums.

  • Dirk says:

    The remasters were a clear step forward. Compared to the 87 CD “remasters” it’s often like taking dust and dirt off the window so that you can clearly see through now. But with all the tapes and tape backups in the EMI vaults maybe we’ll see remixed versions of the albums some time from now. If only our ears will still be able to appreciate the sound differences then…

  • Dominic says:

    Abbey Road – the best Beatles album ever made – bar none. Have not heard it in mono but would love to experience any version of it. Here’s hoping I win the box.

  • Dominic says:

    I’m Dutch. So don’t mind the mistakes. Definitely the Remasters are one hel of a kind. Listen to them! That’s all I have to say.

  • Dirk says:

    Today we have the chance to get the most out of all these old soundtapes by remastering them. There are so many fantastic albums from the last 40-50 years which are now, in my opinion, better on cd/aac than they were before on lp. Much more dynamic, brilliance and yes, the bass is better. And they are saved for all time.

  • Fernando Zelaya says:

    Remastered CD is OK, as well as a Vinyl reissue. Better could be downloadable FLACS (16 or 24 bit) or SACD. The Beatles Love for example, sound amazing DVD audio.

  • Hans-Jürgen says:

    I like the later takes best.
    What about the solo projects? – as “Imagine” fron John?

  • davide miele says:

    the first album i bought in my life is abbey road. i really worn out the record, it’s almost unlistenable now! i work in a music store and the first thing i’ve done when emi delivered the boxes was to listen both the mono and the stereo versions. i can say that i appreciate more the monos, they sound more “natural” to me, in lack of a more proper word. but i didn’t buy the mono box, nor the stereo. i’m waiting for the vinyl reissues, but i think that they will cost a lot of money. what can i say? good job guys! a real good job!

  • Giovanni Vayola says:

    I am a Hi End system lover and I am very Happy that now there are many remastered albums of old products. It is, perhaps, necessary that the remastering is made in the best mode, to enjoy the original quality of the master tape.

  • Johan Anglemark says:

    It’s not surprising how much more time was spent on mixing mono compared to stereo in the early days of stereo. Mono was the technology the technicians had spent many years on mastering and the technology where they felt real skill was needed. It was much the same thing with black and white movies compared to colour movies in the forties and fifties.

    Obviously, whether a remastered version will be an improvement on the original depends on the technicians and on the music, but in my experience it’s often a Good Thing to Do. And to be crass, it generetes new interest for the music and a more modern sound, which lead to renewed and increased sales. I’ve only heard good things about the Beatles remasters, and I’m looking forward to buying them and listening to them. Hmm, I have a birthday coming up in March… ;)

  • Walter says:

    I was surprised at the statement that in modern music “the artist is seeking a limited sound”. Other than club music, I would hope that in most cases it is the label’s marketing department that is insisting on squashing the dynamic range out of recordings nowadays.

    It is a little scary that there was a desire to “modernizing” the sound of the remasters, but by all accounts it was done in a very tasteful way.

  • Richard says:

    I have fond memories of my parents singing these sweet songs to me as a kid, only for me to pluck up some sort of interest in my teens.

    So I have no preconceptions on how the mono version would sound. I could only think that stereo would be superior in these high tech days, however they weren’t recorded in that way.

    So it’s a question of listening as it was intended or getting some new sounds in a more distinctive way.

  • mark ellman says:

    u immediately picture the cover of john,paul george and ringo walking across the street

  • mark ellman says:

    those 2 words says it all
    a truly mind changing experience of the boundaries of music that effects your soul down to it’s core

  • Magnus says:

    About “remasters”…
    I’ve had experiences with “Yes”-remasters where a fade in (!) was missing on the remastered version of a song, compared to the original LP version. With two different songs actually. At the beginning of “Our song”, and 1 minute from the end of “Does it really happen”.
    The original fades must have been done at the mastering and not at the mix, so the master mixes doesn’t have the fade, and it has to be done again when remastering.
    Of course a lot of remastering is done without previous knowledge of the material, but still it’s sad.

  • Roger says:

    I am very interested in the mono remasters but I do not want to buy the whole set. I wish they would offer the monos individually.

  • Wolfgang says:

    To be honest, I can’t say since I haven’t heard remasters, at least not specifically … but I would like after having read the article – hence I post a comment to have a chance to win the box and dig into it ;-))))

  • Eric says:

    From what I’ve heard until now tends me to prefer the stereo masters. There is something to say for the original mono-versions regarding authenticity. As for the quality of the Beatles remasters, I share the meaning with many listeners that the quality of both versions is immaculate.

  • Frank says:

    I wonder how it would sound on lossless 24 bits wave. I liked the sound of the Beatles Love project on DvA mixed in 5.1 with incredible dynamic.

  • Lyn says:

    I bought the monos first and they seemed more alive than the 1987 versions. The music seemed clearer and I ended up buying the stereo versions as well. I think the Monos have the edge. The only disappointment is that they did not transfer to SACD which I think could have improved the sound even more (e.g. Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Rolling Stones Decca recordings).
    Will they ever be available as high quality downloads?

  • Eric says:

    I have yet to hear either set but it is definitely on the to do list!!!

  • Jose Luis says:

    Escuché los remasterizados, es increíble. cómo hubiran sonado The Beatles con esta técnología? Hubieran sonado igual: Geniales.

  • Tim says:

    Great article! I enjoyed the perspective, and it was an education to me about how albums are remastered. Clearly this project demanded a lot of thought and was a labour of love.

    I have never had the opportunity to compare copies of an original master alongside a remaster, and this might be one to call my first!

  • roders says:

    First, thanks to Society of Sound for the interview with Allan – it adds a whole dimension to better understand the process. I have the stereo box set, and it is (gasp) better than my vinyl EMI pressings. Much better bass, more dynamics and a much more musically pleasing experience. Until these remastered albums, my LPs left the CDs in the dust. – not so any more. This is a real tour de force and a must have for any Beatles fan.

  • roders says:

    I have to admit that after reading this article I am considering to invest into this set of CDs. I have read the reviews somewhere eelse when this was issued last year, but this B&W article made me more favourable for the decision. The only question now becomes availability in the Czech Rep.

  • Richard says:

    I have truly enjoyed the review; Jason’s comments are very interesting indeed. I must confess, I have grown up in the stereo age and the observations about the mono tracks and recording are a little difficult for me to fully appreciate not having any memories or reference points about it. It has caught my curiosity as something I need to learn about and appreciate a bit more, i.e. it is not necessarily an inferior/lesser format.

    Although, I enjoy the Beatles but perhaps not to the point of considering a box set, considering the comments made and from I have gathered from the review and the results I have heard with the Love album, it is now something worth considering way more seriously!

    Well done!

  • Mot says:

    If remastering gets us closer to the beauty of the original performance…then I’m all for it. I don’t have any sentimentality with a recording, rather I just want to hear somthing beautiful. Good work gentelmen.

    Mot

  • mark burton says:

    I love all the Beatles cd’s. I thought the review was great. I have all the originals so may not buy the box set, but thanks fo a good read.

  • Steve says:

    Bought Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road on launch day and couldn’t wait to get them home. However, even on the car stereo system you could hear how special the re-mastering is.
    On the main system at home (its a Linn active one) the difference is extraordinary.
    Makes me wonder what a full 16 or 24 bit FLAC file of these albums would be like !

  • Allan says:

    I’m nervous about remastered releases: the originals were famous for a reason…. Also the memories of the sound is a big part of the attraction of the old classics.

    But having read this interview and the care and thought that gone into this one, I might just relax a little and not only invest in this one but be brave and try another remastered record next time I see one that looks interesting.

    Thanks for the article!

  • Benjamin says:

    The last remastered (remixed) album I liked was The Dark Side Of The Moon SACD. Listening to it in multichannel was really a new experience.
    I hope these Beatles remasters are as good as they seem to be.

  • Larry G says:

    I like remasters in general, one in particular is the Beck “Sea Change” album that turned out well. I have heard some Hoffman remsters as well that I liked. I would love to hear the Beatles remastered in stereo.

  • Nick Smith says:

    Would love to win one of these to listen through my B and W’s. The comment about not thinking in stereo is very interesting, easy to forget how far music production has come.

  • Rick says:

    Remasters are usually quite satisfying. I have a DSOTM, also from Abbey Road, remaster that I love. I thought that the Beatles Love album (remixed as well as remastered) was one of the most brilliant versions I’ve heard in years. Any genre.

    On the other hand, the aforementioned Mothership was so bad I gave the CD away. I just couldn’t believe that the audible noises and hiss that popped in and out of the recording were acceptable to the engineers. It was simple a debacle.

    But when remastering brings increased clarity, less noise and more breathing room, how wonderful it is!

    R.

  • Andrew Humbley says:

    PS: on the subject of remasters and remixes, I would highly recommend the 50th Anniversary Edition of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue with CD, DVD, audiophile vinyl packaged in a solid library slip case with book and photographs. One of my ‘Desert Island Discs”.

    Also “The Rod Stewart Sessions 1971-1998″ a four CD set of alternate and early takes of some classic songs gives an interesting insight into the recording process and how sometimes the early takes are far better than the over produced versions that make it to disc.

  • Andrew Humbley says:

    I have listened to and compared the new stereo CD remaster of Sgt. Pepper with the late ’80s HMV Boxed CD edition, and the new release is far more precise and has an “openess” compared to the slightly muddied sound of the earlier stereo release. I would love to hear the newly mastered Mono version of Sgt. Pepper, as I believe that this will be the ultimate version to those fans who still have original vinyl pressings.

    I have also purchased Revolver and Abbey Road in the remastered stereo editions. Both sound superb through my old faithful B&W DM12s. For the ultimate Beatles surround sound the LOVE 5.1 remixes bring new life to old favourites especially when played through my B&W 600 series based home theatre,

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