Sunday, June 04, 2017

Sgt. Pepper 2017 and the loudness wars

Anyone with a passing interest in pop music or studio production could not help but notice the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's the first time an album by this seminal group has been released in archival fashion, which is perhaps surprising. There's lots of exciting news here, most prominent being a brand new remix from the original masters, by none other than George Martin's son Giles.

Sgt. Pepper is often mooted as the band's finest album... indeed the best record of all time. It isn't, not by a fair shot. I would give Abbey Road and The Beatles precedence, and have sympathy for those who choose Revolver as well. It's also called the first concept album, though the conceit was paper thin. Mishearing the words "salt and pepper", McCartney imagined alternative identities for his bandmates as part of some local music hall act. This was by no means a bad strategy to break them out of their equally artificial roles as John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But the only trace of this concept that made it to vinyl were the two renderings of the title track and their dress-up antics on the cover. So, no, not really a concept album and certainly not a good example of one.

But what the album does have are cracking songs, fluid performances, unusual songwriting, imagination to burn, and timbres previously unheard on record. It was an experimental album in a way pop music can never again be. Back in 1966 there was technology to figure out. The musicians were continuously asking themselves questions like: "What strange thing can we do with this tape deck that serves the song?" and "What if we played three pianos simultaneously and miked up the full decay?" and "What if we played this backwards, or down a fifth or up an octave?" There are only so many times you can ask these questions before they become part of the formula. The Beatles and George Martin asked these questions first. And, incredibly, answered them best. (I should not forget the wonderful engineer Geoff Emerick.)

All of this is evident on the first fruits of the recording sessions, the single "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane". I like to think the group released it, in February 1967, as a belated fourth birthday present to myself. Certainly it is a gift to anyone with ears for the strange. I have no qualms in declaring it a better "album" than Sgt. Pepper... though thankfully we don't need to fight over precedence but can enjoy all of the tracks.

This single was remixed in 2015 for 1+ and this new version was also released on vinyl for Record Store Day this year. How bizarre to include it once again in the current package. And doubly strange to bury this landmark of song craft and production on the second disc of backing tracks and out-takes. (Note that this mix of "Penny Lane" has apparently been tweaked somewhat even since 2015, and is hence dated 2017.)

Also included on disc 2 are 16 out-takes and incomplete studio versions, covering every song on the album and the single as well. If you buy the "Super Deluxe Edition" box set you get a total of six discs, including 21 additional out-takes, the original mono version of the album, plus a 5.1 surround mix. Now, many of the extra session have been release on Anthology and all of them on various bootlegs. But they have never sounded better than here.

One thing you won't find is any version of "Only a Northern Song", even though that song was also recorded in the same sessions. Versions have come out in the Anthology series, etc. But it's still an odd decision if they are trying to represent the recording session and not just the album as released.

But let's get back (ahem) to the new remix and compare it to what has come before.

Back in 2009 I devoted quite a few column inches to the publication of the stereo and mono box sets. Much of what I wrote is still relevant:

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!

At that time I critiqued the remasters as a half-way measure, tampering with the original when they should perhaps instead simple be honest and "[remix] from the ground up to suit new aesthetic approaches, new technologies and new expectations". Well, it's 2017 and that's what the clever Apple folk have finally done. (Be careful what you ask for, etc. etc.)

The result is a stereo mix that follows the template set by the definitive mono version but cleans up the sound. It's a muscular sound now, those kick-ass drums I noticed eight years ago joined by blistering vocals, rich strings, and so on. Gone are noises and distortions and in their place we can enjoy increased clarity. The most astounding example is "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", which seems to now possess twice the musical content it ever had before.

But gone also is some of the quirky fun and individualism of the songs. The instruments have been integrated into one sonic statement, as though Martin turned the "glue" setting on the mastering compressor up to 11. Since all of the songs have been given the exact same treatment, they inevitably begin to sound the same. This gives the album a cohesion it never had previously. Some might like this, but it's antithetical to the argumentative polymath entity that was The Beatles.

The other problem is an exacerbation of the dynamic range limiting I heard on the previous master. Here, this effect has been taken to what I consider ridiculous extremes. I can barely get through two songs without my ears tiring of the monotonous sameness of the volume levels.

Or am I simply getting bored of hearing the same song for the ten-thousandth time?

To test that hypothesis, I loaded up some example songs in Sound Forge and had a look at the volume levels. The following tables test uncompressed audio from compact disc releases: mono (2009), stereo remaster (2009), and stereo remix (2017). In each case the maximum and average (RMS) levels in decibels are shown, though I've dropped the negative signs for concision. There are two variables in each cell: left and right channels respectively.

Fixing a Hole
 monostereo 2009stereo 2017
max0.18 / 0.180.34 / 0.320.31 / 0.40
RMS18.49 / 18.4914.39 / 16.4313.13 / 13.14

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
 monostereo 2009stereo 2017
max0.48 / 0.480.37 / 0.370.14 / 0.13
RMS15.96 / 15.9615.67 / 13.4310.74 / 10.82

Good Morning Good Morning
 monostereo 2009stereo 2017
max0.29 / 0.290.37 / 1.240.39 / 0.40
RMS15.83 / 15.8313.93 / 15.4312.00 / 11.93

Strawberry Fields
 monostereo 2009stereo 2017
max0.75 / 0.750.37 / 0.370.00 / 0.00
RMS17.77 / 17.7717.89 / 16.1312.41 / 12.39

Remembering that a lower number represents a louder signal, we can draw a few conclusions. All the peaks across a given mix are consistent, as one would expect, but the peaks between the mono mix tracks vary more than the other mixes (though by only 0.57 dB). Excusing a one channel aberration on "Good Morning", the 2009 stereo mixes vary by only 0.05 dB, which demonstrates a mathematical approach. The 2017 mixes vary by 0.40 dB.

More important for our ears than peaks are the average sound levels. The mono tracks vary by only 2.66 dB, the 2009 stereo by 4.46 dB, and the 2017 mix by 2.32 dB, the least of the three.

The phrase "loudness wars" is used to describe the increase in average sound level in mastered music over time. This issue is not as bad as it once was, with many engineers moderating their approach after consumer complaints started. Unfortunately, these new Beatles recordings are at war with the listeners. The charts plainly show how the RMS levels have edged up over time. Compared to the mono versions, the tracks are now 5.36, 5.18, 3.86, and 5.37 dB louder respectively. That's not a little.

Well, they say a picture is worth some words. Here's "Mr. Kite", in chronological order:

It's clear that my ears were not deceived. The natural dynamics of the instruments have been severely curtailed in the new mix. Vigour and energy have been trade for consistent loudness.

In my previous review article I remarked that, despite all the advances, "many songs are as good or better in mono". It is rather strange to think that now, fifty years later, it's still true. That George Martin sure knew what he was doing!

Perhaps we will get a "restored edition" of this album in another couple of decades. This would have all the same mix elements but with a less bombastic master. Maybe then I will get to quote this article as an example of my occasional foreknowledge.

Stranger things have happened.



Unknown said...

Why do you have to choose the best Beatles album? There is no best Beatles album.

robin said...

The extensive archival treatment being given "Sgt. Pepper" is due to it being regarded as the best Beatles album. That is clear in the marketing and press. My point was to open up this decision to other possibilities, of which I mention three. Of course there will never be any agreement.

Michael Doherty said...

It's the one most people could name you, and thus their biggest selling album in the UK.

Dave54321 said...

Completely agree regarding the fanatical over-compression of this great recording. It's just madness - I know that the reason for mastering recordings this way is to optimise the sound for cars, where apparently most music is listened to these days. But, for heaven's sake, what a sacrifice for true - not casual - music lovers. At least with the White Album and Abbey Road, they issued dynamically vibrant versions on Blu Ray, in addition to the more heavily compressed download versions. Personally, I would make all hi-res downloads "audiophile" quality when it comes to compression, and reserve the brickwall compression for mp3 and possibly CD. The Sgt Pepper compressed remix is utterly unlistenable to me.

robin said...

Dave, thanks for this comment oh so many years later. It provides an excuse to re-read my own article... and wonder how I ever had so much time on my hands!

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the Vinyl version? It's slightly less compressed and might be better to your ears

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