Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Beatles Remasters: Changing History

It cannot go unnoticed that the entire back catalogue of The Beatles has been remastered and re-issued for the first time in 22 years. Yes, I realise this happened on September 9th and I'm not exactly first with the news. But I have now digested all the different stereo and mono versions and have a thing or two to say about them. I am sure that all of these facts can be found elsewhere, but I hope by collecting them together I can make some new observations.

The Beatles released music on vinyl between 1963 and 1970. Supplementary delivery of the albums was on cassette tape, eight-track and reel-to-reel, following the vinyl masters. However, album and single releases were markedly different in the UK and the USA. Canada had further distinctly different albums as did Mexico, and likely other countries as well.

The Capitol Albums sets (released in 2004 and 2006) were designed to issue on CD the butchered albums as they were first presented to the American public, with tracks removed, singles added, titles split into two, etc. For these CDs the American Capitol Records masters were used, which had additional EQ and even echo added to the UK originals. Many of the mono mixes are not the original true mono but rather so-called "fold-down" mixes, in which the two stereo channels are collapsed to mono. Only those collectors nostalgic for the original USA albums need bother with these releases. I mention them only to highlight the fact that The Beatles music has always been subject to different interpretations by engineers, producers and their record companies.

When their catalogue was first issued on CD (in 1987) the albums were standardised to follow the original UK titles. The one exception was Magical Mystery Tour, which, taking after the US vinyl, became a full album. Two albums of left-over single tracks and alternative versions were collected as Past Masters. Originally Past Masters was two separate releases; as of 2009 it is a double CD single title. Further, for the mono set this collection has been altered and retitled Mono Masters.

The 14 canonical albums are therefore:

1. Please Please Me [1963]
2. With The Beatles [1963]
3. A Hard Day's Night [1964]
4. Beatles for Sale [1964]
5. Help! [1965]
6. Rubber Soul [1965]
7. Revolver [1966]
8. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [1967]
9. Magical Mystery Tour [1967]
10. The Beatles ("The White Album") [1968]
11. Yellow Submarine [1969]
12. Abbey Road [1969]
13. Let It Be [1970]
14. Past Masters [1987] / Mono Masters [2009]

The 2009 remaster box sets have made available stereo versions of each album plus mono versions of the first ten. You can purchase the stereo versions individually, but currently must buy The Beatles In Mono to get the mono versions. If you shell out the two hundred pounds sterling you also get two original stereo mixes, of Help! and Rubber Soul. Mono Masters also includes the mono versions of The Beatles tracks original to Yellow Submarine. So effectively you have all the music except the last two albums. (These you can buy as separate stereo discs.)

To disentangle this convoluted mastering story one should remember that in 1963 mono was the de facto playback standard. Only audiophiles had access to stereo hi-fi sets. This gradually changed, so that by the end of the group's career stereo was the most common release version. Abbey Road and Let It Be were issued only in stereo. As time went on, recording technology also improved and different approaches to mixing were used by George Martin.

For the 2009 remasters, the engineers went back to the earliest generation master tapes possible, applying equalisation, some noise reduction (only to 1% of the music, apparently) and compression to boost the overall levels. What is important to those who fight the "loudness wars" is that the remastered stereo CDs have been compressed; the mono version have not. This is perhaps the largest change in the new CDs and it makes comparing versions difficult. It's a psychoacoustic fact that one will always prefer a louder playback of the same material to a quieter version.

It's apparent that the compression has enhanced the presence of existing reverberation and echo chamber effects. This has the effect of altering the mix substantially in those cases where echo was more heavily applied in the first place.

The clarity of the transfer makes it a lot easier to hear Ringo's contribution, since each drum hit or tambourine rattle is clearly audible. This is a revelation!

Further, the bass end has received a substantial boost on the stereo masters, which is generally welcome. But sometimes I find the bass to be a tad overpowering; the effect is disconcerting. Perhaps this is because I am somewhat used to a more reedy sixties sound and the new range confounds my expectations? In any case I doubt listeners who did not grow up with these songs will notice.

It should be noted that this was a remaster job, not a remix. Multitrack tapes were not touched; all the work was done from mono or stereo masters. I assure you that on listening you will sometimes find that fact difficult to believe. And the more you know about audio engineering the more amazing some of the transformations will seem!

And this brings up a significant point. We have already been treated to the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, LOVE and the Let It Be... Naked albums. Besides those obvious cases, Help! and Rubber Soul were remixed by George Martin for the 1987 CD releases (the 2009 stereo remasters follow those two remixes). Plus there's the video game Rock Band. In each case, original Beatles material was remixed from the ground up to suit new aesthetic approaches, new technologies and new expectations.

Why did they not do that in this case?

I am sure the engineers will say that they wanted to stay true to the original material. But in that case only the mono masters should have been used. The mono mixes were the original masters, up to 1968 at least. Even if stereo versions were to be issued as part of this campaign, they should not have used the 1987 remixes for the two records already mentioned. And they should not have applied such obvious compression and equalisation, both of which have fundamentally altered the texture of many songs.

The label's decision cannot be put down to simple greed. After all, there would be even more commercial scope in a staged release of several different versions. First would be the mono versions of the album, restored to their original glory. A second release of remixed stereo albums could have followed, to much fanfare. Both sets could have been kept in print and available, unlike the short life of the mono box set. And of course higher-resolution SACD or DVD versions could have been provided for those who want them. (And vinyl... what about vinyl?)

The current remasters attempt to change the sound of The Beatles while pretending to be true to the originals. That is simple historical revisionism. No matter how good the remasters sound, it's a shame.

In my next article I'll pick my favourite versions of the different albums.



Anonymous said...

They used compression to get more volume but the dynamic was not altered.

robin said...

Anon: That is impossible. Compression does alter the dynamics... that's what it is for! By squishing the peaks of the signal and limiting the dynamic range, compression makes it possible to then boost the overall amplitude by the same amount that the highest peak was reduced, thus presenting a louder signal. By no means is this necessarily a bad thing... it is an essential tool in rock and pop mixing.

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