Beatles remasters: First impressions

TheBeatles-StereoBox-productshot3

Photo courtesy Apple Corps Ltd., 2009

Yesterday I received the stereo and mono remastered Beatles catalog from EMI. I have had limited time to listen, but I wanted to share my initial impressions of what I’ve heard so far.

I had to start with the mono version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pepper was my first Beatles album, given to me by my step-mother Aurora sometime in the late 1970s. It was vinyl, of course – and stereo. Now I listen to the 1987 stereo CD version. All of which means that I have never heard the mono mix, the one that producer George Martin, balance engineer Geoff Emerick and the Beatles themselves labored on. (The stereo version, as Emerick told me here, was an afterthought, mixed without the Beatles’ direct involvement).

Because my recording computer is in the shop, I couldn’t listen through my normal studio monitors and was forced to rely upon my garden-variety stereo. I was careful to place the speakers in an equilateral triangle with my head, to minimize phasing issues that might result from listening to mono recordings on two speakers.

At once, the good sergeant and his band burst into the room. Immediately I was struck by the new sounds only available on the mono version — different, seemingly louder roars from the crowd, Paul’s ad-libbed scatting on the fadeout of the title track, and, especially, the deliciously phase-y Lennon lead vocal on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” made more ghostly thanks to ADT that isn’t present in the stereo version.

The sound itself was rich — the highs seemed higher than I remembered, but without harshness, and Paul’s bass sounded full and daring. I could easily picture Paul sitting on a stool in No. 2, carefully playing those amazing lines on his Rickenbacker, each nuance picked up by the C12 that Emerick had set up a few feet from the bass amp.

Then I turned to the stereo version – which, unlike the mono version, has been treated to limiting by Allan Rouse’s Abbey Road team, to increase the overall volume and punch. I was a bit leary, I confess — I hoped the new engineers’ touch wouldn’t ruin what the original crew accomplished all those years ago.

I’m delighted to say that so far, I cannot detect any heavy-handed modernization in the remastered stereo version of Pepper. What I do hear:

* Yes, it’s slightly louder than either the mono or the 1987 CD release.

* The sound is even deeper, richer and crisper.

* I may be overly influenced by a lifetime of listening to music in stereo, but the songs just sound a little nicer with the tracks spread across the stereo field.

Compared with the 1987 version, the remastered stereo version of Pepper is clearly superior, based on my hour or so comparing them.

Just a few minutes of listening to other stereo versions have, so far, confirmed those impressions. Suddenly I hear detail I couldn’t hear on the 1987 versions, i.e. the distinct harmony part (from Lennon?) on the chorus of  “Eleanor Rigby,” or the slight creek at the end of the final “E” chord on “A Day In The Life” that, Emerick has told me, came from Ringo shifting on the piano bench he shared with Paul.

All of which is to say: I really can’t wait to listen more, both to the mono and the stereo CDs, comparing and contrasting and, once again, getting lost in the greatest music of our time.

UPDATE: Here’s a short review from Britan’s Uncut magazine.

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16 Responses to “Beatles remasters: First impressions”

  1. pablo Says:

    hi, thanks for the preview. i,m surprised that you did not mention one of the biggest differences btw mono and stereo sgt. pepper. the vocals on the mono are not as far out front making it, imo, way more ‘rockin’. i never listen to my stereo (87 version) sgt pepper anymore. however, the mccartney vocal bridge on the mono day in the life comes in far too forward in the mix, imo, of course. i solved that by cutting and pasting the stereo version bridge into the mono. i believe lennon famously remarked, ‘if you haven’t heard sgt pepper in mono, then you haven’t heard sgt pepper’, (paraphrased). keep up the good work.

    thanks

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  3. earwicker Says:

    “the songs just sound a little nicer with the tracks spread across the stereo field.”

    – Thank you for being the first person anywhere in the world to even hint at the possibility that they’ve done something about the original terrible stereo positioning. In the post-Walkman age that we’ve been in since about 1980, the irritating sound of “instruments in one ear, voices in the other ear” has been the most obvious defect of the Beatles in stereo, and I can’t understand why more attention isn’t given to this in discussion of the remasters. It’s the one thing they need to fix for the mainstream audience who won’t be bothered with the mono box, and this will all be a total waste of time if they don’t fix it, as kids will hear the stereo mixes primarily on their personal music players, on ear buds.

  4. Christopher Ave Says:

    Well unfortunately Earwicker, in most cases the stereo field is the same in the remastered versions as it has been in all other stereo releases. Why? Because in remastering, it is impossible to change the panning of instruments in a mix — that would require reMIXing, which is a deeper level of change to the track. Now, it so happens that original producer George Martin DID remix two of the early stereo albums — Help and Rubber Soul — to address precisely the problem you mentioned: the weird instruments-on-one-side, voices-on-the-other mix on some of the other early stereo albums.

    Now, if you want to hear how the current Abbey Road team remixed some Beatles songs, check out the recent Yellow Submarine soundtrack, their Let it Be…Naked CD and, of course, the Love soundtrack, where whole songs are mashed together.

  5. earwicker Says:

    Yep, I know and love those remixes, and I recommend ripping the various songs that appear on the Anthology and Help DVDs also – some of them are revelations (e.g. Things We Said Today) and don’t appear in that form on any audio release. It’s due to the existence of those delicious “tasters” that I’m so frustrated that we don’t get the complete “banquet”!

    More recently the Abbey Road team have found a way to extract individual parts from the 2-track masters of the very early recordings, which they needed to make the soundtracks for the Rock Band game. George Martin heard what they’ve achieved and described it as “alchemy” or like taking a cake and turning it back into the ingredients. So they could remix the whole catalog.

    I ordered both box sets in April, of course, but I see the stereo remasters as a missed opportunity. With the mono box staying true to the originals, they surely had scope to go further with the stereo set.

  6. Michael Ventrella Says:

    Wait, so the early albums aren’t being remixed at all? In other words, we still have to put up with instruments on one side and vocals on the other?

    I was hoping that this release would be like the Yellow Submarine Songbook, where the stereo mixes were also adjusted for better sound.

    I mean, will “I Am The Walrus” be half in stereo and half in mono like on Magical Mystery Tour or all in stereo like on Love?

  7. Leo Says:

    The next box set will be stereo REMIXING!!! It should have been done now to give you both original stereo and extra crispy stereo mixes like what’s on YS Songtrack!

    But alas, that’s going to mean another set of CDs in 5 years. I mean 25 years. We’ll all be dead and we can’t complain. I say now that we have everything the way they intended and then stereo as originally released, we should now get the way it should have been! LOL

  8. Leo Says:

    BTW to the writer, I have heard the squeaking piano bench since it was on LP. The CD also had it very clearly in 1987. Maybe you need new headphones?

  9. Hashman Says:

    All of the newly remastered albums will be using the original 60’s stereo mixes (other than Help and Rubber Soul) – I think that will even include the ones that were remixed later. Absolutely no remixing was done in this process.

    I plan to compile album tracklists using the best mixes and studio outtakes/singles anyway – it’s my own little “project”.

  10. mr mustard Says:

    it’s sad that they don’t release the original stereo mixes with new stereo mixes as bonus tracks on one cd – like EMI did with the deep purple catalogue. that would have been great. Or the mono mix and the stereo mix on one cd (they did that with beach boys/pet sounds). And for each album a second disc (deluxe editions) with bonus tracks (b-sides, bbc-versions, outtakes, live-versions etc). like the did with the who-catalogue. after all these years there are a lot of examples how to treat a back-catalogue with respect and care and the way fans apreciate it.

  11. Paul R Says:

    The weird panning — instruments over here, vocals over there — is an artifact of the early stereo era. They didn’t want to record two different mixes, so they had to come up with a single mix that could be mastered both to stereo and to mono.

    Panning everything all the way left or right was the answer, for a couple of reasons. First, if you have an instrument panned to the center of a stereo mix, and then mix down to mono, that instrument will be amplified by 6db, completely ruining the way it sit in the mix.

    Second, back in the 60s, stereo was a novelty, and the few people who had stereo sets tended to have their speakers against a wall and very close to each other … so they were practically listening in mono anyhow. To give any sense at all of a stereo image, panning needed to be completely exagerated.

    So putting each track either far left or far right solved both problems.

    Making a good stereo mix for a good (and well set up ) stereo would require a complete remix. And this would be a new creation, involving all kinds of decisions that the Beatles and Martin would have wanted to be involved in. It still might be fun to hear, but if you want the original vision, listen to the mono mix.

    I can’t wait for the opportunity.

  12. beatlesfan77 Says:

    Wow! Amazing review. I’m crazy excited to hear the mono versions… I’ve never heard mono Pepper.

  13. paul Says:

    what about the early albums that were released only in mono in 1987 …..

    with the beatles
    please please me
    beatles for sale
    hard days night

    i’m assuming that the stereo mixes for these will actually be new …..

    how do they sound ????

    lol

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