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Controversies Surrounding The Beatles Remasters

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Customarily new Beatles product never lacks controversy, and the remastered catalog is no exception. The 1987 CDs remained a sore point for many Beatles fans for over 20 years, with many complaining about their inferior sound quality and producer George Martin's stereo remixes of Help! and Rubber Soul and his insistence on keeping the first two albums in mono.

Purists believe that no aspect of Beatles music should be tampered with, that the original recordings contain history that should never be altered. The long-awaited 2009 remasters, not surprisingly, also inspire controversy, with debate surrounding several key issues.

To honor the 9/9/09 release date, here are nine questions concerning the remasters:

1. Does it make sense to purchase the remasters in yet another format, and is the CD already endangered?

As Dr. Warren O'Boogie, Beatles expert and contributor to Beatlefan magazine, argues, “the ultimate question is, how many times will we have to buy this 'catalog' before we get the 'ultimate listening experience'?” If remastering technology further develops, “will we still be alive when they try to resell this catalog to us again, possibly in 2012?” asks O'Boogie. Beatlefan Editor-in-Chief Bill King expresses concern that “basically…five years down the road we'll all have to shell out again to buy the entire catalog in 5.5 surround-sound! I'm cynical about why they didn't go ahead and do it now.” However, frequent Beatle Brunch radio show and Beatlefan contributor Tom Frangione argues that “it's ridiculous that anyone could dismiss this by asserting that the catalog had already been remastered over two decades ago. The technological advances alone render this argument moot. Far less significant catalogs have been remastered several times in the period since the Beatles CDs appeared.”

2. How much digital cleaning techniques did the recording engineers use? Did they remove any important sounds?

As Abbey Road Project Coordinator Allan Rouse told AbbeyRd's Music Page founder Steve Marinucci, “removing tape hiss from the mono and stereo remasters was rarely attempted, and when it was, it was used subtly and only to reduce the level of the noise, not to remove it. Less than 1% of the catalog was treated.” Beatlefan Executive Editor Al Sussman expresses confidence in the Abbey Road engineers: “The team was determined to remaster the albums but retain the records' integrity, which might not have been the case if they had remixed them. The [art restoration] team cleaned and polished the Mona Lisa, but didn't put lipstick and eye liner on her.”

3. Should CDs have been issued as “two on one,” or having the stereo and mono versions on one CDs instead of two separate packages?

“There were rumors originally that the discs would include both stereo and mono mixes,” says Marinucci, creator of the authoritative Beatles news source Abbeyrd's Beatles Page. “I can understand why they did the mono box—to keep the two separate and not overwhelm people—but I wish it could have been different.” Allan Kozinn agrees, stating that the first seven albums contain only 25 minutes of music each. Thus “the mono and stereo versions of each—collectors prize both because of anomalies like different vocal takes, instrumental lines or effects—could have fit on a single CD with room to spare.”The Beatles

4. Were the tracks adjusted for loudness?

This issue brings up the current “loudness war,” the current battle for listeners' ears. According to Rolling Stone's recent article “The Death of High Fidelity,” producers and engineers often raise sound levels to make the music sound more exciting, or at the very least stand out from the crowd. As Rip Rowan states in his article “Over the Limit,” loudness issues can produce shudders in longtime fans. Take, for example, the first CD issue of George Harrison's groundbreaking All Things Must Pass: “quite literally, it sounded like it was dubbed from a cassette. And a "big" sounding recording like that transferred terribly,” Frangione explains. However, Marinucci says, the slightly louder results are powerful: “I took the Abbey Road disc in the car and my mouth literally dropped at the drum solo [from 'The End']. It sounds absolutely stunning.”

5. Are the remasters worth the high price tag?

The stereo boxed set retails at $259.98; mono boxed set, $298.98 for the mono boxed set; and the individual stereo CDs retail at $18.99 each (prices do vary on different online stores, so comparison shopping is vital). In his review, Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot writes that the costs do not merit the features: “The sonic improvements in the stereo releases, while welcome and in some instances discernible on even mediocre playback devices, will be appreciated (for the most part) only by the die-hards who are familiar with every Mellotron flourish and French-horn riff.”

6. Are certain quirks retained in the remasters?

Kenneth Womack, professor of English at Penn State Altoona and a renowned Beatles scholar, explains his chief concern: silence spaces. “I'm hoping that the remastering personnel have taken the appropriate measures to replicate the lengthy silence preceding 'Her Majesty,' for example,” he posits. “As the band's later albums demonstrate, the Beatles were meticulous about the presentation of their material, and these silences are integral to the representation of their art.” Marinucci thinks that minor mistakes may have been repaired. “As for the sound question, there were little mistakes here and there that should have been fixed years ago but weren't. But I'm not for a complete restructuring and from what I've heard, they haven't done that,” he says. Preview CDs show promise: in the Chicago Tribune's recent article “Maniacs Coming Together to Critique The Beatles' Reissues,” listeners expressed joy at hearing the familiar, imperfect crack in Paul's voice during “If I Fell.”

7. Why were George Martin's 1987 remixes of Help! and Rubber Soul used instead of the original masters?

“I suspect they felt they wanted to make the '86 remixes the mixes of record since the stereo CDs will be the new Beatles CDs in the marketplace,” theorizes Marinucci. “So be it.” Frangione, however, expresses some concerns. “This was actually the main thing I found incongruous in the current campaign, as these "remixes", which were in stereo, are being tacked on as (effectively) bonus material in the mono box,” he explains. While these mixes were authorized (and very good, by the way) it is a radical departure form the uniform presentation angle Apple seemed to be pursuing in this go 'round.” While the stereo and mono boxed sets include three versions of Help! and Rubber Soul, he concedes, mono “fold-downs” (remastering from stereo to mono) of Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road would have provided more context for listeners. “At least this way, the mono and stereo boxes would "mirror" each other. And hey—it would be something truly 'new' for collectors, to whom the set is geared anyway!” On Steve Hoffman's Music Forums.  Rouse responded to this criticism: “This was not the mastering team's decision…this was made higher up than us…George Martin re-mixed these two albums back then at his own studio AIR.”

8. Why are the remasters available (as of this writing) only on compact disc?

In TONEAudio Magazine's review of the remasters, it is said that “if the Beatles remasters signify the last great hurrah of the compact disc, at least the format is going out in style.” The ongoing negotiations between Apple Corps. and iTunes has been well documented, and rumors swirl that the catalog may soon be available online. But will younger audiences purchase “outdated” CDs, now that they listen to music through iPods and computers? After all, as Beatles historian Martin Lewis told Variety, a Capitol survey commissioned after the release of the first Anthology album revealed that about 40% of album sales were to consumers aged 40 and under.

9. Why weren't original tracks remixed, similar to the 1999 Yellow Submarine soundtrack CD or Let It Be…Naked?

“With those early albums, simple remastering can only do so much, particularly in stereo, because of the extreme separation of the primitive stereo mixes they're working with,” says King. “I have to admit I felt that way at one time, but I think now I'd rather have the original mixes get the benefits of the new technology, which is exactly what's happening,” states Marinucci. “I don't think what's happening precludes future releases with remixes and, in fact, just guessing now, we'll see them one at a time in various special projects.”

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