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Mastering the New John Lennon Box Set

Mastering team tasked with bringing cohesion, clarity to 140 tracks across massive new collection.

Burbank, CA (October 16, 2018)—It seems almost unimaginable—a box set based around a single album that serves up a jawdropping 140 tracks to provide insight and greater understanding of the parent work. Imagine—The Ultimate Collection does just that, providing well over 100 additional tracks, using demo versions, studio outtakes and isolated track elements to bring listeners deeper into John Lennon’s 1971 album, Imagine, and its famed title track.

Collating all that into four CDs and two surround sound Blu-ray discs was a trio of mastsering engineers—musician and engineer Paul Hicks who led the project, and mastering engineers Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen, who all collaborated on the project at Lurssen Mastering in Burbank, CA.

While they were focused on best presenting the material at hand, they found the production of the material didn’t date it or get in the way as much as one might expect. “It’s so back-to-basics and simple; the production is really stripped down,” Lurssen said. “The drums sound like a drum kit; the guitar sounds like a guitar amp; and John’s voice is so raw and real. It’s a credit to the songwriting, musicianship, and engineering that it has achieved such iconic heights. It proves once again that you don’t have to go through a lot of hoopla to make timeless music.”

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Ironically, that simplistic approach was in spite of influences around Lennon at the time, said Lurssen: “John and Yoko had a creative synergy with Phil Spector, who was known for his wall-of-sound approach. However, in this case, a more organic production was favored. I think John was most interested in expressing outrage at injustice and hope for a better world, and he didn’t want a ton of production to obscure that message.”

The more austere production fits the music, but that approach might not necessarily help the tracks in turn fit in with today’s sonic expectations—or with the unconscious embellishments of memory. “The goal was to master the album in such a way that listeners would say, ‘Wow! It’s just like I remember it, and it sounds awesome,” Cohen said, “but it also needs to sound awesome next to whatever else they played before it or whatever else will come after it. So, we had to make some minimal changes to compete in the modern soundscape, but they had to be completely subliminal.”

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The trio used a pair of ATC SCM150ASL three-way midfield monitors for all of the stereo work and five ATC SCM25A compact three-way nearfield monitors for all of the surround sound work, and to Lurssen’s mind, they made a crucial difference in his ability to translate the material: “We were able to hear the production decisions and original intent that John, Yoko, and Phil poured into the original recordings. You can hear John’s soul and his passion. Having that clarity gave us the confidence to make adjustments without compromising that intent.”

Processing was kept to a minimum, in keeping with the original production. “Especially for older recordings, it’s better to do a little bit of processing on several pieces of gear than a lot of processing on fewer pieces of gear,” Lurssen opined. “We take the best stuff out there and then use it to make, for example, a half dB boost at 10kHz. Then we rely on another processor to do some slight shaping on the low end. And so on.”

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Despite the cultural heft of Lennon’s work, and the album’s significance in the former Beatle’s oeuvre, the team ultimately had to approach the project like any other. “We got into the sessions and my engineering brain took over,” said Lurssen. “I was doing my job and it’s a job I know well. Then, when it was all done, I…felt the historical significance of what we had completed.”

Trans Audio Group •