Miles Showell on Remastering 'The White Album'

19th November 2018
Following on from 2017’s successful 50th anniversary remix of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by Giles Martin and Sam Okell, Apple Corps and Universal took the decision to do a similar job on The Beatles or The White Album as it is more commonly known. As a fan of The Beatles for more than 40 years, I was supremely happy to be asked to master the newly remixed album.

Growing up, I must admit I had a fairly difficult relationship with The White Album, as I was brought up on Sgt Pepper which was played endlessly at home and in my parents’ cars. As a young kid I had the impression that The White Album was just not as good, which is patently nonsense, but I guess I was missing the drama and theatre of the mind that runs all through Sgt Pepper. In recent years I have reappraised it and I am pleased to say I finally got over my childhood prejudices. It is certainly an album that not only bears repeated listens, but improves upon them. I used to say there was a brilliant single album fighting to get out of the double, but now I would find it really hard to choose anything to drop.
The work-flow for this remix followed the template set by Sgt Pepper as well as Number 1s (the latter from 2015). Because the Beatles were so earth conqueringly huge, we have the luxury that pretty much all the Beatles’ original tape reels are in the archive. This includes the many interim multi track tapes. The technology now exists to allow us to pull apart the separate elements of the songs, even the tracks that were bounced together to free up space on the multi-track tape. Some of The White Album was recorded on 4-track, some is 8-track, but either way they would run out of space on the tape quickly, so they were forced to combine or bounce elements and copy these to a new tape to free up more space for new overdubs. All of the pre-bounced tapes are in the archive and, with modern digital workstations, these parts can be accurately synchronised allowing much more scope and freedom to remix them than was possible before. This work must be done digitally as analogue tape never plays at exactly the same speed twice. Even though we have multiple 4 and 8 track machines in the building at Abbey Road, it would be impossible to keep them exactly in synchronisation, meaning parts of the track would drift out of time. Plus, working from synchronised high-resolution digital transfers, there is the benefit that Giles and Sam did not have to use the bounced parts which suffer from tape copy generation losses. Those original multi track parts sound amazing.

When you listen to the new mix of The White Album, it sounds like it was recorded last week. Really fresh and open. This made mastering the album a pretty simple process for me as Giles and Sam’s new mixes sounded so fabulous, I really did not have to do too much in mastering. Just some sympathetic EQ and compression here and there. Although I have a desk full of equipment at my disposal, it does not mean I have to use all of it on every session.

The way the sessions worked was that Giles and Sam would give me their mixes. In most cases, I would be left alone to do my thing. Once I was finished I would hand them back a set of mastered files which they would interrogate. After a few days we would talk, and if they had revision requests I would do those or sometimes they would change the mix a little and I would start afresh. Eventually, once the three of us were happy, Giles would send the audio to Paul, Ringo, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono. Sometimes one of them would ask to change something; after they were all happy it would go to Jeff Jones at Apple Corps for the final sign off. All in all, it was a very collaborative process where everybody’s opinion was listened to.
 
 
As well as the main double album, I also mastered Giles and Sam’s mix of George Harrison’s Esher demo tapes. George had a 4-track machine in his bungalow in Esher and many of the songs were demoed there prior to the band coming into Abbey Road to record the album proper. A couple of the tracks appeared on one of the Anthology albums in the 1990s, but the rest have only been heard as very poor-quality bootlegs. Finally, they are complete and released in high quality for the first time. The demos are so natural sounding, you can close your eyes and picture the band having fun and working it all out as they go. The atmosphere comes across really well.

Once all the tracks were approved by everyone, the next step was for me to cut the vinyl masters. This had to be done early because all the pressing plants around the world are running at or near to full capacity, meaning the production lead times are long. Also, because this is an album by The Beatles, a large quantity of records needs to be pressed which only adds to the lead time required to be sure there is enough stock to meet demand.
The lacquer master discs for the quadruple vinyl version were half speed mastered on my very own (and much modified to my specification) Neumann VMS 80 disc cutting lathe. Half-speed mastering is an elaborate process whereby the source is played back at half its normal speed and the turntable on the disc cutting lathe is running at 16 2/3 R.P.M. Because both the source and the cut were running at half their “normal” speeds, everything plays back correctly when the record is listened to at home. I do this because the vinyl L.P. is an analogue sound carrier. Therefore, the size and shape of the groove carrying the music is directly related to whatever the music is doing at any particular point. By reducing the speed by a factor of two, the recording stylus has twice as long to carve the intricate groove into the master lacquer. Also, any difficult to cut, high-frequency information becomes fairly easy to cut mid-range at half speed. The result is a vinyl record that is capable of extremely clean and unforced high-frequency response, as well as a detailed and solid stereo image.

Hopefully you will be able to understand that there was a lot of love and care taken over this release. Nobody is trying to supersede the original version. If you know and love that and do not feel the need to hear this new mix, you will not be prevented from doing so. This revised version is designed to sit alongside the original release and it is happening because The Beatles want it to; it is their music after all.