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

  • Alex says:

    Honestly I am not really sure that I like Mono remastered more than old cd’s. Actually, sometimes I will start listening to remastered and end up switching back and continue on old cd. I have to admit that I do like (most of it) how it is done on Love. It is probably not exactly correct comparison (since Love is DVD-Audio), so I would like to listen to USB edition, but it is hard to justify another set.

  • Gabor says:

    Only have With The Beatles, Pepper and Abbey Road, but they do sound way better than the ’87 CDs. Unfortunately remixing was not prohibited, so the Yellow Submarine Songtrack CD still beats these for me. The strange stereo mixing on the early albums make them unlistenable on headphones (probably a major factor why they are not on itunes). However the guys did a great job, so I am saving up some money to buy the others as well. It could have been even better if a surround version was included or if they released them on DVD-audio or SACD. Take a look on the Pet Sounds DVD-audio released in 2003. I know about the FLAC files on the Apple, but a nice exclusive set of high fidelity discs would have place in my room.

  • jeff r says:

    i have heard both sets and found the mono to be very warm and organic, almost like vinyl, and i’ve heard the beatles in mono and stereo vinyl back in the 60′s.there is a lot of detail especially in the mono set. i found the stereo set to be a bit louder due to the judicious use of some compression, and the bass is more prominent with the stereo set.overall i found both sets to be very lively and even more engaging. and with both sets i could almost feel as though i was in the recording studio with the beatles, and everything sounds much cleaner and crisper.listened through NHT classic two speakers

  • Lou H says:

    I remember growing up listening to the Beatles via my parents record player in the late 70′s and early 80′s.

    Today, I have a Beatles Greatest Hits CD, but hearing about this boxset really has me excited, especially since I just got some 800 Series speakers late last year.

    It’s too bad I don’t have a TT because I bet the remasters would sound wonderful.

  • grasy says:

    The energy of the recordings really comes out on this new set. I especially like Revolver

  • Rick says:

    I’ll start with full disclosure: I am hearing the recordings through my recently purchased 802D’s for the first time-I’m sure that doesn’t hurt. Several things are striking to me about the new recordings. First, there is much more interior to the music, making it more engaging and interesting. Second, there is much more depth and richness overall, particularly in the later discs. The net effect for me is a renewed appreciation of the songwriting and recordings of this incredible band. And it all happened so long ago now; without this document it would seem only a dream.

  • Carlos de Hostos says:

    I would like to congratulate the remastering team on the truly awesome aural experience they have crated. I am lucky enough to own a set of 804S in an acoustically trated room, and side to side comparisons rendered previous versions unlistenable. I feel a greater sense of what these timeless artists were trying to comunicate with their recordings. Kudos!

  • MORENO FRANCINI says:

    I would like to receive this box just to animate my neighbours 70 years old with the zeppeling B&W

  • Alan Dang says:

    Remasters are always the better way to experience the music as long as they are done in the spirit of original artist. There is of course a role for remixes of older pieces or a role for historical preservation of a piece with all of its flaws, but unless the flaws were an intended part of the music, a remaster made from the original sources is almost always a more enjoyable experience.

  • Benoit says:

    Excellent review about remastering The beatles 13 original UK releases. There are unremastered versions with better sound quality than remastering ones ( not comparing the same albums, just a B&W customer opinion. Original sound stays original. Good Job Abbey Road!

  • Duffy says:

    an interesting article, i do wonder though whilst this is seen as a process of enhancement, how much of it is really tuning the mixes for a modern ear?

    We’ve gotten very sophisticated in that last 30 years and the ubiquitous nature of better quality and more affordable audio equipment, might be colouring our ears too much so that older mixes sound a bit drab and a bit under eq’d.

  • Gary says:

    When I first listened to Abbey Road on the original vinyl LP, I was transported to a new universe of rhythm and word cadence. Over the years, I’ve often wanted a similar experience of the groundbreaking NEW that this album represented. Seldom has this happened. Listening to the re-mastered songs has brought back the still strong memories of the period, the optimism, the flowers in the air beauty of the sound. Thanks for the memories!

  • Gerd says:

    Perfekt die Fab Four in BW Qualität. Super finde ich wichtig und richtig

  • Matteo says:

    i got both mono and stereo vinyl of Beatles and they sound very well. I’ve also some remixes and it’s not the same. I listen also other remixes, only 2 cd are good. Pheraps from original tape…..i must listen it.

  • Daniel says:

    I just recently listened to the remastered stereo version of a couple of the records. To me it sounds a lot better than what was earlier available on CD.

    When it comes to re-mastering as a phenomena, I can say that I actually do have a CD that is not mastered at all.

    The engineer behind it argues that it sounds a lot better without any mastering at all, all that is done is a bare minimum of mixing. The sound is fabulous but of course it’s not possible for me to compare it to a mastered version since there is none. :)

    Interesting argument and move from a very interesting man..

    @Jeff: Turn the volume up, also your neighbors deserve to listen to the good music and good sound! :)

    And of course, great article!!

  • JohnnyB says:

    I have the Stereo Remastered Set. It is terrific. Remains obvious how they transitioned the 2-4-8 channel mixes to stereo, ie all voices on right channel, all music on left channel.

    Thanks for writing a terrific article.

    Cheers!!

  • Frank Zajaczkowski says:

    Hearing the remasters is reliving the past in this very specific sense: You hear the recording again but simultaneously for the first time. When I first listened to Abbey Road in the late 60s, it was on a component stereo system that a friend had just bought and it was the first time I’d heard music on such a system. The album and the medium were an astonishing and unique experience. Hearing the remastered recording repeats that experience in that I hear the album again but in a way I’ve never heard it before. Two unique experiences of the same music. Incredible!

  • Bob says:

    Exciting stuff, looking forward to hearing some of these national treasures in brighter sound. I’ve generally had good experiences with remastered works (notably John Martyn’s One World), particularly where additional unreleased tracks are provided as an incentive to upgrade.

  • Michael Connelly says:

    I picked up With the Beatles and Please, Please Me but made the minor mistake of buying the stereo versions. While the detail is amazing, I have since heard them in mono which, to me, is far more musical and reminds me far more of the Beatles I grew up with in the ’60s.

  • Jeff h says:

    I could not afford the box set but did pick up revolver and even the wife commented on how much better it was

  • Kamal says:

    Nice review-obviously, Allan Rouse & his team know their job.
    I’m a lifelong fan of the Beatles-my forst purchase of their music was way back in 1963 ,a 45rpm of “We love you”.
    I shuddered when I read the word”remastered”-so many of such releases have sounded awful,e.g, the studio master set of the Abba.
    But Allan & co have done a fine sensitive job.I’ve heard a few albums at a friends’& the sound is very nice indeed,more detail,transparency, better bass & definitely more musical than the ’87 releases.
    I wish i could afford to buy the 2009 Remasters but it becomes difficult to justify the expense to the wife while living on a pension!

  • Brett says:

    I wasn’t interested in this boxed set (how many times do I need to buy the same music over and over) until I read this review. I wish I could borrow it or download a sample FLAC to see just how different (better) it sounds than previous releases. Perhaps this will go on my birthday wish list.

  • Matthias says:

    i bought the mono remasters set when it came out last fall. it’s really a great experience to listen to these classic albums in a sound so fullbodied and immediate. that way the beatles no more sound like legends from days gone by but like todays hottest rock band. nevertheless i have to admit that i can’t help missing the crackles of my beatles vinyl records…

  • Jeffrey Shannon says:

    Fascinating article and I’d love to see more like this here on B&W. I’m very new to higher quality audio and am still learning. To hear about the remastering and mixing process — not just the technical aspects, but the emotional, gut-feeling judgment calls — is very interesting indeed.

    I wasn’t at all that keen on delving into this new project, but, after reading this article, I must admit that I’m curious and intrigued.

  • Christopher Gillespie says:

    Excellent summary of the process and the perceived improvements. While the early mono’s are clearly superior to the stereo, I am torn between the 24-bit stereo (from the USB release) and the mono equivalent. The balance and musicality of the mono is superior, the transient and low-level information of the 24-bit stereo is superior. Here’s hoping for a series of 24-bit mono releases.

  • Andrea Solinas says:

    A timeless collection that every fan should have.

  • Paul Riordan says:

    I have to say I have very mixed experience of “remasters”. The Beatles remasters are excellent, I bought the USB stick with 24/44.1 FLAC versions and they are very good. I also bought the Led Zeppelin Mothership album which is poor compared to the earlier remasters series released in the early nineties. Meny recent remaster cds are just too loud and lose much of the dynamics.

  • Paul says:

    I got the stereo albums on a memory stick. My view is that some of the remastered stereo albums are definitely better than the original versions now available, some just different (neither better nor worse).

  • phil says:

    and sound good

  • phil says:

    beatles are classic and good

  • Chris says:

    When I see “remaster” I think ok what was the significance of this album to me and is the fidelity for that album the point. For example of the stones get yer yayas out is wasted on me because the unpolishedness of it is what I want. Unfortunately the early beatles were is dire need of improvement. The remasters I am sure will be stellar. I have individual MFSL copies of some of the albums and there are pros and cons. I am especially interested in the 24kHz download. I would love to have everything go through my PSaudio DAC even if I did miss the ritual of vinyl. Thanks B&W, I love the society of sound!

  • Jean-François says:

    I hope listen to this remastering one time. I’m 25years old and I recently discover the universe of the beatles. that’s great music

  • Thomas Grimwood-Taylor says:

    I’ve only experienced the remastered greatest hits albums of Led Zeppelin (since I would much prefer owning and listening to the originals). I’m unsure whether its the fact that I’m used to the originals or that the remasters are inferior, but I don’t enjoy listening to these remasters as much.

    Since we’re so used to the originals we’re often biased against new ways of listening to old classics.

  • Martin Wilson says:

    Back in 1900 and frozen to death you bought wobbly vinyl and played it on your Dads record player – mono – then when you got a bit older you bought your own ‘stereo’ radiogram – low on volume and thin on bass – next you bought a decent hi-fi (with B&W speakers of course) and you realised how modern recordings made the old stuff sound thin. That’s why I welcome remasters – by far the majority enhance the sound and musicality plus on occasions they offer alternative takes too. For me SPLHCBand remastered is a must have – the first ever LP I bought

  • kurt says:

    I’d rather find new music (the Society of Sound is a good place to start) than spend time and money on a remaster.

    Would you love a “Mona Lisa” if it were “updated” with extra holographic colors and cutting edge vivid techniques? Instead, enjoy it for what it is while enjoying the new music for what it has now.

  • Bob Pratt says:

    Terrific article to read and i”m sure that an even more detailed article could be written describing what must have been a myriad of large and small technical challenges and decisions faced along the way. Without a doubt an invaluable effort for music lovers everywhere.

  • DANIEL KODGER says:

    Sounded better than a sacd to me, probably the best re-mastering i have ever heard, crystal clear-really quite an amazing accomplishment!

    Dan :)

  • Greg says:

    After reading this article I’ve decided to definitely buy one of the box sets. Hard to believe but I don’t own any Beatles material at all now so am looking forward to listening to it all. Not sure whether stereo or mono version would be best for headphone listening though…

  • Peter Berberich says:

    This is the best piece of remastered music ever heard, for every fan a musthave, great job

  • Jason Anderson says:

    I think fancy studio time should be used to create new music, not to appeal of financial demographics.

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