It’s been 22 years since the Beatles catalog was given its big launch on the CD format. Since then, many other artist catalogs have regularly been re-mastered and repackaged. Meanwhile, years passed and fans of The Beatles wondered why their catalog wasn’t getting the same treatment, especially with all the advancements made in the digital technology since the ’80s.
Well, all of that has now been more than amply addressed, as evidenced with September’s EMI and Apple Corps' release of the entire Beatles catalog re-mastered from the original mono and stereo masters and offered in two deluxe box sets: The Beatles Stereo Box Set and The Beatles Mono Box Set.
So, did they substantially improve upon the existing versions? Absolutely! Listening to both entire sets is a revelation, which is quite a statement considering this is probably the best-known artist catalog in the history of recorded music.
Abbey Road Studios engineers who re-mastered The Beatles' catalog
The re-mastering effort, which happened over a period of four years, began with a crew of engineers at Abbey Road Studios. Mix spoke with engineer Alan Rouse, who coordinated the team, and senior engineer Guy Massey, concerning this project.
“The whole process was spread over a few people to try and achieve, what we hope, at the end of the day, is going to be the best we could get,” Rouse says. “No one person was going to take the blame for getting it wrong, so we can spread the blame amongst all of us! We keep everything at Abbey Road, so it was a very long process—mucking about with machines, A/Ds, test tapes—trying to determine how we ended up with what we ended up with. We did blind tests, as well, after that.”
The transfers were done on a 1972 Studer A-80. From there, they went into a high-resolution Prism Sound ADA-8XR into Pro Tools at 24 bits/192 kHz. “When we put on the masters and compared them with the original CDs, we all felt, in general, that what we were hearing on the masters was immediately more transparent than the original CDs,” states Massey, who worked on the stereo re-masters with mastering engineer Steve Rooke and Paul Hicks.
For those concerned the Beatles re-masters would follow the path of many other recently re-mastered catalogs, which have changed the dynamics that existed on the original albums, the good news is that great pains were taken to ensure the integrity of the original recordings.
“We didn’t want to obviously have these as loud as a modern rock record,” says Massey. “Basically, the stereo re-masters, at the maximum, are only 4 dBs louder than the original CDs. We used limiting very sparingly, and hopefully very transparently. We wanted to retain the dynamics of the songs and basically not limit them.”
The approach wasn’t to make the sound merely more appealing to “modern” ears, but rather, to try and approximate what the team felt George Martin and the band would have wanted had they not been limited by the vinyl medium. “We have got some of the [disc] cutting notes from the ’60s that Harry Moss did and there was very little that he did to them, but the inevitable things were sometimes reduction of bass, because he couldn’t get it on—the vinyl couldn’t handle the bass back then,” says Massey. “You’ll notice elevated bass and louder drums now. We really tried to push some of those elements. We weren’t trying to just make a cleaner version of the original stereos.”
Rouse is quick to point out that all the tapes, which were EMI 811, were in excellent condition. “EMI used to be quite a good company for manufacturing things, including tape,” remarks Rouse. “We’ve never baked an EMI tape. Ever! We checked the heads after each title and a little bit of dust was about all we encountered. ”
Nevertheless, the old tape leader provided it’s own occasional issues: “We haven’t ever really heard the mono master tapes, apart from the first four CDs, which were out in mono. So all of the splicing tape on those old mono masters had dried and fallen apart, which was quite irritating, especially in rewinding the first time through. You’d rewind. It stops. Join it up. Stops.”
That said, Rouse states they didn’t merely put on an album master reel and “record the whole album in one go,” adding that everything was “transferred one track at a time.”
Abbey Road Studios engineers who worked on re-mastering The Beatles' catalog outside of the facility's main entrance
Concerning any cleaning up of extraneous sounds found on the tapes,
Rouse points out, “If there was anything like clicks, microphone pops,
sibilance, we chose to deal with them, because they’re not really meant
to be part of the performance. But we did not remove squeaky drum
pedals, little coughs and squeaky chairs at the end of certain chords,
because they are part of the performance. Artistically, we haven’t
Massey states that they used CEDAR to address most of these issues. “On
the earlier albums there was more sort of vocal ‘pop’-type stuff. It
was obviously easier to hear and hone, because we had the band in one
side and the vocals in the other in the stereos,” says Massey. “With
the monos, because the picture is obviously straight down the middle,
it’s harder to hear some of those idiosyncrasies. We didn’t do as much
restoration work, because we felt it wasn’t necessary because we
couldn’t hear some of the things.”
“Guy and Paul [Hicks] would go in and do the mastering in Steve’s
room,” says Rouse, “and on the following day they would go into Studio
3, which is a room we’ve used consistently for doing Beatles remixing
and listen there, because we’re familiar with the sound there and it’s
another alternative listening room. If they decided they weren’t
comfortable with certain things that day, they’d make adjustments the
following day. Eventually, myself and Mike Heatley, who have been
involved in the projects for years, would sit and listen to what they
did in my
room, and we would listen to them as they stood as albums and, if we
felt there was still something we would like to hear a little bit more
or a little less of, then we’d ask Steve and Guy.”
The speakers used to evaluate the masters ranged from large Quested and B&W monitors to listening on iPod.
While most of the public knows the Beatles’ catalog through the ’80s
CDs, the role of the mono box was to please those who had the original
mono albums and wanted to experience re-mastered CD versions that
totally captured the spirit and sonic qualities of those mixes. While
the mono mixes are regarded as the official mixes for the earlier part
of the catalog, the new stereo re-masters will replace the existing
Beatles CD catalog as the official releases.
The Beatles In Mono box also features the original 1965 stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul.
Those mixes have previously not been available on CD, as the original
CD versions of those albums were remixes done by George Martin in the
“He was never happy with the balance [of the original stereo vinyl album mixes] of Help! and Rubber Soul,” Rouse says, “so he remixed those two and was going to move on to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper
and then realized it was going to be too difficult. So that’s why those
two are the only ones that were done. We know that people wanted to
hear the original stereos, so that’s why they were put out along with
Most people familiar with the stereo CD versions don’t realize that it
was the mono mixes on the original releases that received the most
focused attention from Martin and the band. Aficionados of the mono
mixes will quickly tell you they are masterful and probably the best
way to experience much of their music, but as Rouse (who personally
prefers the stereo) states, “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion and
I think the monos have just as much mileage as the stereos. It’s just
what you’re used to.
“It’s the stereo versions that are going to be going forward from here.
The people that are going to be interested in the mono CDs primarily
are going to be those who bought mono in the first place and want to
get an alternative to the vinyl that they’ve got at home. So from that
point of view, we treated them with a slightly more audiophile version.
The stereos are slightly more modern. When you look at the ages of
people buying Beatles, they’re young, but we still took into account
the older generation of people who would still want to hear the
stereos, as well. It was a compromise between trying to help them a
little bit for the future, while at the same time still maintaining the
authenticity of the past—whereas the monos are just that little bit
more authentic, if you like.”
Visit Abbey Road Studios at www.abbeyroad.co.uk.
Mix’s former Nashville editor, Rick Clark, is currently working on a book that delves into production techniques: Mixing, Recording, and Producing Techniques of the Pros: Insights on Recording Audio for Music, Video, Film, and Games, published by Thompson.