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“Every Sound There Is”: Comparing The Beatles’ 1987 CDs and Remasters

Now that the Beatles remastered CDs are flying off store shelves, one major question remains: how good do these albums sound? Are they worth they money? To answer these questions, I conducted a very unscientific A/B audio CD comparison, examining the remastered stereo CDs against the 1987 albums (the only exception being the Yellow Submarine album, which I compared to the 1999 "songtrack," a remixed version of the original soundtrack). First, I selected several songs that contain certain elements that could be identified: bass, drums, other percussion, guitar, vocals, and various sound effects. Through headphones, I then listened to the 1987 versions, then the remasters, noting similarities and differences. In general, this experiment demonstrates that remastering resembles cleaning a dirty windshield: once the grime is wiped away, clear vision is restored. The Abbey Road engineers' digital remastering reveals the intricacies of various classics, allowing fans a new perspective on some very familiar songs.

The Beatles

The following list contains song titles, albums, years, reasons songs were chosen (drums, vocals, etc.) and the A (1987 CDs) and B (2009 remasters) comparisons. Again, since this is a largely unscientific listening experiment, the track list represents a very small portion of songs I most looked forward to hearing anew. The list contains a disproportionate number of harder rocking songs, as they contained some of most easily identifiable sound elements to compare.

Please Mr. Postman (With The Beatles, 1964, drums and vocals): Version B features a thumping backbeat, and John Lennon's vocals have never sounded clearer or more vibrant. While his appropriately raspy rock voice shines, Ringo Starr impresses here with his steady yet exciting drumming. The background harmonies of Paul McCartney and George Harrison stand out more from the instrumentation, as are the handclaps toward the end. Version A starts at a very quiet volume, and the sound is flat and treble-heavy. Ringo's drumming barely makes a dent, and overall the track sounds like it was transferred from a third-generation tape. Version B positively rocks, and it offers the listener a glimpse into what their raucous Hamburg and Cavern shows sounded like.

And I Love Her (Hard Day's Night, 1964, guitar and percussion): This classic tune greatly benefits from remastering.  Version A sounds much softer and muffled, while B encompasses a fuller, louder sound. The double-tracked voices are clarified, and flow together in a smoother manner. Hearing the tremble in Paul's voice during the "dark is the sky" lyric will amaze, and George's guitar solo rises from the instrumentation. An interesting note: Paul slightly hums right before the final guitar solo, which I had never noticed before.

Mr. Moonlight (Beatles for Sale, 1964, vocals): A much-maligned song, "Mr. Moonlight" features one of John's rawest vocal performances (listen to him scream "Mr. Moonlight" at the song's beginning). Studying Version A, I found the harmonies distorted, and John's voice sounded too muted. Version B increases the volume, but not to the point of sacrificing sound quality. John, Paul, and George's harmonies are more distinct—in particular, Paul's voice can be heard quite clearly. The gentle percussion stands out, although the organ solo (which they should have eliminated originally; it adds a corny touch) briefly drowns out the instruments, so the leveling should have been adjusted. However, the overall clarity is impressive—listen for extra harmonizing during the fadeout.

The Beatles: Help

You're Going to Lose That Girl (Help!, 1965, vocals, guitar, bass, percussion): While Version A sounds one-dimensional, the remastering cleans up the vocals and instrumentation to render this classic Help! track three-dimensional. The 1987 CD mutes Paul's bass, and George's guitar solo sounds tinny in the right channel. Ringo's bongo-playing fares the best in Version A. Version B places the vocals at the forefront, and raises the general volume. The bongos really jump out in the right channel—I detected rhythm patterns I never noticed before. The bridge vocals blend together smoothly, creating fuller harmonies. In addition, the remasters eliminate the previously tinny guitar solo, letting fans experience the full-bodied sound of George's guitar. Amazingly, the digital cleanup makes the track sound as if it could have been recorded today.

About Kit O'Toole

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Nice work.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thanks, El Bicho! I appreciate it.

  • http://raginggail.wordpress.com/ Jim Ryan

    OK, the one I was hoping would be a comparative point to sell me on this (and a favorite of mine too) didn’t make the list: “It’s All Too Much” from YELLOW SUBMARINE. Can you let us know how that one fared as well? Thanks.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Interesting suggestion, Jim. I’ll listen to both versions, then let you know. This is fun, isn’t it?

  • Al Sussman

    I’m in the midst of doing my own full A/B comparison-and taking my time about it, at that-and I’m only up through “Help” but one of the characteristics of the entire project, mono and stereo, is that all the remasters bring forth the great rhythm section of Paul’s bass and Ringo’s drums. And you’re in for a major treat when you get a listen to the mono “Sgt. Pepper”, particularly the very songs you sampled in stereo here.

  • Rosie

    It must be really fantastic to hear things that you never noticed before. Kind of like a hidden surprise!

  • http://www.thelintscreen.com Patrick Scullin

    Great comparison. For a funny review of the hidden gems revealed on the remastered set, see The Lint Screen.

  • isido

    I performed a similar analysis and most of remastered CDs are 2db louder. Listening at same loudness, I couldn’t find differences in Sgt Pepper’s and Revolver. Original “For Sale” had mediocre sound and it has been fixed in remastered version. I think that for the first four albums the remaster is worthwhile and in the rest the differences are subtle. (I didn’t check the rest so I don’t know yet)

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thanks, everyone, for commenting!

    @Al: I agree that Paul’s bass and Ringo’s drums really get their just due on these remasters. It’s hard to believe how buried they were in the mixes before.

    @isido: Yes, some of the changes are indeed subtle, and some (like, as you rightly point out, the first 4 albums) are more pronounced. Abbey Rd. and Let It Be had the most subtle changes, since they were already recorded in stereo.

  • Shep

    I have just one quibble, Kit–you keep saying that the “louder” remasters sound better because of their louder volume. It’s been known since the dawn of recording that, all else being equal, louder sounds better. But greater loudness is utterly trivial–one just turns up one’s volume control on the older, 2dB-quieter versions! It’s not relevant at all to a determination of which version is better. The limiting/compression that is used to increase the CD’s loudness usually makes the sound worse, as noted elsewhere.
    So, let’s educate folks about turning up their volume controls, and help them to realize that louder-cut discs are not a good thing. Let’s not perpetuate the myth that the newer remasters are better in any way whatsoever for being louder. They are better for other reasons, but absolutely not for that.

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Absolutely, Shep–louder does not necessarily mean better (thus the loudness debate currently raging), but for digital music collections, it’s important to have the sound level equal more current recordings; then you don’t have to keep adjusting the volume. With so many people listening on their iPods, this is a factor. As long as raising the volume on a recording does not distort the sound in any way, I don’t see the problem with it. Of course the overall sound is clearer, too, and that is a separate issue from the loudness factor. Thanks for commenting!

  • J Z

    Harmonies on Nowhere Man sound amazing.

  • Phil Anderson

    Well it certainly sounds like you are very impressed by the new Beatles remasters.
    Each and every album is bettered by the new remastering in your opinion.
    Like most Beatles fans I have all the original 1987/8 releases on CD and I intend to buy all the remasters.
    What I would like to know from you is which of the albums from Help to The Beatles( White Album)has improved the least, and should I should still hold onto any of my original 1987/8 copies ?
    Is there even one track on any of their albums from Please Please Me through to Let it Be and Abbey Road as well as Past Masters 1 and 2 that have not improved much in these new remasters ?
    Come on, seriously is there not even one track on the ’80s masterings better in your opinion than on the 2010 remasters ?