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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.