Beatles remasters: An expert’s view

Beatles fans might know Brian Kehew as the co-author of the groundbreaking book Recording The Beatles, an exhaustive and delightful look at how the Beatles and the Abbey Road staff recorded the group’s songs.

Brian Kehew and his Recording the Beatles co-author Kevin Ryan

Brian Kehew and his Recording the Beatles co-author Kevin Ryan

Kehew also is an engineer and producer in his own right; among his production credits is Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine” album, and he has mixed tracks for Aretha Franklin, Fleetwood Mac, The Pretenders and Elvis Costello, among others. Kehew also is a keyboard virtuoso who played on the The Who’s last tour, and he has a collection of historic, vintage keyboards at home.

Aside from Recording the Beatles, Kehew’s Curvebender Publishing also has published a high-end photography book called “Kaleidoscope Eyes: A Day in the Life of Sgt. Pepper,” a collection of photos shot by Henry  Grossman of the Beatles recording “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” during the Sgt. Pepper sessions. And Curvebender plans a second book of the best of Grossman’s Beatles photos.

Because Kehew spent a decade of his life researching “Recording The Beatles,” I wanted to ask him about the remastering project. At the time of our e-mailed interview, he had not yet heard the remastered versions – but he has spent countless hours listening to Beatles tracks in mono, in stereo, on vinyl, on tape and on CD.

Here’s a slightly edited transcript of our interview:

Q: You stress in several places in your excellent book (Recording the Beatles) the time and attention the Beatles themselves and key Abbey Road staff like Geoff Emerick and George Martin gave to making the mono mixes of their songs. The stereo mixes, by contrast, seemed like afterthoughts. Can you expound a bit on that contrast?

A: The world had mono systems at their homes and in cars, etc. Radio too. It’s kind of like 5.1 mixing now – how many people listen to a rock album in 5.1? Only a small fraction of a percentage do. So it’s not worth the time or money to focus much on it. When the Beatles records were mixed – up thought about 1967, they mixed the one record they thought everyone would hear. It also remind me of why the Stones thought stereo was bad – it “thinned out” the big sound they were getting in mono!

Q: Can you provide any examples of where the mono and stereo mixes substantially differ? (i.e., a couple songs where the instruments, vocals, effects or other sounds are different enough that even a casual listener might notice)?

A: Most of the changes are rather slight. I’d say Tomorrow Never Knows has most of the obvious differences – parts you’re not used to hearing. But most times, I’d say that it’s balances which are better – just more in place and together. If you’re used to the stereo, they stereo seems “normal”, but then you hear the mono of Rubber Soul or Revolver and you say “Wow – that sounds better now.”

Q: You guys no doubt have listened to hours and hours of Beatle tracks in a state much closer to original as have most of us. Do you think that the remastered versions to be released on 9/9/09 will capture some of the magic of those original or near-original-copy mixes that you’ve heard?

A: Well not that much different than we know – unless they add some crazy amount of bass or something. But the original tapes were mixed somewhat midrangey anyway – compared to classical or jazz. This was the sound, a rocking energetic style that we now associate with pop music. However, you can hear some of the original detail that may be lost in the original mixes and overdubs – just listen to the LOVE soundtrack; it has many isolated and clear instruments in beautiful detail.

It may be odd when listening to the albums in order – you might hear greater differences, at least unexpected ones, on the later albums. Basically, this is because there was often more mixing done on the later records. The early records have very few tracks which can be adjusted, so less could be done differently between the stereo and mono versions. Later on, there are crazy effects, panning, and multiple layers of tracks to work with – so the stereo version can be different in many ways.

Q:  It seems nearly every major artist has remastered their greatest works. With a few notable exceptions, heretofore the Beatles have not. What are you most excited about in hearing the remastered versions?

A: Well, in some ways, the long wait has killed off some of the excitement. Like someone who made you wait for dinner too long! But I think it may give us a new reason to “sit and listen” – which is unusual nowadays. Even if I played you the old CDs in that “sit and listen” detailed environment, you might hear new things. So, this chance is somewhat rare, to maybe take on all the Beatles music in one long weekend sitting, and follow the changes – because now you have a reason to listen again.

Q: Can you describe how the 1980s-era CD releases sound compared to, say, the original vinyl?

A: In the 1980s, most CDs were made by a simple clean transfer of the recording tapes to digital, and this digital file got printed onto CDs. It’s the same basic process now, but people have learned you can get much better quality by paying close attention to each step of the process: The tape recorder that you use to play it back can actually sound better than the one originally used. The machine that changes analog sound into digital is far more advanced than before, and it picks up much smaller details and little levels of quality that went unnoticed before. There is a step called “mastering” done on every album at this step – new or old. Mastering is to make some choices of volume and tone control – does this sound “as good” as it could, and how much should we tweak it to be better – before we lose the original sound intended.

It’s a big debate now – as modern CDs are heavily mastered and that creates a modern sound – so will these Beatles CDs sound modern, or classic? Most likely, somewhere in the middle.

Q:  Do you fear that the remastered versions, particularly the remastered stereo versions, will include too much compression? Are you in the camp that believes EMI should avoid all compression, noise reduction, etc. and simply get the cleanest copies of the original masters released? Or do you think the two-pronged approach – remastered stereo, near-original mono – is a smart one?

A: This is alluded to in my last statement. From what details we’ve been told – almost no noise-reduction was used – unless the noise was a real problem. Hiss is part of tape recording in those days – it’s the sound that tape makes by itself when there isn’t even anything recorded. There are tricks to taking this out now, and they work, but they do change the sound of the music a little – it’s a debate whether the noise bothers you enough to modify the music/sound as well.

Compression makes things sound big and full, but it’s a trick of volume. It’s why modern music jumps out of the speakers. But you lose the low-level sound when you do this trick, so it’s become another big debate. The Beatles records had – and will have – compression added to make them sound good. It’s part of pop music, but it’s like salt on food – how much is good and how much kills the meal. Everyone has different tastes, and I’m sure they won’t go overboard in either direction – a little bit of compression to make it louder and fuller, but not like a modern record.

Q:  What will you personally be most curious to hear in the remastered releases (if you haven’t yet heard the remastered sets, that is)?

A: I have a vinyl copy of “Magical Mystery Tour” from Germany that sounds amazing. Almost everyone thinks it’s different mixes, but it’s simply someone’s choices of tone and volume changes made when mastering it for the German market. So – if that’s any indication, it could sound very good to have these remasters – I would hope these new CDs sound different enough to justify buying the records all over again.

Q: What do you think are some things that Beatle fans will appreciate, or notice or be surprised at?

The documentary footage/interviews that come with each CD are nice. I saw a sneak preview. But they’re not amazing, it’s just that this shows some photos we’ve never seen, and a few old interviews that shed some light on things. But it’s not earthshaking – these records being reissued. If you had a magazine with faded pictures – it’s like getting an un-faded copy. Just nicer…

9. FINALLY…. for fans of the band, how big a deal is this? Why?

Medium. A big deal would be more “from the vaults”. We’ve heard and loved these records a zillion times already. And some days, you hear a Beatles song in a store or the car, and it has a “newness” or something that makes your hairs stand up on end, all over again. Hopefully, we’ll get a bit of a resurgence in Beatles interest. And maybe the remaining families will all agree that to release things of substance (not toy submarines or lunchboxes) do the Beatles’ legacy a better service. They have tons of photos we’ve never seen, film footage never used, plus instruments, documents and clothes that could be exhibited in museums… how about it?

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5 Responses to “Beatles remasters: An expert’s view”

  1. geareview Says:

    Great interview! Thanks for posting it up.

  2. Melih Says:

    Very nice . Thank you 😉

  3. Gordon Whiting Says:

    Thanks for an insightful interview. Just acquired the remastered Revolver and find it clean but with too much compression overall. The big negative (with compression) is loss of dynamics, and that is the unfortunate result here.

  4. Matt Smith Says:

    Overall I am very pleased with both sets I received. My mono version was printed in Japan. As I once blogged, people might be disappointed with all the hype re. the mono Sgt. Pepper. I prefer the recordings in the mono box set, but I’m holding onto my German ‘Please Please Me’ album mastered before all that reverb was added and my French copy with the vocals centered. But on Sgt. Pepper, it sounded better than I thought it would except I still prefer the unedited correct pitch version of “She’s Leaving Home” that came from acetate. Still need to compare “Thank You Girl” with the version released on the 8-LP Readers Digest Box Set (stereo w/no echo & reverb), they sound very similar.
    Thanks for your time.

  5. BeatleMeat Says:

    I’m listing to the 2009 remastered recordings and I just do not remember that much reverberation in the originals. I was expecting crisper highs and lower lows but that echo is all that seems to grab my attention. I guess what I am trying to say is the amount of reverb is a bit distracting.

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