London-based brain trust update catalogue
These days, when 34-year-old Paul Hicks walks into a recording session, he gets funny looks.
“I get a lot of, ‘Oh — you’re a lot younger than I thought you were going to be,'” he notes. “I think people assume ‘Beatles engineer’ means I’ll be in my 50s or something.”
Hicks, son of the Hollies’ Tony Hicks; 40-year-old Guy Massey; and Giles Martin, 39, son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, make up a small group of young engineer-producers at London’s Abbey Road Studios who have been the brains — and ears — behind most of the Beatles’ music catalog output since the beginning of the decade. That includes their most ambitious project to date: the group’s complete catalog reissue, which Capitol-EMI is releasing worldwide Sept. 9.
Unlike such contemporaries as the Rolling Stones — who have repeatedly remastered and repackaged their catalog over the years — those in the Beatles camp have resisted retooling the Fab Four’s output ever since the original CD releases emerged in 1987. What will be unveiled, however, on 9/9/09 will be all 13 original Beatles LPs in remastered form, available individually and in two boxed sets: one containing the albums in stereo and the other comprising the original mono recordings, with expanded artwork and liner notes — plus “mini-doc” QuickTime featurettes about the making of each album.
Hicks and Massey, who started at the studio on the same day in the mid-’90s, proved up to the task. They created the mixes for the Fab’s 2003 album-that-should-have-been, “Let It Be. . . Naked,” while Martin was the creative mastermind behind the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the Beatles/Cirque du Soleil collaboration “Love” and, along with Hicks and engineer Simon Gibson, created the music mixes for Harmonix/MTV Games’ “The Beatles: Rock Band,” also slated to hit the shelves Sept. 9.
All agree, however, that while their work is classified as “engineering,” the title “Beatles engineer” per se remains applicable only to Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick and the few others who made the original recordings and mixes of the group’s catalog from 1962 to 1969.
“I wouldn’t view us as ‘the new generation of engineers’ because, in a sense, that’s an insult to the real engineers who did the work,” says remastering project coordinator Allan Rouse, a veteran of Abbey Road since 1971. “We’re simply custodians of the Beatles’ material.”
For the new catalog remasters, the team employed modern technology to revamp the catalog. When originally converted to the CD format, Massey notes, the catalog was more or less transferred “flat,” with little equalization adjustment. “Digital was in its infancy in the mid-’80s,” he says. “In the 20 years since, digital technology has come forward in leaps and bounds.”
The new “archive” transfers offer a powerful new listening experience as they contain more sonic content, transferred at 192 Mhz/24 bit — all of which has always been present on the original masters, though unavailable for fans to hear due to the limitations of the earlier technology.
The team also used technology such as Cedar Audio’s Cambridge restoration software to carefully remove flaws such as mic pops, hum and harsh edits — anything non-Beatle-related — on the recordings, while leaving in original quirks like squeaks from Ringo’s bass drum pedal on 1963’s “All I’ve Got to Do.”
The offering of the mono masters clearly aimed at the Beatles aficionados among consumers — particularly those interested in hearing sometimes major differences between the mono masters and the more commonly heard stereo mixes. In the Beatles’ heyday in the 1960s, mono was the major release format for pop music for kids with cheap record players, with stereo considered of interest only to hi-fi enthusiasts. But including the mono discs meant working under the scrutiny of Beatles enthusiasts keen on having the releases reappear in as pure a form as possible.
“It was a little nerve wracking, actually,” notes Hicks. “I was very conscious of respecting what had been done before while not trying to copy it.” Like their stereo counterparts, the mono albums have substantially more punch — mirroring the sound heard on the actual master tapes.
The mastering itself was performed in teams over a 4½ year period. “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,” Massey adds. “But if that fresh perspective destroyed or had an imbalance anywhere, we’d take it back a step.”
Backstage at Paul McCartney’s recent concert in Nova Scotia, Hicks received all the encouragement he needed from the camp that counted the most. “(McCartney) said, ‘If we had (that technology), we would have used it.’ As long as you do it respectfully, then I think that’s what technology’s here for.”