Having played drums, piano, and guitar in various bands and orchestras, Sam Okell undertook the exalted Tonmeister degree course in music technology prior to serving a placement year at Abbey Road Studios. It was there that the much sought-after sound engineer and mixer made his name, swiftly moving up the ranks to work with bands and orchestras, as well as on high-profile film score projects. Today, with multiple Grammy awards under his belt, Okell has mixed and remastered a host of major names in rock and pop including PJ Harvey, Seal, Brian May, INXS, and Robert Plant. Credits for major film score work include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gravity, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E alongside composer Daniel Pemberton. In recent years, Okell has become heavily involved in the remastering of The Beatles' back catalogue along with recordings by Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Alongside Giles Martin [Tape Op #103] that work continues to this day, from the recently released 50-year anniversary of The Beatles' Abbey Road album to working alongside filmmaker Peter Jackson on the reworked documentary of Let It Be.
What got you interested in the technical side of production, as opposed to being a consumer or a songwriter?
As a teenager I played in a variety of bands, mainly as a drummer, and I was always interested in fiddling around with a guitar amp or PA. When you're a 12-year-old kid, you like to figure out how things work. I remember asking my mum if she could buy me a PA for my birthday. I guess it went from that into early forays of 4-track cassette tapes and playing in bands in my parents' living room, making a racket with two or three mics. I didn't really know what I was doing – I just thought it was interesting.
You didn't want to pursue being in a band to its fullest extent?
I used to play in orchestras and really enjoyed that. Then I went to a residential summer school and found a percussion teacher who taught at Wells Cathedral School, which had specialist music funding. I got totally immersed in it, but I also saw loads of brilliant musicians and thought, "Wow, it's going to be hard to make my way compared to them, yet I'm also interested in this other side." That's when I heard of the Tonmeister course, which had an emphasis on recording technology. It sounded perfect for me, so I chose that rather than going to music college and trying to be a proper musician.
You had a placement year at Abbey Road Studios while you were taking your degree course?
It was a four-year degree course, with two years studying at university and then an internship for a year. The course was really good at placing people in the industry and I wanted to come to Abbey Road. There was one job up for grabs that I didn't get, but they had a classical editing department, and somebody was going on maternity leave. I spent most of that year learning to edit classical records, and at the tail end of that time, I spent a couple of months as a runner. I finished the degree and got a job at Abbey Road almost straight out of university, which was really lucky.
Indeed, because runners can literally spend years waiting for an opening.
It can be a really slow career path and it's hard to maintain the focus and energy if you're not getting paid a lot, working long hours and not getting to do the thing you want to do. It's little wonder that people often drop out. I managed to circumvent that, partly through luck and partly through having the right attitude. I was lucky that a couple of engineers at Abbey Road saw that I was enthusiastic and willing. It's that classic thing of, "If you can't manage to do something yourself, who do you recommend?" Thankfully I had a couple of people on my side that helped get me through that progression.
How are projects divided up at Abbey Road, and is there a stampede to work on certain things?
The dynamic regarding how those come about is quite funny. A lot of artists or composers will have existing professional relationships with an engineer, so they'll quite often bring someone with them that's not exclusive to Abbey Road. If you're an in-house engineer, bookings are dealt with by the studio manager and bookings team. They look to see what's required, the best fit for that project, and who's available in the diary. As I said before, when you present a willing exterior to do anything technically it creates more opportunities and makes the position of whoever's choosing to work on a job easier to allocate.
Would you go as far as to say the client relationship comes above any technical service you provide?
That's the most important thing, really. Doing the job is hard, to a certain extent, but for people who are coming up and want to start, it's about knowing how to create relationships with people who request you to record them. You want to give them a positive experience and be able to sit in a room with them for 16 hours in a day, not argue about stuff, and find a working practice. I do a lot of mixing, and that client dynamic is really important in that area. I'll usually request they give me a certain amount of time to get a mix into a shape that I'm happy with, then they'll come in, elaborate, and we'll get it to a point where they're happy. It's also a case of trying to manage their time so they're not sitting there all day getting bored. Those kinds of things are key to everyone feeling they've had a good experience, and that they got their opinions across.
Is the customer always right?
Yes, and I don't think I've ever refused to do something. If someone comes in and says, "The vocal's got to be up 12 dB," you'll have a discussion about that. And, whilst some engineers might say they're not doing it, if that's how the client wants it done then, as long as you've offered your professional opinion, they're always right.
Do you have to be a fan of the projects you're working on, or is that immaterial?
I think it helps. It's great working on things you love, but when you're open-minded you can get things out of projects that you didn't expect. When the music is of a good standard almost any genre's interesting, but when you're really struggling to get a performance out of someone you might wonder why you're doing it, and that can become hard work.
Will you research an artist you're not familiar with as an act of preparation?
You do have to get into their headspace. I was remixing an INXS record [Kick] a few years ago and knew a few of their hits but not much else, so I spoke to Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #129, #84] who mixed it originally, to find out what gear he was using. That's what you need to know in order to do a project. I'm often remixing The Beatles catalogue, and we start from the view of replicating the effects and techniques they used to see if that's necessary or, for example, whether or not we can use a plug-in. We'll tend to go through all the possible avenues to see what works best.
Who have been the most inspiring people to work with?
In terms of inspiration, that comes from seeing people who have spent a lifetime doing something they're really good at and still retain their enthusiasm for it. On the film side, I was lucky enough to work with John Williams, who's done the scores for so many classic films. I was an assistant for one of the Star Wars episodes, as well as a Harry Potter film. Here was a man in his seventies who's done great things and could easily be retired, but is just happy being in the studio every day crafting with an orchestra. It's the same working with Paul McCartney and doing new work with him, or Mick Jagger, or Robert Plant who, again, could easily be living the high life on a Caribbean island. I'm sure they are sometimes, but when they're in the studio they're like a 20-year-old kid – they're still excited and want to move on from the past.
You've worked on a lot of The Beatles projects in recent years.
Yes, there've been a variety of projects. In 2009, we remastered all of the studio albums in stereo and mono. Since then, I've done a bunch of remixes, going right back to the multitrack tapes with all of the original instruments on and remixing from scratch. We also did the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th anniversary in 2017, the White Album in 2018, and Abbey Road in 2019. Those were new stereo mixes, so we had to ask ourselves how we could take the music and make it sound better. Not more contemporary, because we're not changing any elements of the music. But sometimes all the vocals are coming out of one speaker and the band another, so we try to centre things up in a way that people listen to music now, without changing the essence of it.
In what other ways does the sound need to be brought up to date?
When they were working in the '60s, stereo was a very new thing, so there's a certain amount of what we now consider "strange positioning." For example, I don't think anyone today would mix with a lead vocal coming out of one side, especially given that now almost everyone listens on headphones. We also try and put a "space" around sounds, because those '60s mixes can be very discrete. We try to widen the sound field to make it sound slightly more contemporary.
You say you're not changing the music, but you are making creative decisions regarding the placement of sounds, which must carry a sense of responsibility?
That's right, and you want to be very careful about how you change history. As we know, many people around the world love this music, so we're really careful about that. We always reference the original mixes by A/Bing to compare what we've done to the original, then we'll try to validate why we change things. "Better" is a difficult concept to grasp, but The Beatles did have certain technical limitations. On Sgt. Pepper's, they worked on a 4-track tape machine. They would fill that up, bounce it to another machine and carry on overdubbing on the spare tracks, which meant they couldn't change the balance of any of the instruments. They might do that process three or four times, so there are layers of instruments all mixed down to one track that they couldn't balance. When we dug up all those generations of tape, we had the flexibility to do things they probably would have done, given the opportunity.
Do you go as far as using the original technologies?
It's a mixture of both, really. The Beatles loved using Automatic Double Tracking (ADT) effects, which is a technique of using another tape machine with a varispeed to create different kinds of delays, or comb filtering effects, when you put these sounds very close together. A lot of those very '60s psychedelic-sounding effects were done in that way, and there aren't really any plug-ins that can do that the way they did it. We did recreate a lot of those effects by fiddling around with varispeed. We also used some of the original echo chambers and reverb plates, but then we'd sometimes use a plug-in instead.
Presumably, if one track requires a lot of processing, it's safe to assume all the others need to be balanced up to match it?
Yes, because you want to take a unified approach. We do a few tracks, and if that works we'll try to apply that ethos to the whole album, whether it's centring lead vocals or drums, spreading backing vocals left or right, or double-tracking.
Can you provide any insight on how the practise of remastering has evolved over the years?
Some people think remastering is a cynical tool used as an excuse to rerelease things, but with every project I've been involved with I feel we've done something worthwhile. Usually it's a very subtle improvement or change because that's all we think is necessary, but that's the right approach. It's similar to mastering itself, really. Sometimes you don't need to do much because it already sounds good, and other times you need to be more radical. I remastered the George Harrison album Living in the Material World, and the original mix was so dull that it was almost as if the tape machine had been lined up wrong and hadn't reproduced correctly. That needed some radical EQing and the fans seemed to like it. Ultimately, you want fans to say that it sounds good but also how they remember it. Another part of remastering is taking out the noises, clicks, pops, and distortions, which is quite a subtle thing, but a process they would have done had the technology been available.
Is it fair to say that with streaming and low-quality MP3 formats, you're hardly likely to tell the difference between a remastered album and the original?
It's strange that we've gone backwards from CDs to streaming low-quality music, but I think it will come back around once internet speeds are up to it. It's interesting that the streaming sites are looking at overall loudness levels now. Tracks that are louder will play back through their algorithms quieter, so it's all a bit more intelligent and enables a higher dynamic range. I think that's a really positive step, because artists won't need to slam their mixes anymore.
There's also a second level of degradation in that young people, in particular, are used to listening to music on cheap earbuds, phones, or a laptop?
That's part of it, but a lot of people also listen on headphones and there are lots of decent affordable headphones now. You'll hear a certain detail on headphones that you won't often hear on really good speakers, so I'll mix on headphones, but I won't do a "headphone mix."
Once an album's remastered, how receptive are you to public opinion?
It's hard to attach what I've done to something that's great or well-known. I have a tiny input into something and, generally speaking, it's not that which people are responding to, it's the music. My attitude is that I must be transparent, in terms of not getting in the way of whatever it is people love about a piece of music. I don't change anything for the sake of it or try to put my stamp on it – I objectively try to improve the listening experience. If a reissue of a Beatles album is successful, I don't think that's to do with me; it's to do with it already being a great album that people know and love.
You've also remastered a number of Paul McCartney albums. Is that a process he typically gets involved in?
Yes. Paul, Ringo [Starr], Olivia Harrison, and Yoko Ono all listen to what we do when we work on The Beatles material, and they all have approval. When it comes to his own work, Paul is quite hands-on. He'll come in, ask to A/B things, change things, and have an opinion. The first big project I did with Paul was [Wings'] Band on the Run. We arranged a date for him to come and listen to it; we sat together in Studio Three and listened to the whole album. I remember him saying, "It's not a bad album, is it?" But when I asked when the last time he listened to it was, he said, "I've never listened to it." [laughs]
With the huge evolutions in software and the role it has today, do you see a reduction in quality between modern albums and those recorded many decades ago in professional studios?
I guess there is a difference, but I like that level playing field where someone can spend hundreds of thousands of pounds in a big studio to make a record, yet it's no more guaranteed to be successful than something's that been made with a mic and a laptop in a bedroom. That's a positive thing, because it all comes back to the music, the idea, and whether people are moved by it. My life is the technical side of things and making it sound great; but if the performance or song's no good, it doesn't matter what you do to it. I guess I do hear things that people have done in their bedroom and think that a different production would improve it, but it all comes down to the character of the song and performance at the end of the day. Having said that, it is hard to switch off and stop myself from detailing a mix.
Does digital still have a long way to go in replicating analogue effects processing?
Not really. When people reacted badly to digital recordings, it was mainly in the '80s when digital converters and tape machines didn't sound very good. Now they sound good; and when you're working on computers in the digital world, you've got all these great emulations of analogue gear, whether it's old valve compressors, EQs, or tape machines. At the click of a button you can get very accurate replications of the originals, so digital is no longer seen as a harsh, unmusical world because all those analogue characteristics are available now.
Yet Abbey Road Studios is still jam-packed with analogue gear, so it's not had a wholly transformative effect?
It's very close, but the difference is that digital is not as intuitive to use when you're recording. Part of the way that somebody performs in the studio is down to how they react to what they're hearing in their headphones, so you might want to distort something, add an effect, or do some wacky EQ so it sounds interesting rather than super-clean. You can take a belt and braces approach, where you'll record a really processed mic signal, and another really clean and safe option, and then experiment later. My process now is to use analogue for recording and in-the-box for mixing.
Do you have a preference for working to sound and image rather than sound alone?
I don't have a preference, because they're very different. We did a TV series a while back called Live from Abbey Road, where we'd get bands in the studio, record a few tracks, and film it beautifully. I found that if you mix something without the picture you mix it like you would a record, but as soon as you put it to image all the balances seem out of whack. The way our eyes and ears work together is always interesting, and it affects the way you make something sound.
I guess from my perspective, the fact you've worked on big movies like The Hobbit or Gravity seems more fun than making records.
It is brilliant fun; but doing music for movies, you have to understand that you're one element of a big process. People who have an attitude that music is sacred… you can't challenge it. You can't express, "This is the way it should be." That won't go over well in film. It's a collaborative process with a director, producer, and editor. With a project like The Hobbit, we were recording a big orchestra. That would be very different to Gravity, where the composer, Steven Price, was interested in recording a lot of different little sounds and then going away and doing some heavy processing.
Dolby Atmos is one of the more recent evolutions in audio technology.
When Dolby Atmos is done well, it's really fantastic. Sitting in a cinema, in a theatrical setting, is probably the best way to listen because you're in a controlled environment. They're definitely trying to push it for music and streaming, but the reality of listening to it in a domestic environment is that people don't want speakers all over their living room, so it's a bit like the argument for surround sound or 5.1. It will have to come down to sound bars, and there are several on the market now that do play Dolby Atmos using upward firing technologies that reflect off the ceiling. From my point of view, it's always about whether you can make the mix sound as good as the original stereo mix or better. But if the right assets, stems, or multitracks aren't available – or if you don't have enough time to make the mix superior to the existing stereo one – then people aren't going to buy it. There's a variety of 3D headphones on the market you could use, including some that track your head movements, but that all still has a ways to go. You can't pull the wool over people's ears.
Technology-wise, do you need to stay ahead of the curve, or by working at Abbey Road is all that taken care of?
I always feel like I need to be kept up to date with new developments. Dolby Atmos has been a new thing for me over the last few years, and having that knowledge means your value to a client increases, in terms of assessing new technologies and being able to offer a professional opinion on it. The joy of working at Abbey Road is that they've got the best of all the technology over the past 80 years. But I've learned from setting up my own little studio that it's been interesting to discover technologies that are a tenth of the price of what you'd find there, but are still really good versions of it. That market is such a major part of the business now.
What projects are you currently working on?
The Beatles work is continuing. We're currently remixing the rooftop concert for the film [The Beatles: ?Get Back] directed by Peter Jackson. It's slightly in the vein of his World War I movie, They Shall Not Grow Old, in that he's taking footage from the Let It Be film from 1969 and re-cutting it. I'm also doing a Suicide Squad spin-off movie called Harley Quinn [released as Birds of Prey], so I'll be recording that in Los Angeles with composer Daniel Pemberton, who I work with a lot. On a smaller scale, I'm working on series two of the Netflix series The End of the F***ing World. Blur guitarist Graham Coxon is writing the music for that. Writing for TV is a new thing for him, so I'm taking stuff he's done and making it work for picture.
You have your own studio in Cornwall. Is that strictly for working on your own projects?
Yes. I've got a little mix room down there with a 5.1 [surround] setup in an acoustically treated room, but I've hardly got any outboard gear. The next stage will be to expand on that, get a little tracking room, and a space where I can do overdubs. It's a lifestyle choice really, because it's good to spend more time at home with the kids in Cornwall. There are things I can do there when I don't need to be in a room with people, or in a big studio. But it's quite modest at the moment – it's certainly not Abbey Road! [laughs]