Mastering Engineer Sean Magee talks about how he tackled the recent Beatles vinyl remasters project.
“Remastering is like restoring a painting. You can tidy something up, present it in a better way. That’s why you remaster. If you’ve just made it different then you haven’t done your job.”
Sean Magee joined Abbey Road 17 years ago. He’s worked with the likes of Pink Floyd, Queen, The Rolling Stones and James Yorkston. Side by side to his role as a mastering engineer, he’s also been involved in high profile remastering projects that include PiL and The Sex Pistols. Yet nothing could be bigger than his recent undertaking: readying the most iconic back catalogue in the history of modern music for vinyl.
The entire spread of Beatles albums, from Please Please Me to Past Masters, was re-released on wax in November. Extraordinarily, it’s the first time the fab four’s music has actually been remastered for vinyl. As part of the original team responsible for the CD remasters, Magee took on sole responsibility for this Herculean task. We went to meet him in the very room where the remasters were cut.
What are you earliest memories of music, Sean?
“The first record I ever bought was Bachmann Turner Overdrive’s Not Fragile. It was second hand and I got it in New York. I had no idea what it was or what was on it but I brought it home and quite enjoyed it. Then I started playing my mum and dad’s records. Stacks of 45s. I was about eight or nine. They also had Help, Rubber Soul, Revolver, The White Album and A Hard Day’s Night. I destroyed them, especially The White Album.
“Then at school I played clarinet. I was awful at it“
How did you get started at Abbey Road? What was your first job in sound engineering?
“I started in this industry when I was about thirty and my first job in sound was here at Abbey Road. It was 1995 and I’d been out of work for 3 and a half years. I used to design foundations for houses that sunk into the ground but the mid 90′s recession ended up making me surplus to requirements. Luckily I did music as a hobby and I had a small porta-studio. I took up the government up on a career development loan to pay for a sound engineering course. Part of the course was a work placement and I went to Jacob Studios in Farnham but it didn’t really work out. I heard of an opening here at Abbey Road in Classical which I didn’t get but I impressed them so much that they asked me back when another role came up in the copying room.
“On a tour round the studios I saw someone cutting a record on the lathe over there. I decided I was going to do that and in 1997 I began in mastering.
So what’s an average day like at Abbey Road?
“I turn up and I see what’s going to happen. The work that gets put in front of me could be anything. And then I go home. What I enjoy most is cutting records. They are what they are.
“It’s a nice atmosphere though. There’s about 70 or so people working here and you’re judged on your work.”
Tell us about remastering The Beatles – how do you even begin to find a reference point for what it should sound like?
“It’s what was originally released. And what’s on the tape. That’s your reference point. It sounds like it does on the original tape because that’s what they wanted it to sound like.
“With any remastering project you constantly have to check what you’re doing. If you go too far away from the tape – and it’s easy to do so because your ears continually adjust to what you’re doing very quickly – then you have to ask the question ‘is is worth going on with it?’
“When they remastered the stereo box, a lot of the remastering was just copying the tapes. The thing with this remastering project is that it had never been done. Since the CD, everything has been done three or four times so the actual steps in improvement aren’t very big. The difference between the equipment in 1997 and in mid-2004 – which is when we started digitising everything – the jump in the quality of analogue to digital conversion has been massive so the difference that they made was worth it.
“But it’s about being in tune with what the rooms sounds like. To my ears, this round sounds flat and everything has to sound a certain way. It’s also listening to music objectively as opposed to subjectively. you’re not listening to the musicality of something but the sound it makes, the noise that comes out of the speakers.”
“I did mainly the monos on the original CD masters. My job was to transfer that onto the record. There wasn’t a lot of difference remastering for vinyl but you worry about things like the s sounds and how the vinyl’s going to be affected, whether you’re going to have problems with tracking and people’s playback systems.”
So how did you know when to stop?
“The process is this: you have your source, you test cut it, you hear problems and you fix – or try – to fix them. You repeat the process and when it finally plays back clean, you’re done. It could be instantaneous or take or all day.”
Was there anything you weren’t 100 percent happy with?
“Well there’s the cutting of it and getting the test pressings back and there’s ten hours of music. Nobody’s 100 percent happy with everything.
And what are you most proud of in terms of the project?
“The lock groove at the end of Sgt Pepper – 1.09 seconds of sound. It took most of a day to get it to work with a lot of experimentation. The American and UK ones are different too. I’ve heard the B-side of Sgt Pepper more times than anything in my entire life.”
Is there any particular track you learned to appreciate more through doing the remasters?
“Not so much – although I like ‘Dr Robert’ (from Revolver) more than I used to. Of all the tracks on all the albums, it’s the one I like to turn up the loudest.
“Ringo’s tracks conspicuously sound the best throughout all the albums. They’re all crystal clear. “
How can you detach yourself from listening to music as a sound professional – espeically with something like The Beatles?
I don’t listen to The Beatles outside of these walls and I won’t for a considerable amount of time. Listening to it for stuff that shouldn’t be there turns you into quality control, listening for the negative rather than the positive. I try not to admire music I listen to for pleasure and I listen when I’m at the gym or go running. It’s usually too noisy to appreciate to the quality of the sound at those times. I also listen to MP3s on an ipod because it’s easier - I can’t hear what they sound like.
And what’s next? What’s the dream job you’d love to take one after The Beatles?
Led Zepplin. That would be cool.