Allan Rouse and Guy Massey beamed confident smiles recently in Capitol Records’ Studio C in Hollywood, where the senior studio engineers for Capitol’s U.K. parent company, EMI Records, supervised a preview of the top-secret project they’ve been working on for the last four years.
Massey punched “play” on a CD containing portions of 14 Beatles songs and watched three visitors’ faces light up as they first heard tracks as they sounded on the 1987 CDs that brought the Fab Four’s catalog into the digital age, then listened to spruced-up CD remasters the rest of the world will get to hear when they’re released Sept. 9.
Across town in Santa Monica a few weeks later, the Cheshire cat grins looked curiously similar on three representatives demoing MTV Networks’ “The Beatles: Rock Band.” Two strapped on replicas of Paul McCartney’s Hofner bass and John Lennon’s Rickenbacker guitar, the third pulling up a stool behind an electronic drum kit emulating Ringo Starr’s Ludwig set and delved into the new video game, which, not coincidentally, hits the market the same day as the new CDs.
The hosts’ confident enthusiasm stems from their awareness that even though nearly 40 years have elapsed since the Beatles’ acrimonious breakup, the harmony they created on record, in concert and on film maintains a remarkable hold on pop music lovers worldwide.
Separate teams have been quietly yet feverishly at work for years on the two projects that promise to ramp up Beatlemania again for yet another generation. The main projects take contrasting approaches: The group’s recorded past is being faithfully refurbished in CDs that may serve as a last hurrah for a format in decline, while the video game fancifully springboards the group into the world of interactive game play, and symbolically, into the entertainment future.
Retailers have been taking advance orders for the individual CDs, box sets and Rock Band for months, and it’s a good bet that the Beatles will appear near the top of sales charts one more time.
They have never fully slipped from the public consciousness, helped along by a carefully considered stream of new projects. The group’s albums have sold nearly 58 million copies in the years since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking actual retail sales in 1991. The remastered CDs and Rock Band, along with a Beatles edition of Trivial Pursuit and several other related products, are the most ambitious coordinated effort to reinvigorate the franchise. Adding to the momentum is the recent news that director Robert Zemeckis is negotiating to make a new version of the 1968 animated film “Yellow Submarine.”
The Beatles: Rock Band, with a list price of $250, introduces the world’s bestselling pop group to the world of interactive gaming. That world has been dominated by young male enthusiasts, but it’s increasingly drawing in their parents and grandparents as classic rock, pop and country source material has been included in the ever-expanding trove of songs used in Rock Band, which was developed by MTV’s Cambridge, Mass.-based game producer Harmonix, and in its competitor, Guitar Hero.
What the remastered Beatles CDs offer, beyond just the opportunity for EMI and Capitol to pump up their profits -- they’re being issued as individual CDs and in two box sets: one with all the mono mixes (listing for $299), the other with the stereo versions ($259) -- is a fresh listen to music that’s been omnipresent for nearly half a century.
The box of mono releases is considered the definitive record of their music, because the group and their producer, George Martin, created everything through “The Beatles,” a.k.a. the White Album in 1968, to be heard in mono. Stereo mixes of those recordings were typically created as an afterthought, and the Beatles often weren’t present when those versions were done.
The Fab Four’s recorded output spanned just seven years and 13 studio albums, a canon that is pop music’s answer to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Those albums document the Beatles’ transformation from a group of lads passionately bashing out their versions of favorite American R&B; and rock tunes into pop’s most successful and influential songwriting team as well as one of its most accomplished teams of recording studio innovators.
Rouse and Massey have been working on Beatles projects on and off for a dozen years or more.
The team has earned the support of surviving members McCartney and Starr as well as Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison who took over their husbands’ interests in Apple Corps, the company the Beatles launched to control their business affairs and that still approves all Beatles projects. The principles are commonly referred to as “the shareholders” by those working on these projects.
“They trust this team,” said Apple chief Jeff Jones during the remaster preview in June. “They’ve been doing this for a long time.”
Rouse displayed an engineer’s pride when describing the pristine state of the original tapes, some of them nearly 50 years old. “These tapes hadn’t been played in 20 years,” said Rouse, whose salt-and-pepper beard matches his collar-length hair.
Pride, and mild indignation, emerged when Rouse was asked what tapes were used as source material. “We would never consider using anything other than first-generation masters. . . . ,” he said. “These were done one track at a time, not album by album.”
The results? In general, the music sounds like an aural scrim has been lifted. Everything has become cleaner, fuller, the dynamic range -- the difference between the loudest and softest sounds -- has been expanded, vocals sound more immediate.
The old “Twist and Shout” sounded almost tinny next to the opened-up sound on the remastered version. The sound of McCartney’s fingers plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar as he sang “Yesterday” become more tangibly percussive, the tone of his voice and the guitar more open. George Harrison’s “Taxman” benefits from more visceral punch from Ringo’s drums.
It’s less dramatic than improvements in the “Love” soundtrack, for which Martin and his son, Giles, fully remixed the original tapes in an inventive mash-up for the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas that George Harrison dreamed up with Cirque creator Guy Laliberte as a final creative collaboration among the surviving Beatles and their families. Giles also produced the remixed tracks used in The Beatles: Rock Band, and Harrison’s singer-guitarist son Dhani lent a hand to formulating the game.
“Mastering is very limited; you can only do so much,” Rouse acknowledged. “It’s a much more subtle approach, as opposed to remixing.”
It’s also being presented at less than its full sonic potential because of the inherent limitations of the compact disc. Neil Young, by comparison, just issued “Archives, Vol. 1,” a 10-disc retrospective set, on Blu-ray disc in addition to CD and DVD versions.
CDs can hold only 15% to 20% of the digital information in masters that use the current state-of-the-art 192kHz, 24-bit sampling rate, the same used for the Beatles’ new masters, according to Rouse. A Blu-ray disc offers 100% of that sampling rate for playback.
“You can change it into a video game and make it cute and everything,” Young said about the Beatles remasters. He’s concerned that the music itself will be slighted unless Rouse and his team “go back to the original masters and remaster them the right way and give all the information about them. . . . That’s what people want.”
An EMI U.K. marketing executive said there are no plans to issue the Beatles remasters on Blu-ray, adding, however, that “it’s just a matter of when, not if” they’ll be released in audiophile vinyl pressings. And Apple still hasn’t reached a deal to make the quartet’s catalog available for legal downloading. McCartney, Starr and Martin have said in recent years that, outside of a unique project like “Love,” they aren’t interested in completely rethinking what they created in a bygone place and time.
Let’s play Beatles
A very different aesthetic is at work in The Beatles: Rock Band, which takes history as a launching point, not a strict blueprint.
“The biggest priority for all of us was to ensure we were creating a product that accurately captured the essence of the Beatles,” Harmonix Chief Executive and co-founder Alex Rigopulos said. “The shareholders were all generous enough with their time to provide this guidance in abundance,” he said. “This included everything from helping to select the track list, to helping shape the visual design and representation of the band, to helping craft the historical narrative. The game came out far better as a result than it possibly could have if they hadn’t been involved.”
The game uses 45 songs from among some 200 in the official oeuvre to create play through distinctly different eras, focusing on songs with strong guitar parts.
For Giles Martin, one of the big hurdles was fabricating the equivalent of multitrack recordings required for Rock Band to work. He needed to isolate individual instruments and voices from two-track tapes of the Beatles’ earliest works on which all instruments were combined on one channel, all voices in the second.
“We worked out a way for filtering the different parts -- the bass and drum tracks, leaving out the guitar,” Martin said. “I was completely surprised about what we managed to achieve. When my dad came to see me and check out our work, he said, ‘What you’ve done is alchemy.’ It’s like you handing me a cake, and me handing you back the ingredients.
“The whole idea,” he added, “was to have a game that is collaborative, something generations can play together. . . . Therefore we wanted to choose songs that could be multiplayer. That knocked out something like ‘Yesterday.’ . . . We didn’t want to veer into one-player songs.”
Songs are set amid several “environments,” starting with the band’s scruffy days as leather-jacketed rockers playing the Cavern Club in their hometown of Liverpool, through the swan-song 1969 concert atop Apple headquarters in London.
Avatars of each band member change through the years, from the collarless suits of “The Ed Sullivan Show” appearances through the psychedelicized military uniforms of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The Beatles’ decision to stop touring after 1966 to focus on exploiting the potential of the record studio presented a limitation that the game’s developers at Harmonix turned into a creative opportunity to invent “dreamscapes” for many of the later songs.
Those are colorful backdrops, such as a verdant open field in which the group performs “Here Comes the Sun” or a gazebo that turns into a hot-air balloon in the title track from “Sgt. Pepper.” Giles Martin also incorporated previously unreleased studio chatter among the group members in many of the songs.
At one point, Harmonix’s project leader Josh Randall said it hit him that “these guys don’t feel like the Beatles to me. Something was missing. I went back and scrutinized all the footage we’d been looking at for the previous year. That’s when I started to realize that when these guys play, there’s so much joy that just pours out of them. How do we do that?”
The answer: the creation of new game coding to allow animators more freedom with facial expressions. “We pushed as hard as we could to try to capture a little bit of that spark.”
Getting in tune
As technically formidable as it’s been to create both the CD remasters and the first edition of Rock Band fully dedicated to the music of one act, it’s also been a challenge over the years to get consensus among the Apple shareholders.
McCartney, Starr, Ono and Olivia Harrison came together to see George’s dying wish for Cirque du Soleil’s “Love” come to life. But there was no 40th-anniversary deluxe box set for the landmark “Sgt. Pepper” album in 2007, at least in part because Neil Aspinall, the longtime Beatles associate who headed Apple for decades, reportedly opposed such anniversary commemorations.
Some of the protectionist attitude has lifted, however, since Aspinall stepped down two years ago -- he died early last year -- and former Sony BMG executive Jeff Jones was named his successor.
Jon Polk, a former chief operating officer at Capitol Records who left the label in 2007, this week started shipping “The Beatles Box of Vision,” a lavish container he designed for the remastered CDs and aimed at the most ardent collectors. Polk said Aspinall turned the idea down flat when he first pitched it nearly a decade ago. But he got the OK to move ahead recently after “just one breakfast with Jeff Jones.” Polk said he’s taken about 10,000 advance orders for the $90 item.
Yoko Ono has been highly protective of Lennon’s interests in Beatles projects in the 29 years since he was killed. Still, she gave her blessing to The Beatles: Rock Band, which makes liberal use of Lennon’s image.
“We all had some input,” Ono said. “On a creative level, the Rock Band people did it, but we love what they did. . . . I think Rock Band really is going to change the world in a sense, because it helps make a more musical world. And a more musical world is a more peaceful world.”