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(Just Like) Starting Over: Remixing John Lennon

Paul Hicks, Simon Hilton and Sam Gannon

Interview by Paul Vnuk Jr.

 

GIMME SOME TRUTH. THE ULTIMATE MIXES.  is the latest comment on the state of the art for Lennon fans—collectors, completists, and those of us with extreme audiophile tastes. It follows in the footsteps of Imagine: The Ultimate Collection, (2018) a six-disc set filled with in-depth studio sessions, alternate mixes, and most notably, brand new Ultimate mixes of the Imagine album. The team responsible was reassembled to produce Gimme Some Truth, which harbors bold new Ultimate Mixes of 36 Lennon tracks spread across two CDs and a Blu-Ray audio disc with High Definition 24/96 Stereo, Immersive 5.1 Surround Sound, and Dolby Atmos Mixes. Let’s meet the team responsible and get us some truth.

Paul-Hicks-at-Henson

Paul Hicks at Henson

Let’s start with introductions.

Simon: I’m Simon Hilton. I’ve worked with Yoko Ono Lennon for 17 years. I’m the compilation producer and the production manager of the Ultimate Collection series. Yoko is our boss. Sean Ono Lennon is our Producer and Creative Director, giving us incredibly concise and consistent direction throughout. Paul Hicks here is a legendary mixer, engineer, and producer, and Sam Gannon is also a mix engineer, producer, and musician. I organized everybody and shouted at people. Sam did a lot of the background work assisting Paul—Paul’s really the rock star in all this, mixing and engineering these mixes in record time.

Paul: I started at Abbey Road and ended up doing a lot of the Beatles stuff…

Simon: Won three Grammys.

Paul: Yeah, [laughs] then I decided to go freelance and continued from there. I’ve done McCartney stuff, and now I’m mostly doing Lennon and Harrison projects.

These were new tape transfers directly from the master reels?

Simon: We’re very lucky—the majority of the tapes are in the vault at Abbey Road, and we had some tapes in New York. Matthew Cocker at Abbey Road, who did all the Beatles transfers, did the transfers of the tapes there, and Rob Stevens, who looks after Yoko’s archive, supervised the transfers in New York. In every case, we went back to the original multis and had them baked and transferred at 24/192. The tones were lined up, the azimuth is correct, and the Dolby settings were right.

Simon Hilton and Yoko Ono

Simon Hilton and Yoko Ono

Who selected the songs for this collection?

Simon: Yoko set up the entire ideology behind the Ultimate Collections—that we’d go through album-by-album and do these massively expanded box sets—kind of the ultimate exploration of each album. We did Imagine in 2018, and we’ve done Plastic Ono Band, which is currently secret… On the Imagine set, you’ve got the Ultimate mixes, outtakes, elements, raw studio and evolution mixes —Yoko was very involved in how all of that was set up and how the work was divided up, and she set the parameters for it as a series.

When it came to the Gimme Some Truth collection, Sean stepped in as Producer and Creative Director, and he did a lot of the mix approval. Yoko’s initial thing was, “We’ve already done six or seven best-of albums, people are going to be a bit wary of another one, and what’s going to be the most interesting thing about this collection is that we’re remixing all the tracks from scratch.” One of the biggest ideas that Sean brought to the table was that the mixes should be finished in an analog environment using vintage equipment. Also, during the mixing process for each song, he gave us consistent direction and improvements, and encouragement to be braver and bolder.

Paul: One word that kept coming up was to try and make these mixes ‘timeless’.

All of the usual suspects are there, but there are also some interesting choices, for example ‘Angela’ from Some Time in New York City, which is a revelation on this set.

Simon: We put in some new things because otherwise, people are just going to go, “Oh, well, I’ve already got that one,” but also choices were made as to what would suit this particular collection. With the Imagine box set, the Ultimate Mix stays really true to the original, just improved. With this collection, Sean pushed the envelope a bit further, and some of the song choices, you mentioned ‘Angela’, were made because we realized that these songs could be improved so much in the remixing process.

Paul, what were your parameters or marching orders?

Paul: Just to get the best out of each mix. You go from 8-track to 16-track, up to 32-track mixes. You can improve things sonically, but there is less you can physically do on the early tapes. Once you start listening through and comparing the songs, it’s like, wow, like John’s vocals are kind of quiet and maybe the bass is a bit quiet, things like that.

I feel like a heretic saying that some of the original mixes weren’t that good because these are John Lennon albums, but these new mixes are so much more detailed.

Simon: They were suitable for the time, but so much music then was made for AM radio. Now we have sonically more competent playback devices, and we’re streaming in higher quality instead of going over radio. John was notoriously shy about his voice. He was always concerned about being in the moment and expressing every emotion he wrote with this incredible tool he had that was his voice. Then ironically, he just covered it in all these effects and slapback echo.

One of Yoko’s big things was bringing out John’s voice. Once you start pulling the voice out of the arrangement, the song just takes on a whole new life—soulful and moving, and really emotional.

I compared these new mixes with the 2000 remixes.

Simon: The Pete Cobbin ones?

Yes. They’re a little bit drier effect-wise, and less muddy than the originals, but they’re brighter than both the original album and Ultimate mixes. You managed to get clarity in your new mixes, balanced with a vintage thickness. Nothing sounds bright, modern or hyped.

Paul: That is the right answer! [laughs]

What did you mix in?

Paul: Pro Tools, all at 192, although the Imagine box was a 96k project at the time. When it’s a historical project, like John Lennon, I like to work and mix at 192, which is definitely a challenge and pushes the system. Then we create 96k or 48k files, whatever’s needed.

Tell me about the mixing process—you mentioned that Sean wanted the mixes finished in analog.

Simon: We did the mixes digitally, which then went to Yoko and Sean for approval using in-the-box effects as placeholders. Once they were happy with those, Paul went and matched what we’d done digitally, using vintage analog gear.

Paul: We went into Henson Studios in Los Angeles. The overall mix went through an analog mix bus, and we took advantage of Henson’s real plates and chambers. They’ve got like ten plates. For the 80s era, we used vintage hardware Lexicon reverbs.

Simon: Rock ‘n’ Roll was actually recorded at Henson Studios when it was A&M Studios.

So, you did a lot of premixing in the box?

Paul: For practicality, you have to, especially with approvals. We can’t just throw it back up on an analog desk and keep recalling it.

Simon: To help with the process when the lockdown started, we all got matching setups with the same speakers and digital gear, so we knew that what we were listening to here was the same as what Paul was listening to there in the States.

What did you choose?

Simon: Pro Tools, Universal Audio interfaces, and ADAM A8X monitors.

Paul: I’ve used ADAM monitors forever, and recently I also picked up a set of Barefoot monitors. I actually spend a bit of time mixing and listening in headphones because everyone listens on headphones today.

Simon: Which headphones, Paul? Endorsement, endorsement! [everyone laughs]

Paul: I’m a Sennheiser 600 fan—the detailing on them is incredible, especially when you’re doing iZotope RX work.

Sam Gannon

Sam Gannon. Photo by Katie Snape

Was there any premix cleanup of the tapes?

Simon: Sam did all of the track laying, lining up tracks, and de-clicking.

Sam Gannon: I did a bit of matching the speeds, and then in some cases, I would do rough levels and pan match to the original mix to get Paul started. If there were any edits or comps that needed doing, I’d sort them out, so Paul could focus on the creative rather than the technical.

Simon: Some of the tapes had ghosting or print through. The magnetism on the tape caused the vocal to bleed through to the tracks before and after. It creates a kind of weird delay and pre-delay, so a lot of that had to be cleaned up.

What would you use to clean that up?

Sam: For de-clicking and for the ghosting, it was a combination of modules in RX. You can drill down into different frequency ranges of the print through and use the spectral repair to get rid of it. It’s astonishingly transparent.

Simon: You mentioned the 2000 mixes; the big thing back then was noise reduction. Everybody was doing it. That’s why those mixes sound thinner and bright. The quality of the transfers wouldn’t have been great, and then they’d have de-hissed them. It’s a matter of being up against the technology of the time. Now, the masters are in such incredible quality at 192; you’ve got so much more to play with. The plugins available now to tidy this stuff up and bring it to the point before mixing are incredible. 

Paul: The problem with RX is, once you start getting into that world, you hear clicks on everything.

Simon: It’s a curse!

You mentioned using place holders on the digital mixes. What did you use for reverb?

Paul: You can’t really go wrong with the UAD EMT 140 plugin.

What about EQ? Did you keep the plugin EQ or replace it?

Paul: We kept it. I usually start with a vintage style EQ and then fine-tune with FabFilter or just the Avid EQ because, at 192, it’s so processor-light.

What vintage EQ do you like?

Paul: I really like the Pultec EQs, and lately, for channel strips I’ve been going between the Brainworx bx_console N and the new bx_console SSL 9000 J. It’s a bit processor-hungry at 192 but really impressive. I put it up on all of the tracks and just treat it like a desk. I’m a fan of the Slate stuff as well—I like the flexibility of their modular channel strips, and I really like their VTM (Virtual Tape Machine). I love the Waves Abbey Road Chambers, but they only go up to 96 kHz, so lately I’ve been using the UAD Capitol Chambers plugin, which is also amazing.

Like most of us, you’ve heard these songs a million times, how do you start fresh?

Paul: You get the multi-track up, sync it to the original mix, and basically mix it to match the old mix. This includes making sure you’re using the right vocal takes and checking edits. There are some crazy cuts and stuff on the original tapes. They might have manually cut one note out—things that you’d be like, “Oh really? How did they even do that?” Once we’ve got a basic mix that sounds really close, you sort of take a minute and think, “How can we make this better?”

Simon: Sean really pushed us to explore the best that the song could be rather than just trying to match what had been done before. You’ve got to remember, some of the Plastic Ono Band mixes were literally done on the hoof. There are two songs on the Plastic Ono Band album taken from a live 1/4” 7 1/2” stereo reel run off at the session. John was notoriously impatient. Imagine was recorded and mixed in about a week, and then we spent the best part of two years on the box set. [everyone laughs]

John’s vocals really stand out, especially on the sparse songs like ‘Love’ and ‘Angela’. What was the vocal chain?

Paul: Just a bit of compression and some EQ. I love the LA-2A; the smooth optical thing is great for vocals. With John, the tape delay in most cases is very important.

Was that printed, or did you have to recreate it? 

Sometimes it’s printed, but most of the time, it’s recreated. We used a real 2-track analog tape machine at Henson.

On average, how many tracks of drums were there?

Paul: You rarely get more than kick, snare and a stereo overhead on the later sessions, and on most of the first disc, you’ll have only mono or stereo drums. On ‘Instant Karma’ the drums are mono. A lot of Plastic Ono Band is stereo drums, as is Imagine.

What song was the hardest to mix?

Paul: ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Angel Baby’ were probably the toughest. Those were harsh, edgy recordings and tough to get the sonics right. Whereas something like ‘Beautiful Boy’, we put that up, did some simple EQ work, and it just sounded beautiful. ‘Woman’ came together quite nicely as well. That one we worked to get a bit more clarity out of because there’s like four pad keyboards, all playing exactly the same thing. It was kind of like a synthesizer version of the Phil Spector sound.

Simon: Ah, the 80s.

Paul: Exactly. ‘Steel and Glass’ was fun to work on. On the strings, I used a plugin by Brainworx called the bx_panEQ. It affects frequency and panning, so you can zero in and add more top end to the cellos on just the right, for example. It can get really precise, and it was an amazing discovery for me.

‘Steel and Glass’ has always been one of my favorite John Lennon songs. The whole Walls and Bridges album has always had a New York, Paul Simon, One Trick Pony vibe—Rhodes piano and atmosphere. Was that on tape, or did you recreate all that?

Paul: Those were the plate reverbs at Henson. When you start getting to Mind Games onwards, that’s when John began discovering Eventide and the vocals started going stereo. That was when the early Eventide Phasers and stuff came out. I did a load of research, going through photos and looking at every list of studio equipment, trying to figure out, when did that piece of gear come out? Those specifics aren’t on the track sheets. On the intro of ‘Out The Blue’, that is a very specific phaser sound. The only thing it could have been was the Eventide Instant Phaser, so we tried to replicate that as close as possible with the Eventide plugin.

I did a side-by-side of an original Eventide  Instant Phaser and the plugin, and it’s essentially the same code. It now just lives in a computer.

Paul: It’s got a weird bump in the phase; I tried to replicate that in the new mix. My OCD was to make that bump happen at exactly the right place. One of the things that surprised me about the original Rock ‘n’ Roll mix is that it’s very sort of mono, and yet you’ve got John’s stereo vocal on top. I want to change my answer—’Mind Games’ was probably the most challenging sonically. The bass is quite light on that track and played up an octave for most of the song, plus you have the Mellotron doubling the guitars in a higher register. Then there are the bits where the bass does go low. I spent a long, long time on that one, keeping the bass full, but also keeping it from taking over the whole track.

Who decided to add the organ slide back into the intro of ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’?

Paul: It just sounds good, doesn’t it?

Simon: Since this was a greatest hits compilation and not one of the Ultimate box sets, Sean encouraged us to make bold decisions. ‘Bless You’ was a bit of a standout for me, and Sean gave us strong direction to get closer to more of a Marvin Gaye sound. Once Paul reshaped it that way, all our jaws were on the floor. That was seriously amazing.

What about the live version of ‘Come Together’? It’s much more rocking than the original mix.

Simon: Sam ended up mixing that one himself, along with ‘Grow Old With Me’.

Being a live track, I assume there was a ton of bleed? 

Sam: It was a nightmare. There were two audience tracks, and the mics must have been really far apart, so they were quite delayed. Once I’d aligned them in time, there was less madness, and the mix started to come together a lot more. [collective groan]

What other big changes can you think of?

Simon: On ‘Woman’, per Sean’s instruction, the backing vocals now don’t come in until the second verse. It actually draws you into the track more, improves the arrangement, and just hits you harder.

As you move on with the series, do you think that you’ll continue with the template you started with Imagine, or continue with more adventurous remixes like this set?

Simon: Yoko decided very purposefully to do Imagine first. It’s the most commercial album, but it also has a very defined sound to it that stands beautifully
on its own. It doesn’t have the emptiness that
Plastic Ono Band has, and it doesn’t have the mud that Some Time In New York City, Mind Games, and Walls and Bridges have, and it doesn’t have the 80s feel of Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. When we get to the later albums, there’ll be a need for some bold decisions because I don’t think that we’ll want to recreate that soupy world they inhabited. Rather than polishing the diamonds, I think we’re going to be looking at re-cutting the diamonds slightly to make them even more beautiful. And you know, the original mixes still exist.

Paul: We’re always trying to be very respectful of the originals.

Simon: 100%. We’re always thinking and debating—what would John do? What would Yoko do? What’s the best for the track? We want to put John Lennon songs in front of a whole new audience that will love and interpret them in new ways. Wait until you hear the Atmos mixes!

I can’t wait. I really appreciate the time and details, guys. I look forward to more music in the future.

Mixing-Happy-Xmas-photo-credit-Iain-McMillan-copyrightYoko-Ono

Mixing Happy Xmas. Photo by Iain-McMillan. ©Yoko-Ono

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