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Meet The Beatles Again Through Their Remastered Catalog

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09/09/09: Chances are you've seen these mysterious numbers in the media of late, and those digits represent a special occasion. In addition to The Beatles: Rock Band game release, the date marks the debut of The Beatles digitally remastered catalog. After over 20 years of complaints concerning the original 1987 CDs, music fans will finally hear the Fab Four's iconic songs in their clear, crisp glory, as close to the original masters as possible.

A team of Abbey Road Studios sound engineers have spent the past four years painstakingly listening to the original reel-to-reel tapes, vinyl masters, the 1987 CDs, and finally the newly remastered CDs, making sure that the sound represents the best quality possible and omits any tape hiss, pops, or distractions. Finally, the packaging vastly improves upon the original CDs, including detailed booklets describing the making of each album as well as the entire original album artwork.

Consumers have several choices in purchasing the Beatles remastered catalog. Two box sets are currently available: the stereo set and the limited edition mono set. In addition, the stereo remasters may be purchased separately. The following is an overview of the stereo CDs and box set, the mono box set, as well as a look back at the original 1987 CDs, and a discussion of why these remasters matter.

The Stereo CDs and Boxed Set

The stereo set includes the 12 U.K. albums, the American issue of the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack (which, according to the Beatles' multimedia corporation Apple Corps.'s official press release, became part of the catalog upon the 1987 CD release), and one disc combining the Past Masters, Volumes One and Two collections.The Stereo Box Set As the press release states, the remasters mark the stereo debut of the first four Beatles albums, in their entirety, on CD. Totaling 16 CDs, the set also includes brief documentaries on the making of each album, all comprising one DVD which may be played on any DVD or Blu-Ray player. The CDs may also be purchased separately, with the documentaries included as Quick Time files on each album, viewable only on computer. These mini-films were directed by Bob Smeaton (writer and director for the Anthology documentary), and include rare archival footage, photographs, and studio chat. While the DVD will continue to be included in the boxed set, the Quick Time versions on the separately sold stereo CDs will be available for only a limited time.

Each CD booklet details recording information as well as historical notes, with reproductions of the original album art. Beatles historians Bruce Spizer and Matt Hurwitz gave the August 2009 Chicago Fest for Beatles Fans audience a sneak preview of the remasters, stating that Kevin Howlett (who wrote the liner notes for the Beatles Live at the BBC CDs) and Allan Rouse, Abbey Road engineer and chief project coordinator, wrote the historical and recording notes, respectively. All original liner notes are present on the CDs as well.

Below is the complete list, according to Apple (all except Past Masters also include the Quick-Time mini-documentaries. The boxed set includes a separate DVD containing all the documentaries):

  • Please Please Me (CD debut in stereo)

  • With The Beatles (CD debut in stereo)

  • A Hard Day's Night (CD debut in stereo)

  • Beatles for Sale (CD debut in stereo)

  • Help!

  • Rubber Soul

  • Revolver

  • Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (includes 1987 liner notes, updated, and new introduction written by Paul McCartney)

  • Magical Mystery Tour

  • The Beatles (aka The White Album)

  • Yellow Submarine (includes original US liner notes)

  • Abbey Road

  • Let It Be

  • Past Masters (Vols. 1 and 2 combined onto one disc, contains new liner notes)

The Mono CD Boxed Set

Intended for serious collectors, the mono boxed set encompasses only the albums that were originally mixed in mono. It contains 10 such albums, plus two more discs of mono masters which, according to Spizer and Hurwitz, includes all mono singles not previously available on the albums. To be included in the compilation, the singles had to be originally issued in mono; thus the single version of “Let It Be” is not present, as it was never mixed for mono. In addition, this set includes two further mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul—the original 1965 studio mixes, which have never been released on CD (producer George Martin remixed both in stereo for the 1987 releases). Perhaps sporting the ultimate in Beatles packaging, the albums are encased in mini-vinyl CD replicas of their original inner sleeves, which incorporate their original inserts and label designs. Like the stereo boxed set, the CDs include historical notes, and a Howlett-penned essay about the mono mixes' significance. Unlike the stereo CDs, the mono versions are not sold separately, but rather solely as part of this set.

The Mono Box Set 

Why would collectors be interested in the mono mixes? Unlike the stereo versions, these mixes are as close to the original masters as possible. No techniques such as limiting or loudness adjusting were used, making the mono mixes perhaps the “purest” of the remastered releases. In addition,the mono versions are seen as the definitive record of their music, as the Beatles themselves, together with Martin, mixed those recordings. Stereo mixes were often conducted as an afterthought, with The Beatles typically having no involvement (see the L.A. Times overview “Meet (and be) The Beatles”). Kenneth Womack, professor of English at Penn State Altoona and Beatles scholar, explains that “these albums must be experienced in their mono format in order to receive the text, if you will, as the Beatles and George Martin originally crafted it. In many ways, the upcoming release of the mono versions will provide us with the closest approximation to the Beatles' original artistic intentions, and I'm pretty excited about that indeed!”

Another attraction: the mono boxed sets are being produced as a limited run. Once production runs are ceased, no further sets will be manufactured. The stereo boxed set and individual stereo CDs will continue to be sold. For detailed information on Spizer and Hurwitz's Fest for Beatles Fans presentation, see David Haber's Beatles News report.

In addition, frequent Beatle Brunch radio show and Beatlefan contributor Tom Frangione notes various key differences between the mono and stereo mixes. “For example, on Sgt. Pepper, the song 'She's Leaving Home' is noticeably slower in stereo (not faster in mono, as many people think), so much so that it is a semi-tone lower in pitch,” he states. Fans hearing the mono mix of the White Album may be in for a surprise: “many folks who may be hearing the White Album in mono for the first time may end up scratching their heads wondering where the coda of 'Helter Skelter' (with Ringo famously shouting 'I got blisters on my fingers') went. Well, that fade part was not part of the 'official' mono mix!”

Below is the mono boxed set list, according to Apple:

  • Please Please Me

  • With The Beatles

  • A Hard Day's Night

  • Beatles for Sale

  • Help! (CD also includes original 1965 stereo mix)

  • Rubber Soul (CD also includes original 1965 stereo mix)

  • Revolver

  • Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

  • Magical Mystery Tour

  • The Beatles

  • Mono Masters

Overall, as Beatlefan Editor-in-Chief Bill King explains, “when you hear The Beatles in mono, you're hearing their best effort. Stereo was an afterthought. Also, since the mono mixing was done separately from the stereo, some differences between the two pop up. So for completists, having the mono mixes is important.”

1987 Compact Discs: The “Rushed” Releases

Fans may remember the publicity blitz surrounding the debut release of the Beatles catalog on compact disc. First the public grumbled that the initial four CDs would be issued in mono only, and then “purists” complained that George Martin had remixed Help! and Rubber Soul to improve stereo sound quality. Letters to such fan publications as Beatlefan claimed that the bass channels had been switched as well as other sounds. Ultimately, the CDs were rushed into stores, adversely affecting sound quality. Beatles producer Martin admitted as much in a Feburary 23, 1987 interview published in the New York Times; as he told writer Allan Kozinn, EMI “really consulted me out of old fashioned courtesy—saying, you know, 'don't you think we've done rather a good job?' And when I heard what they'd done, I thought they were dreadful.” Martin further stated that Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale were issued in mono for “expediency” rather than trying to exactly duplicate the sound quality of the original albums. Womack adds that the CDs were “mere duplications of the master tapes, in most cases, with very little effort in the way of taking advantage of the digital possibilities of their reproduction…In some cases, the material is absolutely subpar–Beatles for Sale, for example, sounds like it was recorded from an old eight-track. It lacks the original album's luminosity.” Steve Marinucci, creator of the authoritative Beatles news source Abbeyrd's Beatles Page, summarizes the dismay of many ’80s music buyers: “[The stereo mixes of the first four albums] should have been done originally and I know I'm not alone.”

In the 1987 interview, Martin discussed the difficulties of recreating a four-track mix onto a CD. “The mixes that I did in 1964 were fine for vinyl, issued in 1964. When you hear them on CD, they're not fine…you hear a wider frequency range on CD, and you're hearing things that I never intended you to listen to in the first place, in 1964.” Forming an argument that also applies to the remasters, he added that “the mixes I did then, when they're heard in the form they were done then were fine; but if you're hearing them as CDs, they should be different in order to be the same. ”

Defending his Help! and Rubber Soul remixes, Martin told Kozinn that from 1962-1967, he and the Beatles created only mono records. By 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, though, he had experimented with enough techniques to record the entire album in stereo. “I was experimenting. I was putting voices on one side or the other, I was trying all sorts of different things,” he said. “And some of those experiments didn't work out well.The Beatles And in fact, Help! in particular was a very rushed album, because of the pressures of the film…I just want it to be a bit better than it was.” Rubber Soul involved similar experimentation, and EMI's stereo mix sounded “very woolly” to him. “I went back to the four-tracks on those and actually did remix them—not changing anything, but hardening up the sound a little bit, and cutting down a little background noise,” Martin explained.

Despite Martin's misgivings, the Beatles catalog was issued on CD in 1987, and remained in that form for over 20 years.

Fans Protest the “Thin” ’80s CDs, Get Teasers of What Remastering Sounds Like

As with most technology, digital remastering improved greatly in the 20 years since the 1987 releases. Software such as Cedar Audio and Pro Tools make eliminating tape hiss, raising the volume, and clarifying murky sound even easier. While controversy accompanies these methods—audiophiles often protest any alteration of original recordings, similar to editing historical documents—they can be used to impressive effect. Nonetheless, Apple Corps. consistently ignored fan requests for a complete overhaul of the catalog. As Frangione explains, listeners have proclaimed the 1987 CDs “a bit harsh or brittle,” particularly in light of current technology (Frangione points out, however, that in 1987 the Beatles CDs were seen as “state of the art” in sound). Beatlefan Executive Editor Al Sussman expresses the frustration felt by many fans: “The '87 CDs came out pretty early in the digital age, when record companies were taking all sorts of short cuts to get CD versions of popular albums onto the market and EMI certainly did that with the first four CDs, which were all in rather dull, little-high-end mono,” he states. “They didn't sound great in '87 and certainly don't sound any better now and the CD booklets, with no new liner notes, were hideous.”

In TONEAudio Magazine's review of the remasters, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is cited as a classic example of the original CDs' terrible sound. The 1987 CD sounds “tinny, lifeless, shrill, flat, and canned—to the extent where listeners are forced to mentally fill in parts they think (and know) should be present.” After all, according to Mojo's review of the remasters, “the best Beatles music (and that, of course, is most of it) is a federation—not a union—of elements, with the individual contributions so discrete and characterful that any time spent drawing them out is well-rewarded.”

Then in 1999, Beatles fans received their first clue of what a remixed, remastered Beatles album could sound like—the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. The album boasted remixes, which entails manipulating separate tracks to create altered vocals and instrumentation, according to Edna Gundersen's USA Today report). The sound engineers remixed each track from the original multi-track tapes, creating a stereo update of the tunes (for a detailed recounting of the original recordings and remixes, visit Norwegian Wood's Yellow Submarine Songtrack page).

2003's Let It Be…Naked, remixed and remastered under the direction of Paul McCartney, provided another example of what modern sound engineering could do. McCartney famously despised Phil Spector's 1970 production on the original Let It Be album, so he stripped the album of all Spector traces, then had Abbey Road engineers Paul Hicks, Guy Massey and Allan Rouse (who are also involved in the current remasters project) essentially create a new album from the original 1969 recording sessions. This digital tinkering resulted in a bare bones, sonically balanced album that serves as an interesting counterpoint to the 1970 original.

The ultimate tease—and perhaps the final straw for many listeners—occurred in 2006, with the release of the soundtrack for Cirque du Soleil show Love. Although not a true remastered Beatles album—producers George and Giles Martin created mash-ups of various Beatles songs—Love revealed how incredible and fresh the familiar songs could sound with new technology. McCartney's driving bass line on “Get Back” made the floor vibrate, while Ringo Starr's drumming thundered anew on “Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows.” If the mashed-up Love songs could sound that vibrant, imagine what a complete audial makeover of the entire Beatles catalog could do. After fan protest dramatically increased, Apple finally announced the release of the remastered Beatles catalog in 2009.

Why Do The Remasters Matter?

Now that all 12 original Beatles albums have finally been remastered—as well as the American-issued Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack (which became part of the core catalog in 1987) and Past Masters CD—one question remains: why do the remasters matter? In other words, hardcore fans and collectors have been crying out for these recordings for over two decades—why should casual fans invest in them?

Sussman opines that “if, as I always say, the Beatles catalog is the Rolls-Royce of pop music catalogs, then that Rolls has been taken in for a complete tuneup, but not an overhaul, and a thorough cleaning/washing.” The technology and the fact that the same engineering team lead the entire remastering process (in contrast to the 1987 releases, where Martin was brought in from Help! on) also sounds promising, he adds. Marinucci states that while he disagrees with the idea that the 22-year wait is justified by great advancements in technology—“I think this should have been done sooner and done again,” he adds—he expresses satisfaction in one element: “One thing they did, even if they didn't remix, was listen to the fans.” Sussman also describes the remasters as the ultimate fan experience: “The remastered CDs will have a clarity and immediacy that the '87 CDs simply don't have, especially the early albums. Paul McCartney has said that it's like being in the studio with the Beatles. So I'm looking forward to putting on my headphones and hearing if all that is true.”

Another reason for the publicity surrounding the remasters: money. The music industry hopes that the Beatles' multi-generational appeal will translate into big sales. As music critic George Varga writes, the remasters could be the last time that albums in physical form could garner millions of dollars. According to Varga, since 1991 the Beatles have sold 51 million albums in the United States alone. 1995's Anthology 1 moved 450,000 copies on its first day of release, and the 2001 compilation 1 sold 31 million copies worldwide. Beatlefan's King notes that these releases may attract younger listeners as well as first-generation fans: “It means a better way to hear the music, which is always welcome. But I think maybe the big picture is that it means more to younger or newer fans, who might be put off by the inferior quality of the 22-year-old CDs.” Not surprisingly, Vega explains, “expectations are so high now for the band's golden touch to reinvigorate the record business, if not spark a new round of Beatlemania.”

Finally, the biggest reason for the massive interest lies in the Beatles themselves. “Simply put, this is the greatest catalog of music ever recorded,” says Frangione. “It is the defining music of our time, and deserves to be heard in the best possible presentation.” Womack, who teaches a course on the Beatles at Penn State, describes the continuing influence the group has on younger generations: “While my students know very little about Watergate or postwar history, they know the Beatles backwards and forwards,” he explains. His students' interest in the Beatles, he adds, results from “their own efforts to seek out great music for themselves. It's as if they discover the Beatles–and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, to name but a few–through a kind of trial and error natural selection.”

Perhaps Womack best summarizes the massive interest surrounding the remasters: “With this massive and continually growing fan base, the Beatles have continued to dominate the marketplace even forty years after their disbandment, which is remarkable in and of itself.”

View the Beatles Remasters trailer:

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Karen Stoessel

    Of course I want it…of course I can’t afford it. Stereo…mono…it makes no difference. I will find a way to get it and add it to my collection of vinyl, cd’s, and dvds…some of which I have 3 copies of the same thing. And which ones do you listen to when you grab one ‘cuz you’re in the mood. I think I’m sticking with the “original” releases and just sing along…with the hisses, and pops and beeps. She Loves You…just the way you are…Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.

  • Rosie

    Love the comments from all the different interviews. This must have been a labor of love and fun assignement.

  • Rosie

    And yes, I do know how to spell assignment. Sorry.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Yes, Karen, you do have to get at least the stereo box set! Yes, it seems expensive, but the sound is well worth it.

    Rosie, thanks for the comments–it was fun but a lot of work!