The Beatles CDs first appeared in 1987 in disappointing sound, vastly inferior to the original vinyl pressings from the 60’s. That’s what we’ve been stuck with for over 20 years. Until now that is. Finally a full remastering project gives us the music we love, in Technicolor.
Apple Records has left no stone unturned for this triple-threat release (issued 9/9/09). You want the Beatles remastered in Stereo? You got it – all the UK albums plus Magical Mystery Tour and the Past Masters ($293) – that’s 14 titles over 16 discs. Please Please Me, Beatles for Sale and With the Beatles appear in stereo for the first time. You prefer mono? There’s a box for you – every album up to the White Album, with the Mono Masters thrown in ($350) – that’s 11 titles over 13 discs. Rubber Soul and Revolver mono albums include as a bonus the original stereo versions – never before issued on CD. You want to pick and choose from the stereo box? You can do that too – each stereo disc is available separately ($19 for single albums, $32 for double albums). You can even buy the video game Beatles: Rock Band.
It doesn’t stop there. You also get copious recording notes and pictures, and the disc covers are wonderful. The stereo albums are all fold-outs, while the mono discs are faithful to the original LPs – even the sleeve liners are miniature copies. There’s an extra booklet stuffed with information in the mono set, while the stereo set adds a DVD with chapters for each original album including comments from George Martin, Ringo et al. The relevant video chapter is also included on each stereo disc in QuickTime format, for a limited time only.
So why do I need this – and if I do, which set should I buy?
A little background helps. All the Beatles albums up to the White Album were originally released in mono, with stereo available in most cases for the small audience of trend setting stereo fans. The Beatles and George Martin were directly involved in the mono mix but often left the stereo mix to others. Those early stereo LPs often have voices coming from one speaker, drums from the other – a bit odd through speakers, and distinctly weird through earphones. When the Beatles albums first came out on CD, the first three were mono, the rest stereo. Sound quality, like most early CD transfers, was not a patch on the original LPs – thinner, flatter, more nasal and often quite unpleasant in the treble region. But methods of mastering CDs from analog tape have improved greatly over the years, while we Beatles fans waited patiently for our much loved favourites to reappear in improved sound. The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan have seen their albums remastered effectively onto Hybrid SACD/CD discs. Let It Be – Naked and Love gave us all a taste of what was possible, but those were actually remixes – quite a different process. Remastering attempts to give us the sound the Beatles originally wanted us to hear, while a remix can remove certain instruments, change the relative levels of others and even splice different tunes together.
The long wait is over and Apple Records have done a bang up job, winning the approval of Paul and Ringo, plus the estates of George and John. They took the original master tapes and set about their task, which was to take a full year in the famous Abbey Road studio. One team worked on the mono master tapes, another on the stereo masters. In some cases the mono and stereo masters are not even from the same take.
The process begins by transferring the analog masters using the best modern tape decks to a very high resolution digital format. The EMI master tapes are in excellent condition so there have been no losses due to the passage of time. In the digital domain the first task is to remove blemishes as far as possible and apply some very limited amount of noise reduction to reduce tape hiss in critical spots. Then adjustments are made to the equalization to bring the frequency response as close as possible to the original LPs.
The stereo discs receive a very mild dose of limiting which serves to increase the average volume level and reduce the dynamic range. This decision was the most difficult the engineers had to make, and they took into account the target audience would likely be used to limiting on most of their CDs, and may not have the refined systems needed to reproduce the full dynamic range of the recording. Since the mono box is targeted for those looking for the closest approach to the original sound, limiting was avoided there.
Now I can keep the secret from you no longer. The Beatles were a better band then we knew. Ringos’s drum kit was far less brittle, Paul’s bass playing more tuneful and powerful, George’s guitar and sitar more colorful and dynamic, John’s guitar more tuneful . And boy, these kids could sing! It’s staggering how beautifully Paul’s voice is on “Till There Was You”, and this is no isolated example. On these albums the Beatles cover a wider range of music than any other group, and the wonder is that they excel in every genre. Admittedly most of the songs are love songs, but that covers everything from “Love Me Do” to “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”. We’ve got Rock’n’Roll, ballads, experimental music, concept albums, country and western, Eastern music, Psychedelic music, Honky Tonk, anthems – even children’s songs.
You know all this, but you don’t really appreciate just how good they were until you’ve heard them in the best possible sound. Actually we don’t have that today. We need high resolution formats for that – LPs, SACD or Blu-ray. Until then (and yes I think it’s coming) these two sets are the state of the art, and they’re streets ahead of the old CD’s, better even than the original LPs. Only Ringo loses out. We hear him much clearer than ever before, and his limitations as drummer and singer are more obvious than ever. The best drumming comes when Paul takes over. Need I say more?
On first listening, I preferred the stereo box over the mono. The sound is brighter, the bass a little punchier and both the vocals and the instruments stick out a bit more, making it easier to hear new details for the first time. But repeated listening has changed my mind. Now I prefer the more authentic sounding mono versions, especially for the earlier recordings. While some tracks gain significantly from a strong stereo mix, they are few and far between. I’d plump for the mono set and supplement it with Abbey Road and Let It Be. If funds are short, you’ll find the biggest improvements on the White Album and Abbey Road and I’d start building my collection from there. Both these albums are excellent in stereo, since by the time of their original release the stereo mix had grown in relative importance and techniques had much improved.
To many, the Beatles tower above all other bands, although back in the day, the Stones gave them a good run for their money in England and the Beach Boys had their proponents over here. As time passes, the six years from the first to the last Beatles Album seem ever more groundbreaking. Can you imagine pop music without the Beatles? The fresh sound captured here makes you want to play them over and over and may also have you throwing away your old inferior copies – it’s hard to go back after this.
You Can’t Do That
Have you ever noticed how few successful covers there are of Beatles songs? Everyone and their mother have tried and they all come up short. It’s so hard to top the brilliant arrangements and stunning performances the lads put together with George Martin. I can really only think of one exception – Joe Cocker’s amazing “With a Little Help From My Friends”.
Is There Anybody Going To Listen To My Story?
Growing up in the sixties in the UK, I got to experience the Beatles in real time. The first time I heard a Beatles song I was at a Scout camp in the New Forest. It was 1963 and the new smash hit “She Loves You” was just hitting the radio stations. It changed everything – yeah, yeah, yeah. Even our parents took note. This was the birth of Beatlemania.
The Beatles’ music grew quickly in strength and daring, reaching the perfection later that year of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, their first four track recording. This was their first number one hit in the USA and went on to be their top selling single (12 million copies). Listen to it again. See how it covers such a range of styles, both lyrical and aggressive. See if it doesn’t have you singing along. How can you resist?
I wasn’t allowed pop music at home, but my friend Judi had the early records and we listened as we played Monopoly. Each new record was more interesting than the last, and soon I was reading The New Musical Express and The Melody Maker to learn the latest about the Beatles. I wasn’t alone. By 1966 even my grandparents wanted to know what all the fuss was about, so my brother Alvin bought them Rubber Soul to play on the stereogram. What a great album! Such sophistication! People were buying guitars so they could play “Norwegian Wood”. This phenomenon continues to this day – my daughter succumbed to the same instinct in high school. And so on to the most famous album of all time, Sgt. Pepper, released in June 1967. This was the first concept album and it broke the mold, inspiring Pet Sounds, Tommy and Forever Changes. The Beatles spent a very long time in the studio for this one, and they incorporated all sorts of new recording techniques and large orchestral forces. Even the artwork was inspired, the four Beatles in psychedelic garb fronting cardboard cutouts of their personal heroes.
The trouble with pushing the boundaries so far and so fast, is – what do you do to top it? In fact this was the beginning of the end for the Beatles. Discipline and cohesion were hard to find, and we get the bizarre Magical Mystery Tour, the sprawling (but magnificent) White Album, and the back to the roots Let It Be, complete with the self indulgent “Long And Winding Road” in full Phil Spector sound. But they did hold it all together for one more masterpiece, their final recording Abbey Road. It became their most successful album. This time the Beatles had help from Eric Clapton and Billy Preston. When I went to university in October 1969, I could hear Abbey Road playing from almost every student room. As you play it today, in the best sound ever, it sounds fresh, spontaneous and powerful. No pop record has reached this level of artistry since, and perhaps never will.
They’ll be listening to Abbey Rd and Sgt. Pepper when I’m old and gray, and when my kids and yours are too!
Q&A With the Abbey Road Remastering Team
Reporter Phil Gold and Editor Suave Kajko spoke to EMI’s remastering engineers from Abbey Road Studios in August 2009 (over the phone).
Q: How did the project start for you?
A: The sound engineers at Abbey Road were approached by Apple and EMI in early 2005.
Q: How come it took so long?
A: It took 4 years because we were working on other projects at the same time. We spent about a year on the project, each album taking about 2 weeks.
Q: Did you find any physical deterioration in the master tapes?
A: No – they are in mint condition, apart from a little dust.
Q: So all the remastering comes from those master tapes?
A: All except “Love Me Do”. We took this from a vinyl master because it had better quality than the tape.
Q: How would you rate the original sound engineers working in the 60’s?
A: Those sound engineers and producers achieved a very high quality, particularly for the time. This is part of the reason this remastering project makes so much sense.
Q: What speakers did you use for monitoring?
A: For stereo we used Meyer Sound X-10 Monitors and also Quest 8’s. The mono recordings were remastered in another studio using Classé Audio electronics and B&W speakers.
Q: Was there any remixing?
A: No. Only remastering.
Q: How does the sound compare to the original vinyl copies?
A: The new remasters offer more clarity, depth and detail than even the original vinyl releases. We made comparisons between the two all the way through the project. But we wouldn’t be surprised if new vinyl versions came out based on the remastered high resolution digital masters.
Q: What makes it possible to do so much better today in sound quality than in the 80’s?
A: We have greatly improved tape playback machines available today, with better mechanics and electronics. Critically, the analog to digital converters available today are far better than those available in the early days of digital.
Q: What problems did you have with the sound from the master tapes?
A: Once the analog ¼” master tapes were converted into a high resolution digital medium (192K/24 bit) we did all our subsequent work in Pro Tools. There were minor problems involving separation, sibilance, odd cracks and ticks. We used Pro Tools retouching only to fix individual syllables, not entire songs. We used De-Noise very occasionally to reduce tape hiss in the beginning of a song where only a single guitar was playing. We used a small amount of limiting on the stereo albums, but not nearly as much as other modern day recordings.
Q: Were some albums harder to remaster than others?
A: Each album had its own challenges. The older albums had fewer tape tracks to work with and often lower quality sound. New albums had more tracks which were more complicated, but the recordings were of higher quality. These gained the most from the process.
Q: Why are some mono tracks different takes from the stereo equivalent?
A: Separate master tapes were used for the mono recordings and the stereo recordings. The mixing and take selection were made in the 60’s.
Q: Did any new material come to light and if so, will we be seeing it?
A: No – there were no surprises there.
Q: Can we expect to see high resolution digital issues such as Blu-ray or SACD, and will we see electronic downloads on iTunes?
A: We don’t have that information, but we certainly hope so. It’ll be up to Apple Records.