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 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.
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.
Nowhere Man (Rubber Soul, 1965, vocals): Does leveling really matter? This song best demonstrates how raising the volume can dramatically improve sound quality. Version A sounds too quiet, with George's guitar sounding extremely muffled, as if he were playing in a distant room. His middle solo appears very distorted and flat. As for the harmonies, the one-dimensional mix makes it virtually impossible to distinguish among John, Paul, and George's separate voices. This has the effect of dulling the vocals cushioning John's smooth, emotional. As soon as Version B begins, the introductory harmonies jump out from the speakers. George's guitar sounds fuller again, with the high note at the end of his solo ringing out loud and clear. The harmonies are fully fleshed-out, with the double-tracking effect on John's voice perfectly audible. I looked forward to hearing that final high vocal harmony at the end of the song, and the remastering did not disappoint. Paul's high note can be fully appreciated at last.
If I Needed Someone (Rubber Soul, 1965, vocals, guitar, percussion): Version A sounds muted, with the guitar buried deep in the mix, which detracts from the entire song. The riff powers the track, as does the drumming, which also appears quite muted here. The vocals aren't as distorted as on the other 1987 CDs, but could be clearer. Version B, however, vastly improves upon the master, with the volume significantly higher. George's vocals, vastly clarified, are fully featured, and the guitar-driven melody is slightly louder and more detectable in the left channel. Ringo's drumming pounds through the left channel,and the middle eight fully reveals George's complicated yet delicate solo (which is virtually indistinguishable in Version A). If the listener desires an instant education in the intricacies of The Beatles' harmonizing, listen closely to this remastered track.
Taxman (Revolver, 1966, bass, vocals, guitar, drums): I admit that this classic Revolver track is one of the remasters I most looked forward to hearing. Paul's elaborate bass line and distorted guitar solo, as well as Ringo's funky drumming, are key to the cynical lyrics' cutting undertone. The guitar solo should simply slice through the song, which is fairly detectable in Version A. Version B, however, finally reveals Ringo's percussion (including a cowbell), and John's raspy voice assisting in the harmonies. Now this is why I bought the remasters!
Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966, bass, vocals, percussion, sound effects): Another true test of the remasters' quality is playing this song, which requires the listener to indeed "turn off your mind" by donning a pair of quality headphones, closing the eyes, and immersing oneself in this sonic carnival. Version A largely buries the backwards looped tapes, with the bridge's reversed guitar solo barely making an impression. The distorted vocal effects (particularly during the first verse) barely register, which would surely disappoint John, a proponent of experimenting with voice alteration. Clearly he desired to sound as different as possible, as evidenced by the he way he draws out the "-ing" syllable in lines like "it is not dying" and "of the beginning." But Version B rectifies all these problems; by raising the volume, the trippy effects immediately draw in the listener. Ringo's drums relentlessly pound, and the looped tapes (along with the backwards guitar loop) immediately stand out. Unlike the 1987 CD, the remaster fully exposes John's distorted voice. Of all the songs I tested, "Tomorrow Never Knows" benefit most dramatically from the digital cleanup. The superb remastering at last allows the listener to completely "surrender to the void."
She's Leaving Home (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967, vocals): One aspect of this song has always bothered me: Paul's wobbly vocals. They sound as if they were originally slowed down to fit the song's tempo, but not very well; John's counterpoint also appears shaky. Version B largely corrects these problems, with Paul and John's steadier vocals sitting front and center in the mix. The strings come through clearly, displaying the beauty of the melody. The song's climax, Paul and John's exchange from the lead character's and parents' perspectives packs more of a sonic punch. While the improvements may be more subtle, they add to the song's emotion and dramatic storyline.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Reprise (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967, bass, vocals, percussion, guitar): Obviously the first version opens the album on a rocking note, but I've always thought the faster reprise is just as good. On Version A, the harmonies sound muffled, although Ringo's driving drums emerge fairly well in the mix. Some of the crowd noise may be heard, but not significantly. Version B raises the overall volume, clarifying Ringo's drumming and even John saying "bye" at the track's beginning. Another welcome addition is the crowd noise, which lends to the rock concert-like atmosphere. John's voice is clearly heard in the harmonies, and Paul's bass drives even harder at the end.
A Day in the Life (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967, sound effects, vocals, drums): No Sgt. Pepper review is complete without examining "A Day in the Life," one of music's most ambitious recordings. In Version A, Ringo's drums sound muted, and John's legendary vocals could be better highlighted. The swell of the orchestra, the song's climax, should burst through the speakers, but does not in the 1987 version. Paul's voice in the solo sections, coming through the right channel, seems murky. Finally, the last piano chord (supposedly representing the end of the world) sounds distorted, not pounding in order to stress the dramatic tone. In Version B, the piano sits higher in the mix, as does Paul's voice and John's acoustic guitar. The remastering really brings out John's chilling singing, and Ringo's drums contain more bottom. The orchestra, particularly the horn section, bursts from the speakers. Paul's "woke up, got out of bed" singing is much louder, along with the fuller bass, drums, and piano. Interestingly, right after the bridge, I could detect a cough or sigh during John's "ah" section that I had never heard before. The orchestra buildup at the end sounds breathtakingly full and loud, as does the final crashing piano chord. This is more like it!
I Am the Walrus (Magical Mystery Tour, 1967, bass, vocals, sound effects, drums): For years I've felt this track could have better bass, as I really wanted to hear that drum in addition to John's dreamlike voice. In Version A the bridge sounds thin, as if the bass drops out and John's voice becomes flatter. The strings should have a deeper tone, and the sound effects are buried to the point of being somewhat indistinguishable from the rest of the instruments. Version B solves many of these issues, even reducing some tape hiss from Version A. Ringo's drums have much more bottom, and John's voice sits up front, louder but not losing any of the distorted effect. In addition, the horns right before "I'm crying" really break through. John's voice benefits most from the makeover; through headphones, I could hear every facet of his singing, including the slightly popped "p's." The weird background effects emerge from the sonic layers, with the "goo goo g'joob" adlibbing and the cacophony of voices, static, and other sounds assaulting the ears. Ringo's furious drumming at the end also deserves singling out.
I Will (The Beatles, 1968, vocals, guitar, percussion): The differences between Versions A and B are slight on this beautiful ballad, although Paul's vocals on Version A seem distorted, like the 1987 leveling process was substandard. Not only are Paul's vocals clearer on Version B, but he can also be heard singing along with his bass. His "do dos" add to the song's charm, as do the clopping percussion noises.
Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey) (The Beatles, 1968, vocals, drums, bass, guitar): Another song I was anxiously awaiting, "Everybody's Got Something…" remains a classic "crank it up" song. However, the 1987 version leaves the listener feeling that the song could rock out even more. Version A sounds too inhibited, with the bass, guitar, and drums too quiet and Johns incredible rock vocals strangely thin and buried. Version B corrects most of these mistakes, with guitar parts, along with handclaps and general screaming in the background, much louder. My favorite part, the duel between the bass and guitar, rocks even more in the remasters. In fact, I played this part at top volume several times!
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (The Beatles, 1968, vocals and guitar): Like "Everybody's Got Something…" I always thought this George masterpiece should have been more powerful. George and Eric Clapton's guitars, Ringo's drumming, the bass—everything should have been more resonant on the 1987 CD. Ringo's drumming seems oddly sterile as well. Interestingly, Version B eliminates the strange sound that accompanied the very beginning of the track, and fully expands the guitar and bass sound. Ringo's drums finally get a sonic boost, and the number of audible guitar riffs (including the acoustic rhythm guitar) seems to have increased. The harmonies are at the forefront of the remastered version, which is a welcome development. Overall the remaster is fuller, louder, and definitely rocks out more, like it should. I heard bass lines I previously missed, and I could even hear some extra George vocals where he imitates the wailing of the guitar. Put on headphones and listen to this track for some hidden gems.
Hey Bulldog (Yellow Submarine, 1968, vocals, guitar, bass,drums; note that A is the 1999 songtrack): Even though the 1999 Yellow Submarine songtrack remixed the original soundtrack, the vocals and general volume are flat. The remix did boost the volume of the guitars, but not enough to match the song's raucous tone. In Version B, the piano crashes and the bass thunders, the latter demonstrating Paul's considerable skill as a bassist. The harmonies really emerge from the instrumentation, particularly during the "you can talk to me" chorus. Ringo's powerful drumming nicely balances the searing guitar solo, and the digital cleanup reveals John and Paul clowning around in the background. While the bass volume could have been lowered slightly, "Hey Bulldog" still benefits greatly from remastering, bringing out the exuberance of the original track.
Something (Abbey Road, 1969, vocals, drums, guitar): Abbey Road is perhaps The Beatles and George Martin's best-sounding production, so it seems as though the remastered stereo version could improve little on the original album. Can Version B possibly enhance Version A? Listening to the two versions back-to-back reveals small but significant improvements. The differences reside in Paul's bass and George's voice, with both sounding clearer and louder in Version B. Interestingly, Version B slightly reduces the echo on George's lead singing. By upping the volume, the bridge comes through more powerfully, rocking a little harder than the original. Ringo's simple yet powerful drumming really pops in the remaster.
Carry That Weight/The End (Abbey Road, 1969, guitar, drums, vocals, bass): I always thought Version A's "Carry That Weight/The End" sounded one-dimensional and at too low a volume. After all, this song represents The Beatles' last hurrah, and needs to sound like it. Interwoven with "Carry That Weight" is a reprise of "You Never Give Me Your Money"; while it features their breathtaking harmonies, Version A mostly buries them deep in the mix. On "The End," Ringo's iconic drum solo should burst through the speakers, and the guitar duel at the end should pierce the senses. Does Version B deliver on these points? Most definitely—the sound is robust, the bass is heavy, the "Money" harmonies leap from the speakers, and Ringo's drumming positively thunders. This sounds like a true grand finale, complete with booming, majestic horns accenting the very end. Even the strings fade out a bit more slowly as the song ends.
Two of Us (Let It Be, 1970, percussion, guitar, bass, vocals): Since Let It Be was recorded in stereo, Version B is not dramatically different from Version A. However, while Phil Spector's original production still sounds decent, I always felt that Ringo's drums needed more bottom. Version B does sharpen the previously murky-sounding drums, acoustic guitar, and bass, and John and Paul's seamlessly blended vocals sound clearer—to the point where their voices are more easily distinguishable from each other.
Conducting this admittedly unscientific A/B comparison reveals the obvious—and at times subtle—improvements that remastering can accomplish. Songs like "Yesterday" have remained in the public consciousness so long that it seems nothing new can be discovered about such iconic tunes. As The Beatles sing on the Revolver track "And Your Bird Can Sing," "you tell me that you've heard every sound there is." However, the remasters prove that, when digitally cleaned, The Beatles' classic catalog contains hidden sonic gems just waiting to be discovered.