Beatles Vinyl Gets A New Spin

Dec 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Matt Hurwitz



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photo of Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set

The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set

Beatles fans got to know the group’s music from vinyl singles and LPs beginning in 1962, when EMI’s Parlophone Records released the band’s first single, “Love Me Do.” LPs based on the 1987 CD catalog masters have been out of print since the mid-1990s, but a new collection has just arrived: The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set, created from Apple Corps Ltd./EMI’s acclaimed 2009 re-mastered catalog.

Cutting vinyl brings its own mastering challenges, so EMI turned to Sean Magee, one of its current Beatles mastering whizzes at Abbey Road Studios in London and a veteran of the studio’s 2009 re-mastering team. Magee has served at the studio since 1997, and was trained on Abbey Road’s Neumann VMS80 cutting lathe by such studio veterans as Chris Blair, Nick Webb and Steve Rooke.

Since the re-mastered catalog arrived in September 2009, fans have demanded its availability on vinyl. But when Apple and EMI began the process of creating a new set of LPs, they considered all options. “Were we going to cut the originals [LP masters] from tape onto vinyl and try and reproduce the EQ work that had already been done,” Magee asks, “or were we going to cut the new masters themselves? All of the heavy lifting had already been done and had taken four years to accomplish, so we decided to go with the remasters—to use the best resolution we have, with all the fixes done. If anyone wants the original LP masters, they can find them out there.”

It was decided to use the 44.1 kHz/24-bit masters created by Abbey Road’s remastering team, rather than the 16-bit masters used to make the CDs issued in 2009, to which limiting had also been applied. “It’s common to apply limiting for CD release, simply for the sake of making them louder. But we decided we’d leave it as bare as possible." Magee notes that in the 1960s, when the albums were first recorded, engineers would typically apply some limiting during final album assembly/mixing, and that the mastering engineer might also apply additional limiting while cutting the lacquer.

“We didn’t want to do any of that,” he says. “We just tried to present The Beatles’ music on a modern format, with the best possible equipment as we could. It’s the same music and the same sound, except the equipment we’ve got to play with today is far superior, in terms of analog-to-digital conversion, particularly, above what was around in 1987 when the albums were first mastered for CD. What we have now captures what’s on the tape, but presents it with much finer, clearer detail than anyone’s ever gotten to hear on vinyl.”

Another important decision was whether to cut to traditional lacquers or use Direct Metal Mastering (DMM), a process developed in the 1980s to create audiophile LPs. DMM eliminates one step of metal parts production for creation of LP stampers, and so on, by allowing the mastering engineer to cut directly to a steel disc coated with copper instead of a lacquer-coated nickel disc.

“We sent test cuts of the same album [A Hard Day’s Night] of both types of discs to two factories, cut using the same settings, and had test pressings made,” Magee explains. “We [EMI] and Apple sat in a room and listened to both, and we were quite surprised about the differences between the two. The DMM was a little bit clearer toward the inner groove material, but the lacquer had a warmth and a drive to it, which was more pleasing. So we went with the lacquer.”

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