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Interview: Brent Burge Discusses about his Work on Peter Jackson’s ‘The Beatles: Get Back’

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison in THE BEATLES: GET BACK. Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.

If you’re a fan of The Beatles, or documentaries, or music, or Peter Jackson, chances are you’ve heard of The Beatles: Get Back. The doc series that Jackson has on Disney+ and if not, you’re in for a treat. The series follows The Beatles over four days of studio recording, and Jackson’s team did an amazing job of extracting an unbelievable soundtrack from the original tapes. Here, Re-recording Mixer and Supervising Sound Editor Brent Burge talks with Awards Radar about how he found out about the project, and the advanced tech they needed to meet Peter Jacksons standards. The result is a riveting look into the process of making a timeless album.

Tom Curley, CAS: So this, this movie Get back. Obviously, it’s a very sound intensive project. And you’re working with Peter Jackson, someone who you’ve worked with many times before, who’s obviously quite the perfectionist and creative powerhouse of all kinds. I’d love to know how you found out that you were going to be working on this and what your first initial reaction was to finding out about that?

Brent Burge: Well, yes, I’ve worked with Peter for a long time. And Peter has the, I think, innate ability to kind of keep driving us to higher achievements, let’s say, and I think this was one of those. Steven Gallagher, the music editor on the show, and I were invited to pop into the edit room, which is always one of those things where you get that message from, from Peter or the assistants to say, hey, Peter wants you to pop into the office, he’s got something to show you. And you kind of go, oh, okay, this is going to be interesting. And he showed us a kind of day four, which at that point was running at about 80 87 minutes. And we, Steve and I were just we walked in and Peter had a number of instruments around him so he kind of suddenly realized that we were going to be looking at something to do with music.

And then of course, knowing that Peters such a Beatles fan, and I wouldn’t say fair is not actually the right word is definitely an authority, let’s say. And we watched this with our mouths agape watching pretty much of a fly on the wall experience of what the Beatles were doing on day four. And then we had a number of discussions with Peter about it. And he showed us a number of other clips from other things he had gleaned from various sources, and to give us a little more insight into where he was going with the show. And we left a couple of hours actually, after we got to leave at that point to then just try and unscramble the things that had just taken place in our brains. So yeah, it was it was a gave us no indication of where we were gonna go. Because at that point, we didn’t really know the structure of what had been where the source material had come from. So that was a voyage of discovery for us.

Tom Curley, CAS: That’s an impressive lot. I mean, that had to be a daunting task to be dealing with that just volume of stuff, let alone all the varying qualities and what to do with it.

Brent Burge: Yeah, it was. I mean, the thing that we very quickly found out about was that that was all recorded by Peter Sutton who was a sound recordist on the show, and that it wasn’t a show that was recorded in any modern kind of style and all being back in 1969. It was actually recorded production style on a 8 Track on the first section, which was at Twickenham studios. And so we had, effectively this one piece of tape that then created a very complicated structure for us because there were 2 or more cameras, none of them are running on, effectively on sync. So the quarter inch tapes had to be realigned with the cameras separately. And that was, when we discovered the issue around that wasn’t an issue, it was a challenge of, we’ve got a mono piece of Nagra tape. And that was digitized long time, some time ago.

So it’s all there, it’s in pristine condition, we’ve got the best possible kind of quality of that quarter inch audio, but it’s a mono piece of tape. And so within that mono piece of tape, we’ve got The Beatles talking, and The Beatles playing. And we’ve got the Beatles not necessarily on mic. And all of this is happening, sometimes exactly the same time. And so Peter was very interested creating a narrative for each of the days in terms of how they played and for the audience to effectively be a fly on the wall.

Tom Curley, CAS: And was that the the goal from the start? Or was that something that evolved during the process?

Brent Burge: I cannot talk for Peter. But I’m absolutely certain that Peter had that in his he had a very clear idea of what he was looking for. But the challenges were such that he may have had those modified by the quality of the sound because I mean, yeah, there’s a number of stories that we now know from that occurred on the days where, you know, the Beatles would always be playing, and the level of conversation would never change. They were just like the typical musicians that would just be talking to each other George start playing his guitar, that, you know, the conversation wouldn’t change. But suddenly, you couldn’t quite hear all the words for what John and Paul was talking about.

So that became a bit of a challenge. And then as we discovered processes to help with that. Namely, we went through a number of the usual audio tools that I use these days, and then which are still state of the art for removing kind of noise and giving you the ability to draw out kind of particular site signatures and the the piece of audio that you’re dealing with, but it’s all very manual process. We just also expressed an interest in machine learning. We then also engaged Emile de la Rey, who had a an interest in by sound but also code and effectively became raised our consciousness. Yeah, it’s amazing. So it we actually developed the machine learning and called it MAL after Mal Evans. So it’s Machine Audio Learning.

And that did things, there were times where I would actually hear things that MAL would do that I would just consider to be unnatural in terms of what could be separated.

(L-R): Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in THE BEATLES: GET BACK. Photo by Linda McCartney. © 2020 Apple Corps Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Tom Curley, CAS: So that’s pulling an audible voice out of like a very noisy, crowded sound?

Brent Burge: Yes, as well as separating voices from each other, as well as which we then got into, which was separating instruments. So there was a lot of application also, to remix after the fact is it enabled us to basically create a balance where we could turn George’s guitar down and still keep the sonic quality of the conversation that was goingon behind.

Tom Curley, CAS: That’s, that’s amazing.

Brent: It was startling to us. Yeah,

Tom Curley, CAS: It’s so neat to me that The Beatles at the time, were using what was likely the pinnacle of technology in recording and techniques and instruments. Now they’re being given that treatment again, and it’s such a testament to their lasting talent and lasting contributions to music. I can only imagine that once all these challenges were worked out that you got to enjoy it a bit more.

Brent Burge: Yeah, well, I mean, yeah, I mean, spending every day for probably a couple of years in some ways. With the Beatles. Yeah, not a band you get sick of. I mean, we would be hearing a lot of the same songs a lot of the time over and over and over, but it was just a joy to be able to kind of experience with them. And literally as Peter handed over the days, you would then go to the next day and experience what they did during that day, whether it be music and building songs and having issues with each other around, they knew each other so well that it was that you’re just experiencing seeing them as a little time capsule snapshot of that day when they spent together. I think Peter and Jane have put it together so well and that you were, it wasn’t just about going from song to song to song and just uncovering how they built each song, it was actually just more about the narrative of the day. I just think it was another one of Peters absolute genius moments that he can recognize that and put it down in a way that the viewer can experience it with them.

Tom Curley, CAS: Wonderful. Unfortunately, we’re out of time here, but I have one parting question for you. Was there a favorite clip that you have?

Brent Burge: Well, there’s the just mind expanding rooftop sequence, which is real time split screen, when first really saw the rooftop. And Peter said, Okay, I’ve finished a pass on the rooftop. You guys can take that over and work out how you’re going to make that sound as amazing as we can. And we did I think, but seeing it for the thing the rooftop for the first time and seeing it in real time. Just play literally I’ve never seen that before. And that kind of, it just, I think everybody had kind of the hair standing up in the back of their neck. That was just fantastic. His footage down the street. I had one experience where sitting in the studio during a lockdown here in New Zealand, actually I was I actually stayed at the facility to keep mixing because we had to kind of keep pushing through the show. I ended up going down to the studio. Because Charles had synced some of the 8 track tapes down, 8 track mixes down over one of the songs and I put the song up. And it was I can’t even explain it. But it was it was one of those where suddenly I hear this the stereo mix that Charles had put together for the song. And up on the screen comes a caption that this was used on the actual take on the album and to be sitting in a studio just basically opening up that mix and having a listen to that. And then seeing that on the screen with a Peter Jackson caption of them playing the song in the studio was just that was extraordinary for me.

You can watch The Beatles: Get Back streaming exclusively on Disney+.

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