Of all the decisions Abbey Road Studios engineer Allan Rouse faced over the four-year process of remastering the full Beatles catalogue, one was indisputably tougher than all the rest.
"Starting," he says.
Given the intense relationships Beatles fans have with the band's music and their own memories of it, any project that implicitly offers an alternative view of that history would be automatically suspect.
"These are the originals," Rouse explains, sitting in a Greenwich Village recording studio for a listening session of the new masters with Abbey Road co-worker Guy Massey. "So: Did we shit ourselves a little bit? Yes. Because we knew that whatever we do, some people will like 'em, some people won't like 'em."
Which is why, says Rouse half-jokingly, a team of about a half-dozen people was involved in the project. "No one man was going to take responsibility for getting it wrong. We can all take the blame."
Rouse has faced the fans' ire before, but he has worked at Abbey Road Studios since 1971, and his Beatles bona fides are mighty. About 20 years ago, he got the assignment of making a backup tape of every original Beatles recording. Since then, his projects have included numerous other Fab Four spinoffs, including the 5.1 surround-sound and stereo mixes for the reissued Yellow Submarine in 1991, as well as the Love anthology and the Let It Be...Naked remix.
With the new catalogue remasters, Rouse and his co-workers are so far getting nothing but credit. Remastering the catalogue was both a simple and painstaking process. Working chronologically from first Beatles recording to last, Rouse and his team members took the original ¼-inch stereo master tapes, transferred them into the digital recording software ProTools (at 24-bit, 192-kHz), listened to each song five or six times on headphones and different sets of speakers in a variety of rooms, and then subtly addressed any noises they considered extraneous by altering equalizer levels.
But they couldn't go too far in changing the EQ levels, even if they wanted to: This wasn't a remix process, which would have allowed them free rein to fix any imbalance between instrumentation and vocals. Remastering offers limited choices, and any improvement has a potential cost. "If you want to get the voice out a bit, you start eating into the guitar frequencies," notes Massey.
Rouse agrees that the project is like a sonic equivalent of the Sistine Chapel cleaning. Still, he insists it was a mild cleaning that avoided some potential pitfalls. The urge to apply "no-noise" technology, which dampens any hisses or pops but also sucks away some vitality in a recording, was resisted. "We've done five minutes of de-noising across the whole catalogue," says Rouse. "We've been very careful about the restoration."