When I attended last year’s press conference at Capitol Records for the 50th Anniversary launch of The Beatles, aka The White Album, a journalist shouted out to producer Giles Martin, “Hey, what about Abbey Road?” Martin, ever unflappable, wryly responded, “So we’ve already moved on, have we?”
The question, however, was prescient. Indeed, the cherished Beatles catalog remains a living, evolving fiscal juggernaut. Sure enough, a year later I found myself returning to Capitol for a listening session for the 50th Anniversary release of Abbey Road. Working with the original eight-track analog session tapes, producer Martin and mix engineer Sam Okell and their crack team of engineers and audio restorationists remixed the last album the Beatles recorded. Impressive does not begin to describe an achievement that both honors the original and polishes its legacy.
The refurbished Abbey Road will be available in CD and LP formats but also deluxe editions that include additional 23 session and demo recordings—many previously unreleased—which are presented in the chronological order of their recording dates. The listening session I attended was hosted by Guy Hayden from Universal Music’s London office. In his introduction he pointed out that the initial challenge was trying to improve what was already a very good-sounding album, even by contemporary standards. Key to the project’s success was the pristine condition of eight-track sessions tapes and the fact that EMI kept every Beatles session tape—an industry rarity at the time. Thus, during the restoration process every existing take from the multitrack was reviewed for this exhaustive process. And, of course, the journey was guided by Sir George Martin’s original stereo mix.
Sonically, the track-to-track differences are heard less as a total facelift and more as a brilliant refresh, the new edition eliciting more tonal color, density, and detail. Images are spread more equitably and discretely across the soundspace, with less overlap and smear. Vocals are more engraved in their own ambient space, and bass and drums are more articulate. “Come Together” provides a weightier, “heavier” impact, as does the entire side two medley. It’s a more balanced mix, as in “Here Comes the Sun,” where the earlier hard-panning of George’s vocal is tweaked and the focus of the instrumentation moves closer to center stage. The 24/96kHz Blu-ray version is even better, as heard on “You Never Give Me Your Money,” where there is additional ease and purity around the piano intro and greater ambience and dimensionality throughout.
The additional session and demos provide a treasure trove of minutiae and curiosities for Beatles enthusiasts. Among them are McCartney’s charming home demo of “Goodbye” for Mary Hopkin; a new anniversary mix of George’s “Something” demo; and McCartney’s studio demo for “Come And Get It,” a mega-hit for Badfinger. Lennon’s wit is on full display during a particularly loud late-night take of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and the trial edit and mix of the side two medley includes the surprise track “Her Majesty,” which pops up 14 seconds after “The End.” Stunning too are the original overdubbed recordings of Sir George’s instrumental scores for “Something,” “Golden Slumbers,” and “Carry That Weight.”
The multichannel Atmos mix is tastefully entertaining, yet careful not to make a roller-coaster ride out of cherished source materials. The center channel intensely focuses vocals, casting them a bit dryer as a result. Atmos’ emphasis is on the overhead and immersive, and it redefines and elevates the soundstage. On a track like “Because,” Atmos is effective since the ethereal nature of the vocal harmonies lends itself to this enveloping format.
Super fans will be delighted with the Super Deluxe 3CD + Blu-ray box set. It includes the session recordings and demos, the stereo album, a 24-bit/96kHz stereo version, 5.1 surround, and Dolby Atmos. The slip-cased 100-page hardbound book is lavish, with a McCartney foreword, Giles Martin’s introduction, chapters written by Beatles historian Kevin Howlett, track-by-track details and session notes, and an essay by music journalist David Hepworth. The set also contains previously unpublished photographs, handwritten lyrics, sketches, a George Martin score, and much more. Beatles enthusiasts should have their hands full until the fully restored Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed Let It Be premieres next year for, of course, its 50th Anniversary.