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Hello, I must be remastering: Phil Collins curates Abbey Road album project

Can you hear it, playing on half-speed-vinyl tonight, Oh Lord?

Ex-Genesis drummer/vocalist Phil Collins’ entire back catalogue of eight solo albums was recently remastered at Abbey Road studios and is being re-released by Warner Music. Hello, I Must Be Going, Face Value, No Jacket Required and five other bestsellers are to be made available throughout 2016 on CD and half-speed-mastered vinyl, with the digital and CD versions featuring previously unreleased demos and live versions. The entire project has been curated by Collins himself, who has sold an estimated 150 million albums to date.

Grammy-nominated Genesis producer and long-time Collins collaborator Nick Davis oversaw the nine-month remastering project with Abbey Road Mastering engineer Miles Showell (pictured, left, with Collins and Davis). “Miles and Abbey Road were a great combination for this project as their attention to detail is second to none. I know I can trust Miles to do excellent work and the technical excellence of Abbey Road Studios means I trust the files would be well looked after,” comments Davis. “Working with Miles and the team at Abbey Road was easy and very productive. Miles is such a great mastering engineer and very conscientious so I knew these albums were in good hands. The albums were a delight to work on as there is so much great material on them, a depth of music that goes far beyond the mainstream singles. Miles was my first choice for this remastering as I love his half-speed vinyl cutting.”

“It’s been a interesting series of remasters,” comments Showell from his mastering room at Abbey Road. “There were a lot of technical changes happening over the period from 1980 to 2010 when these albums were first recorded.” Showell highlights the legendary Hugh Padgham-inspired gated reverb drum sound on Face Value’s hit single In The Air Tonight. “It’s also reflected in the media the masters are stored on. Face Value, Phil’s first solo album, was recorded during 1980, and the master is a quarter-inch, 15 inches-per-second Dolby A analogue tape. The Hello, I Must Be Going album, from two years later, is also on analogue tape, but it’s a half-inch master recorded at 30ips – so each second of the album master had over four times the surface area of tape devoted to it as Face Value did. This doesn’t detract from Face Value, though, which is a beautifully engineered album – it sounds terrific, and the master was the perfect example of how tapes should be presented. Everything I needed to know about how that tape was put together was annotated on the box, without going into unnecessary detail. That’s down to the original engineers, Hugh Padgham and Nick Launay, being meticulous.”

The tapes for Face Value and Hello, I Must Be Going were the only two analogue album masters in Phil’s back catalogue. The rest, with the exception of Collins’ 2010 covers album Going Back, which was a higher-resolution digital master, were recorded to Sony digital tapes at the CD standard sampling rate of 16-bit, 44.1kHz. Paradoxically, this meant that the tapes recorded more recently were sometimes more troublesome to remaster than the oldest two albums in the series.

“Those old digital tapes can be very problematic on playback,” explains Showell. “If the machines have crunched the tape at some stage in the past, and there are dropouts, if they’re bad enough that the error correction on the machine can’t reconstitute the bit stream, there’s nothing you can do to retrieve the audio information, whereas there are usually things we can do about dropouts on analogue tapes. With one of the tracks on one of the digitally mastered albums, we had to lift it from a copy, because the master tape had these dropouts all over it. We were lucky there weren’t more tracks like that.”

Because of these challenges, the first thing Showell did was to record high-resolution versions of the albums on the SADiE 6 workstation in his studio at Abbey Road, so he could work on the albums without having to keep playing the potentially problematic master tapes.

The two analogue-mastered albums were mastered to 24-bit, 96kHz files via Abbey Road’s externally word-clocked Benchmark Audio converters, and the later digital album masters were upsampled to 96kHz. The two analogue masters were played back from an ex-Olympic Studios Ampex ATR-102, which Showell uses in preference to Studer tape machines, and for the Hello, I Must Be Going half-inch master, he was able to use customised half-inch playback heads with an extended bass response.

“Things have moved on a lot in terms of audio quality since these albums were originally recorded, and we were also able to take advantage of that for these reissues,” continues Showell. “We’ve got cleaner signal paths now, nicer EQs, and better-sounding A-Ds and D-As.”

Playing out from the high-resolution SADiE-stored files via the wordclocked Benchmark D-As, Showell worked mainly in the analogue domain, applying a little compression and his favoured Sontec and Manley EQ to the material with Nick Davis’ guidance. “The Sontec MES-432C is my go-to EQ, a Rolls-Royce piece of kit. It was a lot of money when it came up for sale, but you get what you pay for; everyone here at Abbey Road is very jealous of it! And we used the Manley Massive Passive a little, but overall, we were quite gentle. We made the remasters sound nicer, but we didn’t want to go crazy. There’s some compression on there – I’m not one of these audio purists who says, ‘the signal cannot go through a compressor’ – that’s like cooking without salt and pepper. But I’m not a believer in mashing albums to within an inch of their life. This wasn’t about making the loudest records ever. These albums have been out for decades – people have a sense of what they should sound like, and we didn’t want to depart from that too much.”

Monitoring, naturally, played an essential role here. “Mastering is one of the most demanding jobs, in terms of monitoring,” comments Showell. “You really need to be able to hear what’s going on at a forensic level. I use PMC MB2 XBD-A speakers, which I’ve had for just over a year now, and with them, I can hear every detail. These were well-recorded albums, and carefully mixed, so there wasn’t too much to do; it was fine-tuning, really. But it was really obvious when there was an aspect that needed attention, because the PMCs are so revealing.”

“This place is the only studio I’ve seen where everything works,” muses Showell, referencing the way equipment is lovingly and meticulously maintained at Abbey Road Mastering. “Everywhere else I’ve worked, everything just got gradually more broken as time went on! We have nine full-time techs here – how many studios can say that these days? This place is still setting standards.”

Those 2016 remasters in full…

Face Value (1981)

Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982)

No Jacket Required (1985)

…But Seriously (1989)

Both Sides (1993)

Dance into the Light (1996)

Testify (2002)

Going Back (2010)