How was The Beatles music remastered?

by Johnny Kilhefner Google
The 1960s sound of The Beatles was preserved, but with modern enhancements for new generations.

The 1960s sound of The Beatles was preserved, but with modern enhancements for new generations.

Grundy/Valueline/Getty Images

"Beatlemania" describes the sound of the 1960s, with the warm and dynamic original recordings of The Beatles opposing the arguably cold, digital trend apparent in music today. Steve Rooke, the mastering engineer at Abbey Road Studios, believes today's music lacks the full sound present in the music of the 1960s and 1970s. When discussing the modification of the classic Beatles sound into a language the iTunes generation can understand, Rooke discussed his desire to appeal to today's generation of listeners. The team of engineers, careful not to step on any toes, created a box set that includes the complete collection of the original monophonic Beatles' albums, and a separate collection of the remastered stereo catalog.

Why Remaster?

Digital copies of The Beatles catalog were incomplete because their first digital albums used the mono versions of much of The Beatles' discography. Audio quality has improved exponentially since the 1960s and 1980s respectively, and Guy Massey of Abbey Road Studios believed the sound of The Beatles could benefit from the updated sound of 2009. "People slag off the original CDs, and I definitely think what we've got is a step up, but I don't think they sound awful," said Massey. "We always had the original CDs in a [studio] session and I'd always refer to that. Immediately, they were better."

Transferring The Beatles

Transferring the original recordings of The Beatles into the digital age was a meticulous process for Abbey Road engineers. "Obviously, somewhere like Abbey Road has got a lot of different test tapes from over the years," said Paul Hicks, part of the Abbey Road engineering team. Among all the tape recorders in the studio, the team went with the Studer A80 reel-to-reel tape recorder to play back and transfer the original Beatles recordings. The Beatles originally recorded using EMI's British Tape Recorder. Even though the same model still exists in their studio today, Massey stated, "[They] would have been pretty hard to get back into the [condition] they would have been in the late 1960s." The Abbey Road team tiptoed through the transferring process, careful not to disturb the sensitivity of the original mono recordings, which had not been played in more than 40 years. "On the first wind-back you had to be incredibly careful, because a lot of the edits just split apart when winding," said Hicks. "We had to get the gloves on!"

Re-recording an Era

The Abbey Road Studios team of engineers recorded the digital remasters of The Beatles catalog using a conversion process that maintained the original sound of The Beatles, while updating their sound in certain areas they felt could be improved. "There was a listening period once we'd transferred an album and were happy with the transfers," said Massey. "We would have detailed lyric sheets and timing sheets, and between us all, we'd identify areas that we thought we would want to remove -- clicks, depopping, if we could do it." The team had access to only the master mixes -- because multiple tracks were not in style in the 1960s -- so they were limited in their editing choices. Therefore the team used noise reduction sparingly to keep the original Beatles sound intact: "Until there's a denoising system that works properly, and doesn't take the air [mute] and all that stuff that denoising takes off, we didn't want to use it," said Massey. Balancing the vocals and the instruments for a new generation required the team to keep the symmetry of the original recordings intact. Massey explained, "If we upset the balance in any way, because we were [equalizing the sound] quite narrowly, we'd always mono it [put it on one track] and make sure we hadn't destroyed the balance."

Mastering The Sound

Guy Massey and Steve Rooke mastered the bulk of the stereo albums, and Paul Hicks and Abbey Road engineer Sean Magee took to the mono albums. "Guy and Paul came up to my room," explains Rooke, "We had a listen through to what was now the cleaned-up master version, and decided how we were going to tackle each track." The team attempted to separate the instruments for the most clarity, while adding a more punchy bass line or kick drum, wherever necessary, using a Prism digital equalizer to tweak the low to high-end frequencies. "We were always careful not to go too far, because we were dealing with The Beatles," said Rooke. "Once we were happy with the sound, we'd put it onto my workstation. It took about a day to do 14 tracks." A lot of The Beatles' songs were left nearly untouched because -- as Massey puts it -- "There's no point fixing stuff that's perfect."

About the Author

Johnny Kilhefner is a writer with a focus on technology, design and marketing. Writing for more than five years, he has contributed to Writer's Weekly, PopMatters, Bridged Design and APMP, among many other outlets.

Photo Credits

  • Grundy/Valueline/Getty Images