Beatles Vinyl Gets A New Spin

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



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photo of Sean Magee

Mastering engineer Sean Magee works at Abbey Road Studios’ Neumann VMS80 cutting lathe.

To cut each album, Magee first made a straight cut of an album side on the Neumann lathe, with no EQ correction. The engineer would then listen back on a middle-of-the-road phonograph cartridge/stylus—in this case a Stanton—reverse-mounted on the lathe. “I didn’t want to use either a high-end stylus or a cheap record player to test the cuts,” he notes. “Even though the majority of people who will buy these discs are really into their vinyl and probably have a good pickup, we used the Stanton because it’s a good basic elliptical stylus. If it sounded clean on that, I was always pretty happy.”

During playback, Magee would listen for incidents of sibilance, mostly in s’s and t’s in vocals, and note their location before performing what he calls “surgical EQ” adjustments, using CEDAR Retouch software.

“We had to actually go in and look at the s’s," Magee says. "You could see where the most energy was on a particular 's' on the curve, and get right inside there and lower it down.” Particularly challenging were incidents where one voice among three Beatles in a harmony track was producing sibilance. “It wasn’t just, ‘Ah, that one voice is distorting,’" Magee says. "You had to figure out, ‘Okay, where in the voice is it distorting? Is the whole voice distorting, or just a portion?”

Cuts for the same tracks for the mono releases of the albums, which Apple Corps will issue in 2013, proved less problematic, particularly with regard to vocals. “They were actually easier to cut,” Magee says. “They used to spend more time on the mono mixes back then. But the main thing was that the vocals are massed together with the backing track, instead of separated, left or right, as they might be in the stereo mix. The music tends to assist in preventing the sibilance in the vocals.”

Also difficult was the distortion commonly heard on LPs on those tracks found on the inner grooves, closest to the center of the disc—for example, the last song heard on an album’s side, such as “She Said, She Said” on Revolver (1966). “That one was actually kind of taxing—it’s the worst place on a side for a song like that, in terms of sibilance,” Magee notes.

“You’ll always get some distortion on inner groove tracks, particularly on higher frequencies in the outer groove, which carries the left-side signal,” he explains. “As the stylus gets closer to the center, it’s tending to get flung from one side of the groove to the other, and the steeper the sine wave curve becomes, the less the stylus is able to resolve it. It stops when it reaches a peak, and then cuts from right to left to right, etc. People with a higher-end stylus will hear it less, but it will always be there.”

Loudness was a key consideration, especially in the absence of any limiting. “These aren’t anywhere near as loud as the original LPs, or even the new CDs,” he says. Albums with longer sides, such as The Beatles (aka The White Album), required a reduction in level just to allow the entire program to fit on the lacquer. “It was either that or reduce the stereo spread, which I did slightly on some of the older albums. But if you start to run out of space, you have to either sacrifice in the stereo image or level. And the idea was to get the remasters onto vinyl with a minimum amount of collateral damage. So I cut it at a reasonable level and kept the image as wide as possible. You hear it in its fullest glory.”

In keeping with Apple’s goal of reproducing the discs as true to original as possible (including reproductions of appropriate period label backdrops and inserts), Magee cut Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road without “rills”, the ridges between songs that allow the listener to identify the beginning of a song, as was done for those discs’ original pressings. “That was something that was fashionable at the time,” he says. Magee was also keen to properly reproduce the gibberish The Beatles had placed in the original Sgt. Pepper’s British LP’s “lock groove,” the final circular groove at the center of the disc, along with a 15kHz tone that John Lennon had original mastering engineer Harry Moss place before the groove, to get a dog’s attention. “Some styli won’t even pick that up,” Magee adds.

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