Chris Jenkins: Sound for the Beatles Movie
By Anderton |
Chris Jenkins: Sound for the Beatles Movie
After all, the Beatles deserve the best...
by Craig Anderton
The remaining Beatles and Apple Corps Ltd., as well as Giles Martin (son of the late, legendary producer George Martin) have been rightfully protective of the Beatles’ legacy. Yes, the Beatles were a band…but they were also not just a part of history, they made history.
So it’s not only the subject matter that makes The Beatles: Eight Days A Week — The Touring Years important, but the fact that it even exists. This White Horse Pictures release, produced by Imagine Entertainment and directed by Ron Howard, hits the theaters on September 16, with a run on Hulu.com shortly thereafter.
However if you’re going to do a Beatles movie, the sound can’t just be “okay”—which isn’t easy due to the technology back in the Beatles’ early days. Howard tapped Chris Jenkins to lend his expertise to the project. Fresh off winning (another) Academy Award for the sound in Mad Max: Fury Road (I was so impressed by the sound I had to stay for the credits to see who was responsible), it wasn’t just Jenkins’ skills but his love of the project, his background as a studio musician, and his understanding of the industry that made him the perfect choice.
The first step was gathering the materials. Fortunately, Jenkins didn’t have to start entirely from scratch. “We were able to go to the original sessions and mixes. Giles [Martin] is the guardian of the tapes and masters, many of which are just mono or stereo. Giles also had a huge treasure trove of material that’s been undiscovered or never made public, including studio chatter and outtakes. These helped create the transitions from songs to live performances, and from [the Beatles] quitting touring to falling in love with the studio again.”
For many viewers, the restored Shea Stadium concert will be the standout attraction. Those who never saw the Beatles will find the energy and crowd reaction surreal, and those who were there at the time will remember what the excitement was about. Yet it almost didn’t happen. “The Shea Stadium part is a standalone piece, we didn’t get clearance to use it from Apple Corps until late in the process. There was so much work to do on the feature itself we didn’t know if we’d be able to get the concert done—especially because in many ways it is the definitive Beatles concert, so [sir Paul] McCartney wanted it to be the Beatles concert for everyone who didn’t know what a Beatles concert was about. It was shot with twelve 35 mm cameras and recorded pretty well, and it’s an amazing document to see now. Most of the songs were two minutes or so, and intensity-wise, everything started at a 9 out of 10—with 50,000 screaming fans adding to that intensity.
“One particular section was astonishing to me, it’s one of the best sections in the movie. They started playing ‘Baby’s in Black’ and the crowd quieted, so you could hear John and Paul singing in perfect harmony. You could really feel, not just hear, what the Beatles were all about.”
But then again, what about those screaming fans? In any of the sections I’d heard in the past from the Shea Stadium concert, you could barely make out the Beatles underneath the screams. As Jenkins notes, “We did quite a bit to reduce the crowd noise, because it was hard to sit and listen to that size crowd for that length of time. Giles has some proprietary techniques he used, and I did a long pass on it with EQ, while the team at Abbey Road working on the 5.1 version were dealing with individual sounds. You really had to do an EQ pass for the crowd as well as the music. Giles was able to extract the crowd and create 5.1 crowd stems with no music at all, but the funny thing is that in a stadium setting, the screaming girls were just as much a part of the concert as the music…it’s in the DNA of the music. While we were successful in extracting the crowd, we needed to put all the pieces back together to strike a balance between preserving the legacy of what was happening, but not driving people out of the room because they were put off by the intense screaming.”
There was a lot more to the process for the 5.1 version than simply dealing with the crowd, and Jenkins reached back for an old school technique that was remarkably effective and stems (no pun intended!) from his film experience. “Before the days of infinite plug-ins and such, it was always a problem to have looped dialog and sound effects blend into a movie. We ‘worldized’ them by playing them back in acoustic spaces so they didn’t sound like an actor in a studio, or a sound effects library, but something real and occurring in a natural environment.
“To create the 5.1 mix, Giles and the Abbey Road team created acoustical spaces optimized with pre-EQ for the various instruments—drums, bass, guitars, voices. Then, instead of upmixing the music, it played back through great speaker systems in these acoustic spaces and was re-recorded from the source material—no reverb, no overdubs, but done as a 5.1 acoustic process. It’s a beautiful way to record, without digital processing, that yielded a very natural sound. This kind of technique is very old school and not for everybody, but it was ideal in this case. Giles did an incredible job of restoring the concert, while staying totally true to the loyalists. The point of the restoration was to bring out the music.
“As to the movie itself, the mix was supposed to take 6-10 days, but Giles worked for months on the material, while Cameron Frankley and his crew at Warner Brothers did dialog editing, crowd effects backgrounds, and so on. It took about a month to do all the cutting and the near-field two-tracks and 5.1 mixes.”
The mixdown studio—Neve DFC with S6 and S3 for FX (pictured: Ryan Murphy, engineer and Mark Purcell, mix tech).
Of course, there’s always a potential concern that when putting this much effort into something, the act of “sanding and polishing” will take off the edge that made the music so interesting in the first place. But Jenkins is candid about accepting the limitations of the source material. “It’s important to understand that 8 Days a Week - the Touring Years isn’t necessarily a ‘good-sounding’ soundtrack; it’s not a Beatles recording project but a documentary, so there are hundreds of performances and interviews in all kinds of locations with all kinds of flaws. The Cavern Club recordings are very lo-fi, the technology for the recordings from 1962-1964 wasn’t very good, and later on the crowds were overwhelming the Beatles.
“But then they started not to like touring, and what saved their trajectory was the convergence of studios and recording techniques. The movie follows that trajectory from the Cavern Club to the big stadiums, and then after an hour lands in the studio with all these beautiful recordings. I’ve seen people watch the movie and when it transitions to John playing 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' into 'A Day in the Life,' a common reaction is 'wow…that moment is the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing in my career and my life.'"
This picture has nothing to do with the Beatles, but we couldn't pass up the chance to show Chris at the Warner Brothers Batman vs. Superman museum.
In a way, then, would you say the movie chronicles the changes that occurred in music technology? “Yes, as you progress further into the movie the sound gets better and better. As it goes from unrefined audio to these beautiful recordings, you get an idea of what’s to come. The mics improved, the amps improved, the technology improved pretty rapidly and the music started to sound much, much better. This movie captures the arc of the recording process as well as the band.”
Jenkins is what would happen if you took a cynical, jaded engineer—then flipped his phase switch 180 degrees. He loves what he does, and he talks about this project with unabashed, and very genuine, enthusiasm. So how do you get a gig like this?
“It all happened thanks to Ron Howard. We’d been working on a project called ‘Inferno.’ He said ‘Hey, we’re doing this documentary on the Beatles, want to be the mixer for it?’ Well, I was totally a Beatles fan when growing up. He sent an email to Nigel Sinclair at White Horse Pictures, and I was in. I was blown away…I’ve done some really fun projects, but this was a dream gig. It was so lucky. Getting to do the Beatles project is the high point of my career.”
I didn’t need to ask “Even more than winning three Academy Awards and being nominated for two, not to mention all the seminal music documentaries you worked on decades ago?” It was obvious he had a deep emotional connection, not just a professional one, with the project.
“This was all done with the most care and love possible not only from the crew at Abbey Road, but everyone here who was involved.”
“You have to honor that love every second.”
Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.