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Beatles Vinyl Gets A New Spin


The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set

Beatles fans got to know the group’s music from vinyl singles and LPs beginning in 1962, when EMI’s Parlophone Records released the band’s first single, “Love Me Do.” LPs based on the 1987 CD catalog masters have been out of print since the mid-1990s, but a new collection has just arrived: The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set, created from Apple Corps Ltd./EMI’s acclaimed 2009 re-mastered catalog.

Cutting vinyl brings its own mastering challenges, so EMI turned to Sean Magee, one of its current Beatles mastering whizzes at Abbey Road Studios in London and a veteran of the studio’s 2009 re-mastering team. Magee has served at the studio since 1997, and was trained on Abbey Road’s Neumann VMS80 cutting lathe by such studio veterans as Chris Blair, Nick Webb and Steve Rooke.

Since the re-mastered catalog arrived in September 2009, fans have demanded its availability on vinyl. But when Apple and EMI began the process of creating a new set of LPs, they considered all options. “Were we going to cut the originals [LP masters] from tape onto vinyl and try and reproduce the EQ work that had already been done,” Magee asks, “or were we going to cut the new masters themselves? All of the heavy lifting had already been done and had taken four years to accomplish, so we decided to go with the remasters—to use the best resolution we have, with all the fixes done. If anyone wants the original LP masters, they can find them out there.”

It was decided to use the 44.1 kHz/24-bit masters created by Abbey Road’s remastering team, rather than the 16-bit masters used to make the CDs issued in 2009, to which limiting had also been applied. “It’s common to apply limiting for CD release, simply for the sake of making them louder. But we decided we’d leave it as bare as possible.” Magee notes that in the 1960s, when the albums were first recorded, engineers would typically apply some limiting during final album assembly/mixing, and that the mastering engineer might also apply additional limiting while cutting the lacquer.

“We didn’t want to do any of that,” he says. “We just tried to present The Beatles’ music on a modern format, with the best possible equipment as we could. It’s the same music and the same sound, except the equipment we’ve got to play with today is far superior, in terms of analog-to-digital conversion, particularly, above what was around in 1987 when the albums were first mastered for CD. What we have now captures what’s on the tape, but presents it with much finer, clearer detail than anyone’s ever gotten to hear on vinyl.”

Another important decision was whether to cut to traditional lacquers or use Direct Metal Mastering (DMM), a process developed in the 1980s to create audiophile LPs. DMM eliminates one step of metal parts production for creation of LP stampers, and so on, by allowing the mastering engineer to cut directly to a steel disc coated with copper instead of a lacquer-coated nickel disc.

“We sent test cuts of the same album [A Hard Day’s Night] of both types of discs to two factories, cut using the same settings, and had test pressings made,” Magee explains. “We [EMI] and Apple sat in a room and listened to both, and we were quite surprised about the differences between the two. The DMM was a little bit clearer toward the inner groove material, but the lacquer had a warmth and a drive to it, which was more pleasing. So we went with the lacquer.”

Mastering engineer Sean Magee works at Abbey Road Studios’ Neumann VMS80 cutting lathe.

To cut each album, Magee first made a straight cut of an album side on the Neumann lathe, with no EQ correction. The engineer would then listen back on a middle-of-the-road phonograph cartridge/stylus—in this case a Stanton—reverse-mounted on the lathe. “I didn’t want to use either a high-end stylus or a cheap record player to test the cuts,” he notes. “Even though the majority of people who will buy these discs are really into their vinyl and probably have a good pickup, we used the Stanton because it’s a good basic elliptical stylus. If it sounded clean on that, I was always pretty happy.”

During playback, Magee would listen for incidents of sibilance, mostly in s’s and t’s in vocals, and note their location before performing what he calls “surgical EQ” adjustments, using CEDAR Retouch software.

“We had to actually go in and look at the s’s,” Magee says. “You could see where the most energy was on a particular ‘s’ on the curve, and get right inside there and lower it down.” Particularly challenging were incidents where one voice among three Beatles in a harmony track was producing sibilance. “It wasn’t just, ‘Ah, that one voice is distorting,’” Magee says. “You had to figure out, ‘Okay, where in the voice is it distorting? Is the whole voice distorting, or just a portion?”

Cuts for the same tracks for the mono releases of the albums, which Apple Corps will issue in 2013, proved less problematic, particularly with regard to vocals. “They were actually easier to cut,” Magee says. “They used to spend more time on the mono mixes back then. But the main thing was that the vocals are massed together with the backing track, instead of separated, left or right, as they might be in the stereo mix. The music tends to assist in preventing the sibilance in the vocals.”

Also difficult was the distortion commonly heard on LPs on those tracks found on the inner grooves, closest to the center of the disc—for example, the last song heard on an album’s side, such as “She Said, She Said” on Revolver (1966). “That one was actually kind of taxing—it’s the worst place on a side for a song like that, in terms of sibilance,” Magee notes.

“You’ll always get some distortion on inner groove tracks, particularly on higher frequencies in the outer groove, which carries the left-side signal,” he explains. “As the stylus gets closer to the center, it’s tending to get flung from one side of the groove to the other, and the steeper the sine wave curve becomes, the less the stylus is able to resolve it. It stops when it reaches a peak, and then cuts from right to left to right, etc. People with a higher-end stylus will hear it less, but it will always be there.”

Loudness was a key consideration, especially in the absence of any limiting. “These aren’t anywhere near as loud as the original LPs, or even the new CDs,” he says. Albums with longer sides, such as The Beatles (aka The White Album), required a reduction in level just to allow the entire program to fit on the lacquer. “It was either that or reduce the stereo spread, which I did slightly on some of the older albums. But if you start to run out of space, you have to either sacrifice in the stereo image or level. And the idea was to get the remasters onto vinyl with a minimum amount of collateral damage. So I cut it at a reasonable level and kept the image as wide as possible. You hear it in its fullest glory.”

In keeping with Apple’s goal of reproducing the discs as true to original as possible (including reproductions of appropriate period label backdrops and inserts), Magee cut Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road without “rills”, the ridges between songs that allow the listener to identify the beginning of a song, as was done for those discs’ original pressings. “That was something that was fashionable at the time,” he says. Magee was also keen to properly reproduce the gibberish The Beatles had placed in the original Sgt. Pepper’s British LP’s “lock groove,” the final circular groove at the center of the disc, along with a 15kHz tone that John Lennon had original mastering engineer Harry Moss place before the groove, to get a dog’s attention. “Some styli won’t even pick that up,” Magee adds.

The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set

Once the sibilant spots were identified and corrected, and levels set, Magee would then make a test cut on a lacquer and listen back, to see if the problems were indeed corrected, or if he had missed any during his first pass through, repeating the process with two or three cuts until he was satisfied.

As most mastering engineers have done, Magee signed his lacquers in the runout groove area, although not with his name. “I etch in a little ‘i . . . i’. That’s the symbol we have around here for Abbey Road, for the zebra crossing outside,” indicating stripes sandwiched between two light poles, at the famous crosswalk.

Magee worked closely with the two factories tasked with pressing the new LPs— Optimal Media in Germany and Rainbo Records in Los Angeles—to assure the highest quality in pressing.

“One of the most important things we watched for was any noise, particularly during quiet parts of the cuts, at the beginning or in the rills,” he notes. “If there was a noise that happened in the same place on more than one test pressing, we would note its location and see if it was on the master itself or not. On the pressing end, it can be caused by a tiny bit of dust that gets in there when they press, or even a problem in galvanics, when the plant creates the metal parts. It can even be a flaw in the lacquer itself. But either way, it was important that these sounded good and clean.”

For fans who wonder what the advantage is of owning The Beatles’ catalog on vinyl, when the CDs contain the same material, one only has to listen. As the late veteran Capitol Studios mastering engineer Wally Traugott once told this author, “The phonograph needle distorts sound in nearly the same manner your ear does when listening to music,” something that digital reproduction simply can’t do.

“That’s right,” agrees Magee. “There’s a mass, a fatness and a chaos that’s heard in analog that you can’t reproduce digitally,” Magee says. “You can try and make it sound great and fat digitally, but it won’t have that noise, the mass of chaos. That’s unique to vinyl.”

Magee also has some advice for those collectors who plan to simply buy the new LP set and tuck it away, still sealed. “Take it out of the box and listen to it,” he says. “Because if you don’t, you’re missing the experience of hearing the remasters of The Beatles’ music in a way that’s clearer and closer to what the actual masters sound like. And you don’t want to miss that.”