Original Remastered Recording. Expanded and Remastered. Remastered and Definitive Edition. So many variations of the term “remastered” have appeared on CD titles, the newest occurrence being on the Beatles remastered CDs. But what exactly does the term “remastered” mean? The word has appeared so many times as to render it almost meaningless. Exploring the Abbey Road engineers' journey in restoring the pristine sound of the Beatles catalog provides an overview of the often mysterious process.
Abbey Road Engineer/Project Manager Allan Rouse described remastering to the L.A. Times as “a much more subtle approach, as opposed to remixing,” since “mastering is very limited; you can only do so much.” Indeed, remixing involves manipulating separate tracks to create altered vocals and instrumentation, according to Edna Gundersen's USA Today report. Remastering involves taking an original source and cleaning up any sound imperfections, not adding new elements. The All-Experts Encyclopedia uses a familiar analogy to explain remastering: “For example, a vinyl LP originally pressed from a worn-out copy tape many tape generations removed from the 'original' master recording could be remastered and re-pressed from a better condition tape.” In the case of the Beatles remasters, Rouse explains, each track was dealt with individually in order to determine which flaws, if any, needed to be addressed. The remasters are derived from the original '60s mono and stereo mixes created by Producer George Martin and the Beatles as well as sound engineers Norman “Hurricane” Smith, Geoff Emerick, Ken Scott, Phil MacDonald, and Glyn Johns.
In an interview posted on Amazon, Rouse and Chief Engineer Paul Hicks discuss the entire process, which occurred in three phases over a four-year period. Phase one involved listening to the master tapes, vinyl LP, and 1987 CDs, noting any obvious flaws (bad edits, microphone pops, and sibilance, or whistling and lisping sounds due to poor microphone placement or recording technique, for example). However, certain quirks such as the squeaky chair at the end of “A Day in the Life” were retained. Once the engineers generated the errata, phase two entailed correcting these mistakes and adjusting the EQ, all without damaging the original recording. After making these changes, the engineers compared the masters, vinyl, 1987 CDs, and the newly restored versions, deciding whether to keep the revisions. Finally, phase three entailed the team of engineers finalizing changes and presenting them to Rouse, who would suggest additional alterations. During each phase, according to the Apple press release, the engineering team (which also included engineers Guy Massey, Sean McGee, Sam Okell, Mike Heatley, and Steve Rooke, alongside Audio Restoration engineer Simon Gibson) would listen to the remastered versions in Abbey Road's studio three, where any further EQ adjustment could be made in the mastering room. The team then rechecked the revised versions in another location until they were satisfied with the results. The final remasters were then presented to Apple Corps. for final approval.
During the entire process, Rouse and Hicks emphasize, keeping the original material as pure as possible ranked as the top priority. No remixing took place—Let It Be…Naked and Love were remixes, not remasters, they point out. However, digital technology had vastly improved since the original 1986 transfer from tape to CD. As Hicks told Variety, the catalog was originally transferred to CD “flat,” with little equalization (EQ) adjustment. Hicks states that they listened to the masters on the original quarter-inch reel-to-reel machines, then used Cedar Audio's Cambridge restoration software to “keep it as pure as possible,” he states. Gibson demonstrated in a recent presentation that the software visualizes the “temporal and spectral content of the sound they wish to treat,” according to the Cedar Audio website. Once these sounds are isolated visually, they can be “eliminated, replaced, moved, copied, or even remixed seamlessly with the surrounding signal,” without altering all other audio. Massey also told Variety that “our goal was to represent the master tape as strongly as we could, in the best light possible, to bring a fresh perspective to it. But if that fresh perspective destroyed or had an imbalance anywhere, we'd take it back a step.”
According to the Apple press release, the engineering team used “state of the art recording technology alongside vintage studio equipment, carefully maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the original analogue recordings.” By listening to the original reel-to-reel tapes alongside the LPs and '80s CDs, engineers were able to produce “the highest fidelity the catalogue has seen since its original release.” Interestingly, original producer George Martin had experimented with stereo during the first two albums by recording on a two-track machine so he could blend harmonies at a later stage. Two-track was defined as “stereo” until the 1967's multitracked Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (see The Beatles Index for more detailed production notes). The only exceptions to the process was Help! and Rubber Soul, where the 1986 digital tapes were used instead of the original reel-to-reel masters. During the original tape-to-CD transference, Martin expressed great disappointment with the stereo mixes of both albums; thus he remixed them himself on digital tape. These became the masters for the remastering project, although the original masters are included in the mono boxed set.
In addition, unlike the 1987 CDs, the remasters were transferred at 192 Mhz/24 bit, which was unable to be detected on previous technology. This change results in a fuller sound, satisfying fans who complain about, as Kozinn writes, the “harsh and brittle” quality of the original CDs. Each track was individually copied from analog master tapes onto the digital medium, using a Pro Tools workstation. While the original tapes had not suffered major damage, they had a small buildup of dust, which was removed from the tape machine heads before transferring each album.
Although reducing tape hiss and other annoying sounds seems logical, it can produce undesirable results. Allan Kozinn points out that noise-reduction methods can “slice away the high frequencies of a recording, dulling the treble sound (in return for eliminating tape hiss).” Obviously this problem is nothing new—The Beatles' first engineer, Norman “Hurricane” Smith (who passed away in 2008), once said that because the material was transferred from tape to acetate, certain frequencies were distorted. “Instruments like the sitar were terribly, terribly difficult to record, due to the range of sound frequencies—the meter would be bashing over into the red, and so you didn't get any value for money,” he told Richard Buskin of Sound on Sound.
Another concern in remastering is loudness, particularly in the iPod era. Typical playlists include songs from various periods, thus they vary in sound level. Fans complain that the 1987 CDs sound quiet in comparison to modern recordings, so adjusting the sound level became a necessity. This technique is controversial, as raising the sound level can distort the original recording. Dubbed the “loudness wars,” the method still inspires heated debate among sound engineers. As Uncut Magazine puts it, some engineers and fans argue that “music is being 'brickwalled': compressed to headache-inducing levels in order to give albums an ersatz loudness.” Aware of this controversy, Rouse and Hicks stress how they used loudness adjustment, often called “peak limiting,” sparingly. In general, limiting, according to Sound on Sound's Online Glossary, is controlling “the gain of a signal so as to prevent it from ever exceeding a preset level.” If limiting is used incorrectly, one such result is “clipping,” or distortion which occurs “when a signal attempts to exceed the maximum level which a piece of equipment can handle,” according to Sound on Sound. “Anything that has a high tenor to it will be reduced, which can affect the sound. We did this as little as possible,” says Hicks, who estimates that limiting comprises about five out of the 525 minutes comprising the entire Beatles catalog. After much discussion, Hicks adds, they decided to use limiting “to compete with what's out today…so the sound level is about the same as other albums.” No level limiting was used on the mono collection.
While the term “remastering” can be applied broadly in sound engineering, the painstaking process restores an already stellar music catalog to its full sonic potential.