The year was 1987 and digital audio was still emerging unsteadily from its technological Stone Age. Nineteen-eighty-seven was also noteworthy for the highly anticipated, first-ever release of the Beatles catalog on compact disc. Although the transfers were engineered under the watchful eye of the Beatles’ longtime producer George Martin, the discs were met with a collective sigh of dismay and reinforced the view that digital sound wasn’t ready for primetime. Dry and brittle, flat and cold—it was, as some would argue, perversely soulless. Most audiophiles scurried back to the safety of their turntables and treasure trove of Beatles vinyl—the early EMI/Parlophones, the later Japanese pressings, and the 1982 Mobile Fidelity Beatles Box.
Twenty-two years later, EMI/Apple Records has taken another stab at setting the record straight by releasing the fully remastered Beatles catalog. But this time they have hit the mark. The new transfers are a sonic triumph that have almost completely avoided the pitfalls of their predecessors—even if they’re almost pre-destined not to please all comers. Certainly analog loyalists with the toniest turntable rigs will nitpick these discs to death. But the newfound energy, detail, and transparency these remasters embody are a quantum leap from 1987. And for the legions of younger listeners without the benefit of the best Beatles vinyl these discs will be nothing short of a revelation.
The new remasters have been released as two separately-distributed CD box sets: The Beatles in Mono, and a stereo collection that includes the 13 core U.K. albums plus Past Masters Volume IandII compiled on one disc. (The single releases and songs from EPs are usually not duplicated on the albums.) Individual discs in the stereo collection are housed in glossy eco-friendly DigiPacks and feature the original cover art with insightful historical and recording notes by producer and documentarian Kevin Howlett. (Still, the individual slip cases aren’t easy-access and they are hardly posh. Sensing an opportunity, one enterprising company is marketing its own storage solution; check out “The Beatles Box of Vision” in this issue’s Industry News.)
Each stereo disc also contains a QuickTime mini-doc depicting the making of that album, and the box adds a bonus DVD compilation of these non-controversial “Anthology-lite” videos as well.
Although the stereo albums are available individually, not so for the mono recordings. They’ll be restricted to the box set and include all 10 titles plus the Mono Masters but alas, no mini-docs. However as a bonus the mono Help and Rubber Soul discs will include the original 1965 stereo mixes which had not been previously released on CD. Said to be targeted at collectors, the run will be limited to 10,000 units.
Why mono? you may wonder. The Beatles’ albums were recorded during the transitional era of mono to stereo and all but their final pair of records, Abbey Road and Let It Be, were mixed to mono. More importantly only the monos were mixed with the Fab Four present in the control room. For many this distinction alone makes the mono set the more accurate barometer of the band’s intent.
The Beatles remastering was led by veteran Abbey Road project coordinator Allan Rouse, engineer Guy Massey, and audio restoration engineer Simon Gibson, and spanned a period of four years. Exhaustive research and listening tests were conducted prior to committing the original EMI 811 analog mastertapes to the digital medium. Even the earliest U.K. vinyl pressings were on hand for comparison. Working song-by-song from vintage Studer tape machines, technicians completed the state-of-the-art transfer using a Pro Tools workstation running at 24-bit/192kHz resolution via a Prism Sound A/D converter. In all instances the artistic integrity of the songs trumped technical considerations and only the rare glitch—a click, a vocal mike pop, or a rough edit—was improved when possible. De-noising technology was used but only sparingly; only five of 525 minutes of running time were processed in this fashion. More provocative was the use of compression (a common way of bumping up the overall volume and sonically fattening today’s pop music) on the stereo transfers. The engineers say that at most only a modest 3–4dB of compression was used—a drop in the bucket compared to the signal crunching of 12–13dB often used today.
For even the most casual Beatles fan, the improvement in sonics from these remasters will be nothing less than thrilling. As with a painstaking restoration of a work of art, the Beatles’ music sounds as if an almost imperceptible build-up of decades-old glaze were suddenly removed from the surface of the sonic canvas, revealing the artist’s bright and bold original palette. And compared with the 1987 CDs, the remasters are warmer, more detailed, and possess a livelier midrange and distinctively fuller bloom in the lower mids and upper bass. The treble is non-edgy and tonally more akin to the Parlophone LPs. They also mercifully avoid the treble boost of the otherwise solid MoFi box set. With these improvements taken together, you’ll hear more clang to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Ringo’s drum fills are fuller and louder, the string orchestra and winds of “Good Night” more fluid and naturalistic. Whether it was the fuzzy guitar feedback of “I Feel Fine,” the open-chord intro of “A Hard Day’s Night,” or the crashing final chord and squeaky piano bench that concludes “A Day In the Life,” as the discs continued to spin, one iconic moment after another reclaimed my attention and provided new insights.
But above all it’s the glorious singing, rich inventive harmonies, and double-tracked vocals that shimmer and shine and electrify with ranges of expression broader and more transparent than ever before. Like freshly minted coins, Paul’s tender “Mother Nature’s Son” and John’s acerbic “Good Morning Good Morning” hardly sound like the same songs. And you’re going to want to grab a soothing glass of milk after Lennon’s lacerating, volcanic “Twist and Shout” vocal.
For purists, the refurbished bass is likely to be the most controversial aspect of these remasters. Depending on which camp you’ve pitched your tent in, you’ll either be delighted or disenchanted with the muscular bass reproduction. Acolytes of Paul McCartney will thrill at the clarity and acrobatic dexterity of his bass lines. Ringo’s fans will be equally stunned at the reverberant impact off the skins. But I’ve never heard “Fixing A Hole” with a footprint this heavy before. Certainly a touch of compression would account for some of the added punch and presence in the low end, but to these ears a bit of added bass EQ also seems likely. Tasteful, certainly—accurate, doubtful. And as good as these remasters are, they still retain trace elements of digital sterility; the best Beatles LPs still rival them in some areas with an almost organic, airy delicacy.
As for the mono recordings, they are so good they may unwittingly revive a cult. The strong central image actually gives the early two-track material more bang and integrity (and yes, layering) than the hard-panned stereo versions, where a lead vocal was often isolated in one channel while bass, drums, and guitar piggybacked in the other. Overall the monos sound a bit softer and lack the tight bottom end of the later stereos, but then there’s a track like “Helter Skelter” from The White Album which, in its immediacy and speed, will rip your driver a new diaphragm. However the best part of the mono set is easily Sgt. Pepper, the album where one can argue that the notably unique mono and stereo versions cross the finish line in a dead heat. I wouldn’t choose the mono set over the stereo discs, but for completists willing to explore the subtle discrepancies and minutiae buried in the rival mixes, the monos really are special.
At a pre-launch press conference I attended at Capitol Records this past June, key issues remain tantalizingly unaddressed—like a potential Blu-ray Disc box that would combine a refreshed Beatles anthology in high definition with high-resolution versions of the albums. Also, Apple Records is keenly aware of surging turntable sales, but does it see this as an opportunity for one last royal 180-gram box set? And if so, would EMI go to the trouble of cutting vinyl from the original masters or just use the newly archived 24-bit/192kHz files? Regarding vinyl, the Apple exec paused as if to ponder the possibilities, “It’s not a matter of if, only a matter of when,” he replied. As for whether the analog masters will once more be pressed into service, the answer is out there, somewhere; or as John Lennon once put it, “Imagine.”