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Remastering the Beatles at Abbey Road Studios

Mar 16, 2017

It’s been 50 years since “Penny Lane” topped the US charts. We spoke to producer/engineer Guy Massey about remastering the band’s legendary catalog for the 21st century.

It was 50 years ago today… well, almost. In February 1967, the Beatles released their history-making double A-sided single, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/ “Penny Lane.” One month later, on the week of March 18, “Penny Lane” reached #1 on the US charts. Producer/engineer Guy Massey (Paul McCartney, Ed Sheeran, Spiritualized), a key member of the EMI/Abbey Road team which remastered the Beatles’ entire catalog in 2009, takes us behind the boards and discusses the goals, difficulties and challenges of remastering the world’s most beloved back catalog, as well as his own insights on the arrangement and unique construction of the original songs.

Waves: Do you remember the first time you heard these songs and their initial impact on you?

Guy Massey: “I remember first hearing these incredible songs in my early teens. Growing up on Merseyside, I had always been aware of the Beatles. My dad told me stories of visits to the Cavern and Jacaranda clubs where many Liverpool bands played during the sixties. I had a friend’s vinyl copies of the Red and the Blue compilation albums on permanent loan. Friday nights they would get a hammering as my dad would go out for the evening and my mates would come over.

“I was obsessed with the 1967-70 period and ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’ in particular. These songs, I often feel, are among the band’s and [producer] George Martin’s and [engineer] Geoff Emerick’s best work. Listening today, they are so modern-sounding, beautifully experimental, and strange. They are both so very different in the way they seamlessly marry psychedelic words and classic instrumental elements to produce intriguing, often otherworldly, sonic paintings.”

Both of these songs’ lyrics were inspired by Lennon and McCartney’s childhood memories. But audio-wise, they were futuristic and revolutionary. What was so groundbreaking in how they were arranged, produced, recorded and mixed?

“Who can forget hearing that mellotron for the first time? No one can pass a mellotron in the studio without striking up the intro from ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ It sounds alien and beautiful at the same time. John’s artificially double-tracked Vvarispeed vocal really caught my ear like an odd facsimile of John: familiar yet strange, not quite him (adding to the warped frame). When the cellos and brass kick in, you’re on your way. Slowly, you hear more of the backwards percussion, and by the third chorus you’re fully immersed in the lovely call and response between the electric guitar and the strings, the biting brass, the swarmandal adding top end shimmer and eastern flavor, that snare sound, fade out, relax and float. Hang on, here comes more cranberry sauce.”

The Beatles: “Strawberry Fields Forever”

“In ‘Penny Lane’ you hear the amazing interplay between the multitracked piano and Paul’s walking bass throughout the track. There’s also a really satisfying drop on the chorus’s low-end loveliness. That cracking snare is back, there’s a beautiful arrangement by George Martin for the brass and wind sections, and you also have David Mason’s perfect trumpet layers, Mrs. Mills’s tack piano becoming more evident, nice reverbing congas, and strident bells. It is in no way a standard pop record. Lyrically, it is seemingly straightforward, but contains odd juxtapositions, suggesting some other world that lends to a strange, skewed atmosphere.”

The Beatles: “Penny Lane”

These are masterpieces presenting the art of recording at its best. Did limitations in recording and mixing equipment also work to their advantage by pushing open-mindedness and creativity?

“It all seems so effortless. The playing, arrangements, production and engineering are all exemplary – although ‘Strawberry Fields’ was a difficult one to put together on a technical level). John wanted to use two different versions edited together, the problem being they were in different tunings and were different tempos. George and Geoff were tasked with making the two versions work by slowing one down and speeding one up to make them work together. I think because they were limited to 4-track at the time, committing to balances and bouncing to free up new tracks was a massive part of the sound (in some way) being shackled by the limitations of 4-track.

“Really having to think about the sounds and how they are balanced before bouncing them, knowing how they will sound on successive bounces, committing – this is something that in all probability may not be done as much now. DAWs allow us to record innumerable tracks and not commit fully whereas, more so in the past, those limitations forced you down creative avenues.”

What lessons can be learned from these recordings by young musicians and engineers working in the modern age?

“Many of the techniques used during those sessions are now used all the time. For example, double/triple tracking of voices and instruments, close miking, varispeeding, and backward manipulation are all toolbox favorites of producers and engineers since they first heard these songs. What we may not have access to is the perfect fit of band, producer, engineer, and of course studio in perfect harmony: riding high on an uber-productive wave, heralding the arrival of Sgt. Pepper and beyond.”

You were part of the team that remastered these songs in 2009. What were the major challenges you faced when using more advanced tools, and how did you overcome them?

“The remastering process was relatively simple as the tracks sounded so wonderful. The main arguments we had were about whether we should remove mouth noises if possible, and whether mouth noises pulled your ear away from the enjoyment of close listening. We ended up leaving most of them in!

“The main difference we found was that when we transferred over from the original master tapes, our new digital capture (24-bit/192 kHz) sounded better than the transfer done for the 1987 digital CD release. I guess digital technology had advanced somewhat and so we were winning from the get-go. Our new transfers sounded crisper and ‘wider’ to our ears. The process involved me transferring the masters from one of our Studer A80 tape machines via a Prism ADA-8XR converter. Any restoration needed (such as de-clicking and de-popping) was done with Simon Gibson, and then Steve Rooke and myself EQed (if needed) the transfer through the TG mastering console in Room 7 at Abbey Road. Our remit was to achieve the best possible fidelity we could using the tools we had at our disposal. We weren’t excessive with any processing to be honest. If EQ was applied, we would then take our new masters and listen in various environments and we asked other colleagues to listen and make comments too. Steve and I did most of the stereo mastering, while Paul Hicks and Sean Magee did most the mono.”

Guy Massey

Guy Massey: “I was obsessed with the Beatles’ 1967-70 period.”

Can you explain which elements of the original masters’ sound you preserved, and which elements you improved?

“The intention was to present the songs in the best possible light. If we felt we didn’t need to do anything, we went with straight transfers. If we felt the songs needed more low end, we would tweak for that. I love the bass in ‘Penny Lane,’ so Steve and I tried different things to maybe bring that out a little, but with very small amounts of EQ to be honest.”

Was the goal to restore the sound back to the way the master version originally sounded in 1967 – or to improve it given modern possibilities?

“The goal was to improve only if we thought we could (by sometimes adding subtle low end, high end, or a little compression) and to make it tasteful to a new audience while retaining all the things previous generations of fans had loved about the songs. I guess it’s all about personal taste. And of course, because we were working with a stereo master, we had to be careful that the clinical tweaks we were making didn’t interfere with the overall balance of the tracks.”

Penny Lane, Liverpool

Penny Lane, Liverpool

What are the differences between working on these particular Beatles classics compared to other songs or albums from the past? Were they preserved differently? Is there a sense of awe you must neutralize yourself from?

“The first thing to mention is that the tapes were kept in pristine condition and that we had great recording notes from the engineers and tape ops of the day. Allan Rouse at Abbey Road looked after all the tapes and knew where to find everything we needed. Obviously working on these recordings came with a certain amount of pressure, but we all went into it with a feeling of preserving the integrity of the tapes and improving things only where necessary.”

Were you allowed the freedom to make any changes, or did you have to go through stages of approvals?

“Once our first drafts were complete, we, the mastering team, would all listen in different locations, make any notes for changes, and then repeat the process until we were all happy. Then, we would send the new masters to the label (in order to distribute to those who needed to approve them), get their feedback, and work through changes until everyone was happy.”

Strawberry Field, Liverpool

Strawberry Field, Liverpool

You’ve worked with some of the best British rock bands, including Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen, Manic Street Preachers, and the Libertines. What lessons do you think they took from the Beatles’ recording and production techniques?

“I think the main lesson to be learned from listening to the Beatles’ body of work is that with an extraordinarily talented and inquisitive band, guided by a visionary producer and engineers, you can change the world! Experimentation is incredibly important. Give yourself time to experiment with techniques, even if they seem ridiculous. Something good will undoubtedly come from those experiments.”

For more Beatles-related goodness on, read producer Giles Martin on remixing the Beatles for the Cirque De Soleil’s LOVE project and learn more about Abbey Road Studios’ outstanding history.