Repaving "Abbey Road" a delicate task
By Paul Sexton
LONDON (Billboard) - Any appointment at Abbey Road still involves walking over the most famous pedestrian crossing in popular music. And the history of the north London studio hangs heavy in the air when the meeting is with the engineers who have just finished digitally remastering all the original Beatles albums, from "Please Please Me" through "Abbey Road."
Borrowing a phrase from one of those engineers, project coordinator Allan Rouse says wryly that his seven-member team has spent the last four-and-a-half years "fiddling with the crown jewels," a phrase that could induce alarm in audiophiles. But Rouse and his colleagues have years of experience with the Beatles masters among them, and they approached the most famous 525 minutes in recorded-music history with meticulous respect.
Rouse, who joined EMI straight from school in 1971, began his career working with Beatles engineer Norman "Hurricane" Smith. Recording engineers Guy Massey and Paul Hicks worked on the 1995 "Anthology" DVD set, while Rouse and others oversaw the 5.1 surround sound and stereo mixes of the 1999 "Yellow Submarine" reissue.
Even so, they knew that one intrusive piece of sonic tweaking could infuriate hordes of fans -- many of whom have a relationship with Beatles albums that borders on the obsessive.
"There were seven of us involved, so as not to put this huge amount of pressure on the shoulders of one individual," Rouse says candidly. Sean Magee, who worked with Hicks on the mono versions of the remasters, adds, "You have to switch into work mode. You basically do it as you would any remastering job, with due reverence to what went before."
Rouse passionately defends the decision to go back to master tapes that were last reissued in 1987. "There was nothing really that wrong with the '87 (releases)," he says. In some ways, however, they're no longer up to today's standards. "It's a long overdue overhaul. The minute the CD got invented, everybody thought it was adequate to get the master tape out and put it onto CD. Remastering was something that happened maybe a decade or so later."
Many of the changes Rouse and his team did make are less the result of creative fiddling than superior equipment. "Today equipment exists that didn't exist then to (handle) some of the things we decided we wanted to tackle," he says. "With a tiny bit of help here and there, they're greatly improved."
Most of those improvements are subtle, and the engineers chose not to apply the dynamic compression found on some recent remasters. "Our tweaking, in terms of EQ, is quite subtle," he says. "There's upwards of 20 tracks, within the stereo (remasters), where we haven't done anything. There's a large number above that where it's very small amounts of EQ. Maybe you're trying to help the drums, (for instance, if) Ringo (Starr's) snare isn't cracking through." Continued...