By ALLAN KOZINN
The New York Times
September 6, 2009
THE newly remastered CDs of the Beatles’ original albums and singles, which EMI and Apple Corps, the Beatles’ company, are releasing on Wednesday, have less of a gee-whiz factor than The Beatles: Rock Band, which hits stores on the same day. But for those of us for whom the music is paramount — and who will forever refer to Rock Band as “the toy” — the game is a plastic tail wagging a cartoonish dog. And though the compact disc, as a format, may be on its deathbed, these remastered CDs are really the main event.
The complete catalog, in mono and stereo, has been given a careful digital upgrade. These are straightforward transfers of the albums as they were released in Britain, rather than the American versions, which were reconfigured by Capitol Records (to the Beatles’ chagrin). Do not look for bonus tracks: the only extras are making-of documentaries on each of the stereo discs. And although the stereo and mono mixes could have fit together on single CDs, in most cases EMI is selling them separately.
The up side: In most cases this music has dimension and detail that it never had before, and the new packaging reflects each album’s musical and cultural importance. Over all, the new discs sound substantially better than the Beatles’ original CDs, which EMI issued in 1987. The most striking and consistent improvements are a heftier, rounded, three-dimensional bass sound, and drums that now sound like drums, rather than something in the distance being hit. But because each album has its own sonic character, due partly to developments in recording technology during the Beatles’ career, and partly to the growing complexity of their work, some discs are improved more radically than others, and some are hardly improved at all.
Probably the most revelatory of the new transfers is the stereo White Album. From the opening jet engine effects on “Back in the U.S.S.R” to the final orchestral chord on “Good Night,” this album now leaps from the speakers. Gentler songs like “Julia” and “I Will” have a lovely transparency, and hard rockers like “Yer Blues” and “Helter Skelter” — as well as John Lennon’s quirky vision of dystopia, “Revolution 9” — have a power and fullness unheard until now.
“Abbey Road” also benefits considerably. The clearer instrumental profiles serve this rich-textured album beautifully: “Sun King” and “Here Comes the Sun” are unusually supple; the vocal on “You Never Give Me Your Money” no longer has a shrill edge, and Lennon’s proto-Minimalist “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” has never sounded more mesmerizing. Nor has the group’s valedictory jam in “The End.”
And if you are cherry-picking among these reissues, the two-CD singles compilation “Past Masters” should be near the top of your list. The stereo mixes of these songs are often less hard hitting than the mono singles were, but the remastered versions, with their enriched bass, palpable drum sound and improved sense of vocal presence, no longer sound anemic. You find yourself discovering textural details (the percussion overlay in “She’s a Woman” is one such surprise) that show how imaginative the Beatles’ arrangements are.
It’s about time. In 1987 the elation of finally getting the group’s classic recordings on CD, four years after the format was introduced, quickly gave way to disappointment with the discs’ sound quality and presentation. Like many early CDs, several (though not all) of the Beatles’ discs had a harsh upper range. And except for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which was put in a deluxe package with liner essays and archival photos, the 1987 CDs came with minimal, slapdash artwork.
Collectors who had long prized both the mono and stereo mixes of the group’s albums, which have different attractions (and sometimes different vocal takes and instrumental details), and had hoped that EMI would find a way to release both mixes on CD, were upset that the 1987 series offered the first four albums only in mono and the rest only in stereo. In one sense all of the group’s music had made the transfer; in another, about half the catalog was missing.
In a way it still is: the stereo recordings are available either individually for $18.98; $24.98 for double albums, or boxed (as “The Beatles”) for $259.98. But the mono albums can be had only in a 13-disc boxed set, “The Beatles in Mono,” for $298.98, which covers up to the White Album (the last album the group mixed in mono) and includes a mono version of the “Past Masters” singles compilation that includes previously unissued mono mixes of “Across the Universe” and songs from the “Yellow Submarine” soundtrack.
The Beatles and their producer, George Martin, considered the mono mixes definitive, and you don’t have to be a Beatles completist to see why. “She’s Leaving Home,” which drags sappily on the stereo “Sgt. Pepper,” is faster on the mono album, which also has a decidedly more psychedelic sounding “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” a punchier “Good Morning, Good Morning” and a sizzling reprise of the title song. “Magical Mystery Tour” is far more solid and detailed in mono, and the White Album is packed with details you don’t hear in the stereo mix. But by making them available only in a collectors’ box, EMI has made it impossible for many listeners to sample one or two.
To produce the new CDs, EMI returned to the mono and stereo masters prepared for the group’s vinyl releases in the 1960s, which the label says have remained in pristine condition. These are the same tapes EMI used in 1987, but analog-to-digital technology has improved considerably since then, making it possible to get a much more fine-grained, high-resolution digital transfer. And where the 1987 transfers were done quickly, the new set was assembled over four years, with different teams working on the mono and stereo recordings.
As in 1987 there are two exceptions to the “’60s masters only” rule: the stereo “Help!” and “Rubber Soul” discs use the remixes that Mr. Martin made for the 1987 CDs. It may seem inconsistent to present these remixes as the de facto standards, given that Allan Rouse, who oversaw the project, has said that the goal was to produce a series of CDs that sound as close as possible to the ’60s master tapes.
But Mr. Martin’s updates largely match the placements and balances of the originals, and because they were made from the multitrack session tapes, instruments and vocals sound strikingly fresher than in the 1965 versions (which are included in the mono box). Perhaps not surprisingly, given their digital origins, the new “Help!” and “Rubber Soul” CDs, though slightly louder than their 1987 counterparts — as all the new discs are — are identical in matters of timbre and definition. The group’s experimental “Revolver” and “Magical Mystery Tour,” and its back-to-basics “Let It Be,” if not as lapel-grabbing as the upgrades of the White Album and “Abbey Road,” nevertheless benefit from the more distinct instrumental and vocal profiles of the new transfers.
“Sgt. Pepper,” oddly, is a mixed bag. Instrumental textures are crisper and cleaner, and the bass is firmer. And songs like “Getting Better” have shed the piercing treble sound that afflicted the 1987 version. Yet several songs — “Fixing a Hole” and “She’s Leaving Home,” among them — now sound flatter, or less dynamically fluid, than they did on either the 1987 CD or a good British LP.
Among the early albums I have always loved the wide stereo separation of “Please Please Me” and “With the Beatles” — despite its vigorous condemnation by Mr. Martin (which is why they have not been available on CD) — because it lets you hear exactly what’s happening in both the instrumental and vocal arrangements. Those albums sound superb, as do the better-balanced “Hard Day’s Night” and “Beatles for Sale.”
Few listeners are likely to replace their CDs for the sake of new cover art, but it is a distinct attraction. The stereo discs come in three-panel (four for the “White Album”) laminated sleeves, with booklets that include the original liner notes and lyrics (if they came with the LP), contemporaneous photos and new essays about what the Beatles were up to when they made the album at hand and (more cursorily) how the recordings were produced. The discs are pressed on reproductions of the various Parlophone, Capitol and Apple labels on which the albums first appeared.
The video documentaries, embedded as computer-playable QuickTime files on the stereo CDs, draw largely on interviews recorded for “The Beatles Anthology” (1995) and offer a few surprises. With the exception of Mr. McCartney, for example, the group had an almost perversely dismissive attitude toward “Sgt. Pepper.” Ringo Starr says he preferred the group dynamic on the White Album (even though he quit in frustration during the sessions) and “Let It Be” (when the band was at its most fractious). The stereo box also includes a DVD compilation of these video clips.
The mono discs lack the documentaries (and the DVD) and are packaged as copies of the original albums. The covers are accurate down to the quaint way EMI LP jackets were assembled in the ’60s (with glued-down cardboard flaps on the back). Extras like the White Album poster and portraits, and the “Sgt. Pepper” cutouts, are included too, as is a 44-page book of historical notes and pictures.
In the 22 years since the release of the original, mediocre CDs, just about all of the Beatles’ great contemporaries — the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan among them — have had their catalogs upgraded as technology has changed. Beatles fans have been begging EMI to do the same, and although the wait has been long, the new transfers are so good that this thrice-familiar music sounds fresher than ever.
Now EMI should consider moving the catalog to a truly high-definition format, like Blu-ray DVD, adding newly remixed Surround versions like those on “The Beatles Anthology.” With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first hit coming in 2012, there isn’t much time to waste.