I received my copies of the new remasters of The Beatles' catalog in the midst of the media frenzy that was 9/9/09. After all the hubbub died down and I'd had time to think about it, I realized there was one question still hanging: How do you review The Beatles? I followed the stories surrounding the release of the newly remastered CDs closely throughout the end of August and early September and one thing was clear - everyone who listened was struck by how astounding the arc of The Beatles' career was. Lennon and McCartney blossomed early as songwriters and - whether working together or apart - that gift never really left them. George Harrison also grew as a songwriter during his time as a Beatle, but he certainly brought a lyrical approach and searching mind to crafting his parts as the band's lead guitarist. And Ringo Starr - after years of musicians discovering how unique and complex his drum parts really were - is still underrated as the anchor of The Beatles. So we're in agreement, then - There's everyone else, and then there's The Beatles. Song for song, album for album, the innovation, quality and sheer energy and positivity of the band's message is unmatched in both rock and pop. This CD remaster series was a long time in the making, and it is inarguably the most valuable collection of recorded works of the past 60 years. But was it worth all the fuss? Was it worth the 22-year wait? Couldn't these discs have been issued years ago? Isn't the CD dead anyway? Why weren't the tracks remixed? And couldn't they have released a high resolution Blu-ray set and driven that technology by the sheer force of the Beatle brand? Well, the answers to these questions are myriad and at this point, moot. After an initial week or so with the discs I decided to deal solely with the technical aspects of the remastered CDs.
On first listen I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the sound quality of the discs. Some are shrill to the point of hurting your ears and some are quite clearly not from first-generation masters. On a car stereo and iPod these problems are most evident. But on a good home stereo system (remember those?) they do sound very good. The mono set sounds especially rich and full - as close to a vinyl experience as you might expect from a little silver disc. Abbey Road, Revolver, A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale sound especially good. And the mono issues of The Beatles (the "White Album"), Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour are must-haves. But in order to get a fuller picture of what we're dealing with, I convened a group of musicians and fans at a studio in New York City to have a listening party. Last summer EMI invited a select group of journalists to compare the 1987 issues of The Beatles' albums with the new set. The stories were glowing in their praise of the remasters, but the deck was stacked. They compared new stereo remasters with old mono mixes, and they didn't account for the fact that the new discs were at least 2 dB louder than the old discs. Paul Goodrich of Merlin Music in New York City was kind enough to host our evening and he corrected those problems.
Paul has worked in the industry for years, collaborating with a who's who of producers and artists, winning numerous awards in the process. More relevantly, he was one of the key people who worked on the John Lennon Anthology CD set and subsequent reissues of John Lennon's catalog, as well as numerous projects with Yoko Ono over the past 15 years. Paul loaded the 1987 CDs and the 2009 remasters, in both mono and stereo, into Pro Tools. And (where available) he also loaded up the songs that were remixed from the original multitrack tapes, such as the Yellow Submarine Songtrack and Let It Be... Naked. He also accounted for variations in volume. In this way we were able to compare each version of the songs in The Beatles' catalog side-by-side. Aside from Paul and myself, our listening session included session drummer Alex Alexander (Dido, Ritchie Blackmore), Grammy-nominated producer and engineer Scott Sherratt as well as playwright Norman Lasca. (Norman was the only non-musician and his reactions turned out to be invaluable.)
We began by listening to various versions of the song "Get Back". The 2009 remasters were rich and full, while the 1987 versions were clean and bright, but lacked any body or depth. The Let It Be... Naked version was the cleanest and loudest (probably as a result of being mastered in 2004), and drew the strongest reaction - "You can hear the towel on the snare!" exclaimed Alex.
Things got particularly interesting while listening to the "White Album". The 1987 version of "Back in the U.S.S.R." was bright and clear, but lacked any real bottom end, while the 2009 remaster was rich and full, but bore the mark of fairly heavy compression to the point that we debated for quite some time whether we were listening to a different mix.
In the end we agreed that the upgraded analog/digital converters and the use of limiting and compression (to create the "classic, more vinyl-sounding feel," as Scott called it) created less separation in the 2009 remasters, giving the impression the track was a different mix than the 1987 version. But what was most interesting was that, while all of the musicians in the room preferred the 2009 remasters, Norman chose the 1987 version. Paul complained that the piano in the 1987 version had "a painful high-end edge" that hurt his ears. But the crisp, clean sound appealed to Norman, even if it was thinner and less bass-y. "I'm not sure if it's worth it to go out and spend the extra money," Norman observed. "The version from 1987 actually sounds okay to me. It sounds crisper."
Most of you will probably know the story of how The Beatles spent ages on mono mixes, leaving the stereo mixes to producer George Martin and his engineering team. This was obvious as the 2009 mono remaster of "Back in the U.S.S.R." was the hands-down choice of everyone in the room. "Dear Prudence" was next, and we all agreed that the 2009 remaster was an improvement overall. While the applied EQ seemed to bury the vocal as it played against John Lennon's acoustic/electric Gibson J-160E guitar in the 2009 remaster, Scott observed that the approach taken to the 2009 remaster "translated into life and bounce and [was] very listenable." The guitars sounded much more lifelike and the 2009 remaster gave the appearance of far more breathing room than on "Back in the U.S.S.R."
The comparisons of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" were even starker. The 1987 and mono versions suffered from distortion on the top end that appeared to have been removed via multiband compression and EQ in the 2009 stereo remaster. And the 2009 version sounded less like a CD than the 1987 version, which came from the early days of A/D conversions. "The conversion process is the most dangerous place for music," noted Paul to total agreement from the room.
We then compared a few tracks from Revolver. The 2009 version of "Eleanor Rigby" was a remarkable improvement over the 1987 version, but it was the 1999 version from the Yellow Submarine Songtrack that got everyone's attention. We all agreed that tremendous care and attention had been given to the new mix of the song in the 1999 version (created from the original multitrack tapes by the folks at Abbey Road), with a different take on stereo placement. Paul noted the Songtrack version was "definitely more exciting" with a "nice use of space," while Scott and Norman agreed the mix was "more exciting." The reaction to "Yellow Submarine" was similar. Alex noted wow and flutter on Ringo's voice on both the 1987 and 2009 versions that were not present in the 1999 version taken from the master tapes, and Paul commented that "the sharp edges (had) been shaved off."
The remasters from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band drew raves. Everyone was especially impressed with the 2009 mono remaster. Scott noted that the mono mixes were "hands down the richest, fullest sounding versions of the Sgt. Pepper material" he'd ever heard. Oddly, the Yellow Submarine Songtrack versions of the Pepper tracks didn't fare as well. "The clarity is fantastic," Paul noted of "When I'm 64". "But there's lots of reverb and it's obviously a remix. The remix is very well done, but it's just not in the same spirit as the original mix."
What we found in the 1999 remixes led to a long discussion of the merits of catalog remixing. While we agreed that we all preferred remasters to remixes (the unsatisfying remixes done of the Led Zeppelin catalog drawing the harshest criticism), Scott noted that "maybe we are ultimately not the audience." Perhaps, we discussed, these new remasters of The Beatles' catalog are now the historical document, as clean and close to the original vinyl releases as are possible. But the future seems wide open when it comes to remixes, given the amazing job done on the Yellow Submarine Songtrack. "If I were 14 I'd go for the remixes," said Alex.
We finally compared several versions of "Ticket to Ride". Not only were we able to compare the 1987 CDs with the 2009 mono and stereo remasters, but the 2009 mono remaster includes the 1965 original stereo mix of the original LP as a bonus. (The 1987 CD release was a remix George Martin did at that time to try to minimize the harsh separation of the original stereo mixes.) While I preferred the original mono and stereo mixes, Alex and Scott were partial to the 2009 remaster of the 1987 remix. Paul balked that the smooth, clean Abbey Road room reverb of the 1965 mix had been replaced by what sounded like an EMT plate, creating a dramatically different acoustical sound, but Alex and Scott stood firm. "It's the difference between toms and timpani," Alex joked of the improved drum sound on the 2009 remaster of the 1987 remix, while Scott noted that the difference was so dramatic it sounded as though they'd replaced the toms. To me the 2009 remaster of the 1987 remix had too much bass and sounded too '80s, but the consensus was against me.
This again raised the specter of remixing. We all agreed that while the current remasters are the best representation of The Beatles' catalog to date, a remix of some sort has to be in the cards in the future. But given the glacial pace at which The Beatles' Apple Corps Ltd. moves - and the distractions that projects like Cirque Du Soleil's Love create - it could be some time before those become a reality. Over the course of the listening though, we all agreed that The Beatles' catalog had undergone a much-needed sonic upgrade that was worth investing in. While it seemed that some EQ could have been tweaked more effectively (harsh mids on some of the early tunes like "Can't Buy Me Love" were particularly distracting) and some songs (or whole sides from the "White Album") seemed several generations down from the original masters, the overall reaction to the remasters was that all the fuss was warranted. "The folks at Abbey Road were in a no-win situation," said Scott. "People from all types of backgrounds are going to pick these apart. But the new stereo remasters are respectful and very well done and the mono remasters will be a revelation to just about everyone."
So in the end we agreed that for iPod and computer listening the stereo remasters were the way to go, while the mono set (plus the individual stereo issues of Abbey Road and Let It Be to fill out the catalog) was preferable for those intending to listen on home systems. As Norman aptly summed it up for us, "Wow! These guys are pretty good! They're like the Jonas Brothers, only much better." -Jeff Slate <www.thebadge.com>