The Origin of The Rarest and Most Sought After Pressing of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
DB - We had the Abbey Road TG Console – a mastering console based on earlier versions they had designed. They had their own 16 channel mastering console, and it was a superb piece of equipment. Some people claim it had a particular sound. Lots of transformers in the circuitry. Once again, the technicians had come along and totally hot-wired it – they actually installed monster cables to run between the output of the power amps and cutter head. They upped the ante a bit, by making the thing a whole lot more efficient.
BW – Did you add any compression?
DB - I didn’t need to make any dynamic adjustment or compression, they had already done that. It was fairly bright and had a lot of activity on the top end. Not to mention the fact that …Pepper’s… was so well recorded, going to half-speed off that tape was really fun and easy.
BW – I’m certain the mastering still has your fingerprint on it. What did you do to improve it?
DB - They said – “do it the way you want to hear it.” So I wanted a little bit more clarity and always felt the bottom end was slightly lacking. It’s not meant as a criticism, and it’s my own personal opinion - I wouldn’t want to criticize anybody! But the way it was done was very controlled, and as a hi-fi guy I thought a little more bottom energy would be really cool. And a tiny bit more detail on the top end. That allowed me to put in high frequencies that normally weren’t available. I was amazed when I played back the test cuts and I heard this air that gave you a bit more space. The TG console gave you a widener, so I used a tiny bit of that as well. It also had out of phase bottom end control, which worked much better in half speed mode. I always added a bit more top end and bottom end in my own home system – it was my theory and it seemed to work. And I think it was the right take, as everyone said: “Wow Don, this is really good!”
BW – What other feedback did you get on this cut?
DB - Ed Kuepper of the Saints is a friend, and I gave him one – he said it’s the best copy he’s ever heard of Sgt. Pepper’s…
. BW - What about the pressing process itself?
DB - They pressed it using virgin vinyl, slightly heavier than normal, and the molding was better than a standard release. It was always a big rush back then to get a product out. This production manager would be running around, and would ask if they could make the presses go faster. The engineers would say, “the only way we can is to make the records lighter.” So the manager would say “make them lighter!” (laughs) So they would get them down to 90 grams, but the quality would go down as well.
So in this instance they set up a separate press for this project and pressed it on a slower cycle. This slower process results in very accurate molding of the original groove modulations, resulting in a definite improvement of detail.
I do recall having to recut the A side as they had problems at the factory. Did it two or three times, which was fine - that’s part of the job. You’d cut a lacquer and something would go wrong. The nickel would stick to the lacquer, and you’d have to recut it again.
BW – There are a number of versions considered top Sgt. Pepper’s recordings – the Mobile Fidelity UHQR, the mono and stereo UK Parlophone originals, and the Nimbus Supercut, which is frequently compared to the Audio-5. But from a rarity perspective, I think yours is the most elusive.
DB - I know there are definitely less than 500, and the label only wanted hi-fi enthusiasts involved – it was a bit of a hobby for the managers at the time, and they didn’t actually talk to the distribution people at EMI about making it a full release. It was just a rare event for certain people who went to hi-fi shows. Which is different than the other ones you mentioned, as it never went through a retail store or mail order arrangement. It was just at the show. And not many …Pepper’s… have a mastering credit on the cover – my name is actually on the back. After the hi-fi show, I gave away spare copies to people who were interested, and also to my family. Under 500 were pressed, but nothing more. It was just one run. They were all numbered – I have #299.
BW – So you now have one of the most sought after Sgt. Pepper pressings on the planet (laughs).
DB - Yeah it is. You’re quite right. At the time, we weren’t thinking about that. We were thinking marketing the new studios at EMI. To try to emphasize the best quality audio they could put out. I don’t think they thought it would become what it has – but it has.
BW – I’m sure when you get a tape of that quality, it’s a whole different game. DB - The management at that time were absolute fanatics. EMI had spent a lot of money on the studios in the 1970s - in the millions of dollars, a lot of money in those days. BBC people came out to help with the acoustics. They wanted to do these half speed releases to show how good this gear really was, and indeed, it really was!
BW: What were the other releases for the show?
DB - There were five titles done for the show. And I actually went to the shows and helped sell them, but everyone really wanted the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band audiophile version. There was a Henry Mancini release. And we almost did Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon - we did the cut, but it was pulled from release. I don’t even think we had a test pressing of that one. I think the Pink Floyd would have been okay, but the tape wasn’t as pristine as the Pepper. The tape was standard 15ips, and I don’t think it was a 1:1 of the original. A standard library copy at the time. A few other people around the world were doing it by then, and they had much better copies to work from.
BW – Was Earl Klugh’s “Late Night Guitar” one of them?
DB – I think you might be right.
BW – So the Sydney show was considered a prominent event.
DB - The Hi Fi Show? Yes, it was. Back then, they wanted to market the new studios at EMI, and that they were capable of producing the best sound quality possible. That was a great venue to do so. Being a person who is still actively mastering, I can appreciate their motivation. And it was a strange set of circumstances. I’d go to my mastering sessions and then get asked to go to this hotel and sell things to the public. There wasn’t much information in advance, and it just happened spur of the moment. They pulled out a box of Peppers and said, “Help us sell them, and talk to the people!” But when it came to mastering the album, it was different. I came in, they gave me the tapes and we discussed the approach for a long time.
BW – And what do you think of the state of the modern recording industry, and the vinyl releases today?
DB – It’s wonderful. Now the world’s at a bit of a loss in terms of getting records pressed quickly enough. I’m finding the demand is so much now that there is nowhere in Australia, apart from one plant in Melbourne, where you can get your records pressed. Most of the pressings need to be done in the States or Europe, and it’s taking forever to get it done, because the equipment isn’t available.
In terms of the Audio-5, it’s probably a good time to bring it up. People are enjoying vinyl again. You hear them go, “You know, that sounds real - that sounds really nice.” Unless they take a CD, and use that as the source to release it on vinyl - I’m dead set against that. You need to go find the original masters and recreate the original sound. And when you do, people give it a spin and think it’s great. So you need to go back and find the original master. The record firms are struggling to find them now. They’re even sending me original vinyl copies and asking me to reproduce that sound for record reissues. I have a much better turntable now (laughs) and reproduction system, and you’d be surprised – with a clean original pressing, they can turn out pretty well.
As a format, vinyl is still as good as it gets. I hear modern test pressings and they are of very good quality in general. The cleanliness of them. They are making them a lot heavier these days, which is good, and the sonic response is also very good. It’s very pleasing to see this format is still working for people, and it’s the musicality more than anything else, but the whole process of playing the record out of the cover, putting it onto the turntable, dropping the stylus into the first groove. To be talking about that Sgt. Pepper’s… now is perfect.
BW – I’ve always had a great impression of the Australian record business, given my long-standing appreciation of AC/DC. I’ve heard the UK, US and Australian pressings, and the early blue label Albert versions have a different sound tonally, with more of that “in the room” studio ambiance, as opposed to the big arena effect you get on the others. It’s a far more immediate experience – you’re suddenly in the pub or garage with that amazing band you heard back in college.
DB - Yeah, could be the generation problem. Could be those albums that were done here were mastered off the original, and EQ’d and processed on the way to the lacquer - what I call mastered live from the original – which is the best case scenario for the end result to sound more immediate and powerful. But those tapes or copies would have then been sent overseas and someone may have mastered them again in a different way. Which quite often happened.
In those days you’d find yourself in a situation where you arrived at one version that sounded correct, and what was pressed sounded superb, with no backup copies made. But when the product was sent overseas, the tape was sent as a flat copy. If we did for example a Stones album through EMI, we’d get an overseas vinyl pressing as a sample, and then the tapes, and compare the master tapes to the pressing. The master tapes sounded nothing like the record, as the pressing sounded superb. There were many complaints about our local pressings, because we frequently didn’t get the best tapes. If it’s not the first generation, or not EQ’d correctly, then what can you do?
BW - Have you heard about Jack White and Third Man Records? In addition to his formidable musical talent, he’s also doing great things on the production side - experiments with direct to disc, and an old telephone booth recording machine.
DB – Yes, I saw a video clip of him. One thing he did was record a song and pressed it in the same day. He was in the studio, cut the tape, took it direct to the cutting room and got it done. Nice work!
BW – It’s a resurgent art form. If you walk into Amoeba Records in San Francisco, the vinyl racks are huge now. The record section is almost the same size as the CD area.
DB - I’m excited to hear that. I have a Neumann console designed to cut records, and it was part of the original cutting chain used at Festival Records. All I need is a lathe and to plug it into the console. Not many around, but if you happen to hear of one (laughs), particularly a Neumann, let me know. BW – Sounds like it’s in your blood.
DB - I’m still in the business, and excited to do more. It was an exciting time in those days when you were cutting new releases with original masters. Back then you were physically flying by the seat of your pants, as you were mastering directly to a disc without any generational issues. It was: “everyone grab a knob!” Because between tracks, you’d have to change the EQ as we didn’t have any automation. It was really exciting, and that’s why they sound so good because we went to a lot of trouble to maximize the quality - everything possible. It sounded fantastic, as it was a direct cut from the original master without any mucking around.
I heard the same thing from America as well. We were getting American pressings of product we were releasing locally, and I’d put them on and say: “How did they get that sound? That’s amazing!” Like the guys in New York at Sterling Sound - the presence on that vinyl was just phenomenal. They knew what the hell they were doing. Bob Ludwig is my favorite mastering engineer – he’s a genius.
It’s one of those things, a black art I suppose you’d have to call it, because you’d do things “not by the book” to get the end result. You’d break the rules sometimes, and trick the system to do something it wasn’t designed to do, to squeeze that sound to its maximum quality into that tiny groove. There were a lot of tricks to make it all work.
The Neumann equipment in particular – it was designed purely for classical music recordings. If you put on a stereo orchestral master tape of a classical work, the system was perfect and a pleasure to watch – it would accommodate every sound and adjust the groove parameters perfectly. It is beautifully designed equipment. But the moment you put a rock, pop or country record on there, it didn’t recognize it, and we actually had to trick the cutting lathe to think it was doing something else to accommodate the audio, and cut a loud and safe groove.
There were a lot of things we did - so it is actually a black art!
Don Bartley can be contacted at Benchmark Mastering.
Phone: +61 0412 217 779