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The Rockologist: Breaking Down The New Beatles Remasters

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Okay, so here's the deal. I'm as excited about The Beatles remastered boxed set as anybody. Unfortunately, living on the salary of a starving music editor pretty much precludes me from purchasing the whole damn thing right now… which sucks, because I've been salivating for it like the die-hard Beatles nut I am since last week.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that the kind folks at the record label sent me a really nice two-disc sampler to check out. Often, these promotional samplers are badly thrown together affairs that barely scratch the surface of what such massive undertakings have to offer. Not so in this case.

With 32 tracks spanning the entire career of the greatest rock band in history, this sampler actually offers a great cross-selection of the entire work. And, beyond that, it is certainly a nice little collector's item, and one which only further whets my appetite for the boxed set that I will someday surely buy — once I can actually afford it, anyway.

But let's get down to brass tacks, shall we? Because there is both good and bad to report about this much lauded remastering job. Most of it is as thankfully great as advertised, though. The first thing you notice about these remastered recordings is that they are both louder, and quite a bit brighter sounding than what we've heard of the Beatles catalog since its sole transfer to CD back in 1987.

This has a particularly noticeable effect on the Beatles' early work. "I Saw Her Standing There," to cite one example, literally puts you in the room with the band — which means the guitars crackle like never before.

It also means that the vocals have a bit of a weird echo to them however, which becomes a bit irritating on a song like "Please, Please Me." In that case, though, a never-before-heard guitar accent saves the day. Even on the so-called "middle period" recordings like "Day Tripper," the vocal echo is a little bit irritating — but the rest of it is so damn clear it doesn't really matter.

The good news, though, is that despite all of the high end here (and on the early recordings, especially, there is lots of it), Macca's bass also comes through like never before — proving that even back then he was one of the best. More than that, what these remastered early recordings reveal is that the Beatles were one hell of a rock and roll band.

But… oh… my…God! The acoustic guitar strums on songs like "This Boy" and "Things We Said Today" are magnificent. Likewise, George Harrison's lead guitar has never rung so clearly as it does here on songs like "And Your Bird Can Sing."

Unfortunately, such magnificence comes once again at the expense of more of that reverberating echo on the vocal harmonies (except in the case of "And Your Bird Can Sing," where Lennon's voice is out front where it belongs). Again, McCartney's bass is, for the most part, likewise put nicely front and center here on the songs I've mentioned.

Right about now, incidentally, I'm starting to sense a trend. Wasn't Sir Paul himself involved in the actual remastering?

For McCartney fans, this will be a good thing — but for fans of the Beatles' vocal harmonies, a little less so. Still, there is no denying the general improvement sound-wise. Echo aside, the sound has much more of a live feel to it. As advertised, it does really put you right in the studio — especially compared to what came before this.

Once I do eventually purchase this boxed set, one of the things I will be most anxious to hear is the soundtrack to Help! — which has always been one of my favorite Beatles records. Something about all those James Bond-ish instrumentals bumping up against the Beatles, I guess.

Unfortunately, the sampler I got doesn't include what may be my favorite Beatles song from that album, "The Night Before." It does however include the often overlooked John Lennon gem, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." Like the other songs I've mentioned here, the acoustic guitar sounds just delicious — both clear as a bell, and crisp as a box of Rice Krispies. Snap, crackle, pop, baby.

Lennon's "Rain" is likewise a revelation here — his vocal is rightfully put out front, but never at the risk of one of Paul McCartney's best-ever bass performances. I can't wait to hear what they did with the other side of that original Beatles single — "Paperback Writer." By the time we get to Revolver, the harmonies on "Here, There, and Everywhere" are absolutely pristine.

But now, we get to the really good stuff.

By the time of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles were expanding not only their minds, but their music as well. "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite" might seem like a minor track from that album. But here it is an undeniable standout. The sonic layers that envelop the listener play like a kaleidoscope of Sensurround magic. The carnival calliopes and whatnot are such that one can literally lose themselves within them. It's like hearing a song you might have overlooked back then — as I mostly did as a 13-year-old Beatles fan — for the first time.

The songs from The White Album represented here likewise exhibit newfound depth. McCartney's bass on "Glass Onion" — which I never really even noticed before — rumbled through my speakers like an '80s NWA gangsta rap joint.

By the time of Yellow Submarine's "Hey Bulldog," however, I had to literally drag my jaw off the floor. The stereo separation is nothing less than amazing. The backing vocals are occasionally buried a little, but everything else is as clear as a freaking bell… the guitars, the bass, and, well, you know…

But McCartney's bass is the real star here. Still, Harrison's guitar, Lennon's vocal, and even Ringo's drumming — which is probably some of the most underrated in all of music, by the way — can each be heard on their own like never before. "Hey Bulldog" is, on its own, worth the price of admission.

And then there's "I Am The Walrus." This has always been one of my favorite Beatles songs, and here it sounds positively amazing. The reason I always loved this song is because of the layers of depth — which at the time it was released were pretty much unprecedented for a single.

On the remastered version, each and every one of those layers becomes newly alive — from the cellos and whatnot, to the weird backwards-masked vocals at the end from "everybody smoke pot" to the song-ending "bury my body" (which helped fuel the "Paul is dead" rumors).

I've always divided the Beatles into distinct eras — pre- and post-Sgt. Pepper. For those who favor the rawer sound of the band's early years, The Beatles remasters put you right in the middle of the recording studio. There are flaws — which mainly boil down to the echo. But the recordings here also sound brighter, crisper, and clearer than ever before.

For fans of the Beatles' more intricate later recordings like Sgt. Pepper and The White Album, you will hear levels of depth here like you've never heard.

Based on this 32-song sampling, if you are a Beatles fan, do not walk, but run like hell to get this. You won't be sorry.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Bill Haywood

    The truth is that the remasters sound awful. The depth and layering of the originals has been destryoed, hence the coomonly repeated phrase “I never heard that part before”. Anyone who had truly listened to the music HAD heard it … in it’s proper place in the mix instead of “in your face”. In particular, the extreme EQing of the tracks to add definition and presence to the drums, guitars and bass has destroyed what is most important to a good mix, the midrange. Vocals on these “remasters” have lost all clarity and definition.

    Worst of all, the sonic manipulations have resulted in harsh sibilance on most of the tracks. Some tracks are rendered virtually unlistenable.

    To the modern ear, accustomed to extreme compression and total lack of subtlety or layering on modern recordings, perhaps these remasters are an “improvement”. But to those of us who prefer subtle and elegant musical arrangement at which the Beatles, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, et al excelled, this package is a sonic trainwreck.

    I haven’t heard the mono masters, but word is that the “engineers” who vandalized the 2 track stereo masters were more restrained in their treatment of same. One can only hope.

    Oh, and the “cranberry sauce” comment doesn’t occur in “I am the Walrus” as the author seems to assert. His lack of familiarity with the Beatles’ material may have contributed to his inability to recognize these “remasters” for what they are – vandalism.

  • JANK

    The monos are great; can’t speak for the stereos. Go mono!!

  • Greg Barbrick

    Wow Bill, pretty harsh assessment there. As a long time friend of the author, I can state without a doubt that he is as big a Beatles fan as anyone. Not having heard the remasters yet, I can only speculate though.

    My inclination is to agree with you. Not necessarily for the reasons you mention however. The band were working with incredibly primitive equipment at the time, and things may have been “buried” in the mix because there was no way around it.

    But I have been listening to those records for 40 years now, and the way they were released is the only way I know them. It’s kind of like Let It Be Naked. Sure, Spector’s strings may have “ruined” “The Long And Winding Road,” but they really are as much a part of the song to me as McCartney’s voice is.

    As much as we would like to re-write history, the originals are what we all came to know and love. Frankly, I see this whole remasters business as a last-ditch effort to save a dying industry.

    That said, I would still like to hear them. Maybe EMI will send me a box to judge for myself. And one day pigs will fly…

  • Bill Haywood

    Greg, as a former recording engineer, I can assure you that the equipment used at Abbey Road, while possibly “primitive” in the sense that they were limited to two, four, and at the very end of the Beatles career, eight tracks, the sonic integrity of the machines were in many ways actually superior to today’s digital technology. Four tracks on a two inch tape was probably the epitome of analog sound. Where the loss of aural purity of the music occurred was in the practice of “reduction mixing” where four tracks were bounced to two or one track in order to free tracks for additional overdubs. This generation loss robbed some of the tracks of punch, clarity and built up analog tape hiss. More sonic integrity was lost in the vinyl disk mastering phase when the mastering engineer re-EQed Martins two track tape masters because vinyl discs were limited in the amount of bass frequencies they could handle without bouncing the stylus out of the record grooves. EMI studios were notorious in being very conservative in this area.

    But I am not a purist. I loved the sound of the remixes on the Yellow Submarine reissue a few years back. Those tracks were remixed from the original multitrack masters and sound fantastic. “Hey Bulldog”, for example, finally got a mix it deserved and is far superior on that album to any of its other incarnations. I also preferred “Naked” (also remixed from the original 8 track master)to the original, although I too missed the string arrangement on Winding Road. But sonically, the Naked reissue sounds much better without all the digital artifacts, sibilance and distortion introduced on the remasters caused by working with the two track mixed tapes instead of the multitrack masters.

    I’m sure some day the later albums will get a remix from the multitrack tapes like Yellow Submarine did. I hope I live that long.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    “Cranberry Sauce” is in fact there Bill. And I can assure you that I am quite familiar with the Beatles work. Ever since I first heard them as a seven year old boy on the Ed Sullivan show, they in fact altered the course of my life — much to my detriment in many ways. So the attack was wholly unnecessary, and in fact was quite rude (and thanks for coming to my defense Greg — first beer’s on me next time I see you).

    The way you look at these remasters I think depends in large part on what you want to get out of them. As Bill noted (and as I did we well), the vocal harmonies become somewhat lost in the mix, which is very echoey particularly on the early recordings. There is also a lot of high end on them. On the other hand, they do bring out new dimensions previously unheard, as I noted in the particular case of stuff like “Mr. Kite.”

    But the overall sound is a lot clearer which gives much of these recordings a lot more definition — they sound more like live recordings really in the sense that there is more of a feeling you are there in the room with them.

    That said, Greg makes a great point that it also alters the way many of us have become accustomed to hearing these songs growing up for our entire lives. Technically flawed or not, this is how most of us know them and how they are etched into our lives. You shouldn’t screw with mother nature in that respect I guess.

    I also tend to agree with Greg that this is another attempt to save a dying record industry destroyed largely by greed and short-sightedness on the part of the record companies.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna listen to some Radiohead…

    -Glen

  • Greg Barbrick

    Bill,

    I appreciate your expertise in these matters, and again tend to agree with you. But this is said without actually having heard the remasters.

    I didn’t even pose the most salient point I think exists here. Obviously as I mentioned these remasters seem to be a real desperation move to help out a dying industry. But is all the punch-ups and crap designed to make The Beatles’ music more MP3 friendly?

    Sadly, my guess is yes. I am not some stuck in the mud old 78 rpm jackass, but this is a disturbing trend. Not that I am a fan anymore, but Metallica mixed their last record specifically to MP3. That is what I am guessing happened with The Beatles.

    And that is a truly sad state of affairs for the industry. The future of music having no depth whatsoever is an idea whose time should never come.

    Nice talking to you, and you should check out some of my stuff on BC.

  • zingzing

    glen, i think bill is referring to the fact that lennon says “cranberry sauce” at the end of “strawberry fields forever,” not “i am the walrus.” what with all the random sound at the end of “walrus,” he might say it again there for all i know, but it’s definitely in “sff.”

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Shit! You’re right zing! I confused the two…the part at the end of “I Am The Walrus” I actually meant to mention was where it says “bury my body” followed by “is he dead? is he dead?”…

    Thanks for pointing it out, and next time I’ll remember to write this when I’m not under the influence of drugs…LOL…

    -Glen

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    DEAR GOD!!! Someone stumped the Rockologist????

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Actually, writing a little light headed too late at night is what stumped the Rockologist Jet. Wouldn’t be the first time either…

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    yeah, that’s the king lear bit.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I definitely need to write the definitive “Paul Is Dead” column one of these days…

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    Good, I wasn’t ready for the for the apocolypse just yet. (Fred Sanford stumbles back out of the room still clutching his chest after screaming “It’s the big one “‘lizabeth-I’m comin’ fo ya honey!”)

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    As per Zing’s instruction, the “cranberry sauce” error has been corrected. It’s really nice being an editor here sometimes…

  • Greg Barbrick

    Zing,

    Come over and talk to me about my Philip K. Dick article Glen is about to publish.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Yes I can take a hint Greg. Done.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Hell, why bitch about The Beatles when you have the author of Blade Runner to discuss?

    Totally LOL, but Glen you have never said whether this mix is really an MP3 mix

    My guess is that it is

    Greg

  • Greg Barbrick

    Zing,

    All I meant to say was that the Greg Barbrick section is so much better than the Glen Boyd section.

    We offer strawberries.

  • Mr. Mustard

    Have to agree with Bill about the lack of Beatles familiarity shown.

    They expanded their music before Sgt.Pepper’s, which is why their eras should be split at Revolver. And it ain’t called The White Album. While you make correctons, take the comma out of Please Please Me.

    I don’t know who needed these remasters to know they were a great rock ‘n’ roll band? Most people with any sense knew that in the ’60s.

  • zingzing

    (mean) mr. mustard, if you wanna take that way, most people would say rubber soul is the great leap forward (particularly on a lyrical front, but compositionally as well). and lots of people weren’t alive in the 60s.

    greg, i must admit that i’m not much for sci-fi, have never read any philip k. dick, and really, really dislike bladerunner. (it’s been several years since i’ve seen it.)

  • http://www.thelintscreen.com Guzelvis
  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Ya’ know what? If you don’t agree with my assessment of the damn box, fine. And if you can find a legitimate error — like the “cranberry sauce” thing (which I have since corrected), I can certainly admit that mistake as well.

    But don’t question my knowledge of a band I have followed since I was seven years old in 1964, and who changed my life based on “apples and oranges” BS like whether the eras are divided by Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, or whether I missed a damn comma with Please Please Me. You’re really clutching straws with that one. It also comes across as petty nitpickery.

    Music is a subjective thing and it always will be. Yes, the Beatles were already showing remarkable artistic growth with Rubber Soul, Revolver, and even earlier. But for most fans, Sgt. Pepper was when things shifted abruptly — they looked different with the mustaches and what-not (which I can distinctly remember being shocked by at the time), and they certainly sounded different. The innocent mop-topped “fab four” were in essence no more, and things were never the same again from that moment forward.

    I call it as I saw it then, and how I see it now.

    -Glen

  • JC Mosquito

    Urk. I tell ya, the Beatles’ haven’t recorded any new material (really) for nearly 40 years, and people are still arguing over them.

    My two cents’ worth: I was quite disappointed with Revolver when I bought it last week – the ultra panned stereo killed it for me on headphones. But with everyone out of the house tonight, I cranked it up on the stereo, and it really sounds quite excellent. I guess that’s the way it was designed for listening. Next week a friend is loaning me the mono box – we’ll see if it’s as good as what it’s supposed to be.

    BTW – what about all those mono mixes on the Capitol Years box sets?

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

    Looks like Bernie Taupin was right that Saturday Night is Alright for Fighting. I know it doesn’t fit, but neither did the Rolling Stones in that other column.

    Interesting that people want to pick a demarcation line. I’ll go off the board to, what was it 1964 when they got high with Dylan. Also, some of their work on Let It Be, which I know was before Abbey Road before anyone gets their Fab Four underoos in a bunch, seemed to bring the band full circle to their beginnings so what’s the point?

    I have already seen Greg’s Dick piece, so where’s the party headed now?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Yeah, Greg did a damn fine job of hijacking my thread didn’t he? LOL…

    The worst part is he even got me to help out by publishing his article. Oh well, at least he took that Mustard fellow with him…

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    As to where the party’s headed, there’s a certain Springsteen article up on the site that hasn’t gotten a whole lotta love…just sayin’…LOL…

    -Glen

  • Bill Haywood

    Sorry, Glen didn’t mean my comments to be an attack on you. The only people I have any desire whatsoever to “attack” would be the jerks who decided to play with the Beatles two track masters instead of remixing the multitracks.

    As I said, I’m not a purist “don’t paint over the Mona Lisa” type. I would have welcomed a proper remix of the Beatles catalogue. Imagine a pre-reduction mix of Sgt. Pepper where the drums don’t suddenly disappear as soon as the horn section begins playing the Pepper motif. That’s just one of the most extreme examples. It became obvious that the pre-reduction mix multitracks still existed when George Martin used them to reconstruct various takes on the anthology album. They should have gotten Martin and his son Giles to reconstruct the mixes as closely as possible to the originals without having to use the compromised reduction mixes. Instead, they turned the catalogue over to some nobody engineers who didn’t even start with the final post-reduction multitracks and who proceeded to destroy two-track mixes that were already as good as George Martin’s ears could make them given the 2,4, and 8 track limitations of the 60s… and he had the best ears in the business.

    I hope you enjoy the Radiohead. You have good taste.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    i’ve never been a big fan of the panned faux-stereo thing…but i’m strangely attracted to the mono remasters. they haven’t shown up yet but i’ll yak about ‘em when they do.

    good stuff glen, even if you are an ignorant bastard. ;-)

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Glen –

    When I bought the newest Sgt. Pepper’s, I put the CD into my car’s audio…and a few seconds into the song I cranked it up to max (heedless of the boomboomboom-boomboom that disturbed the peace of the Costco parking lot), sang to the top of my lungs (which singing couldn’t be heard (thank goodness)), and wiped a few tears from my eyes.

    I’ve often recalled how sad I was when I finished Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings because I knew I’d never get the chance to read it again for the first time…but with the new remastered Beatles’ CD’s, I got the barest hint of the wonder I must have felt way back then….

  • John Lake

    I for one agree with Glen Boyd, disagree with Mustard.
    The Peppers album was a cultural break far beyond a musical break.
    Experimental instrumentation and sounds in general made it mighty force for change. I always liked “For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” and thought it made a nice balance for the “Sgt Peppers” theme.

  • mike

    Wow. I can’t believe there are people who don’t like these remasters. They are reintroducing people to the Beatles and they are long overdue. For all the fans out there, check out this Beatles widget

  • http://alexbunardzic.blogspot.com Alex Bunardzic

    People seem to miss the main point of the 2009 remasters: it’s not so much that the remastering team wanted to overrule George Martin’s and the Beatles’ mixing and mastering decisions that were made back in the ’60s. The 2009 remastering had addressed two glaring issues:

    1. Analog artifacts, such as tape his, occasional pops and crackles and other small but noticeable anomalies of the recording medium.

    2. Digital artifacts, that marred the original 1987 mastering of the CDs.

    During the past 20 years or so, digitization of the analog sound made incredible progress. The technology is much more mature today than it was back in the ’80s. Due to such improvements, it would stand to reason that the Beatles catalog deserves very careful re-digitization. Using the most advanced 24 bit 195kHz sampling technology, engineers can nowadays get much closer to the original warmth of the quarter inch tape than they could back in the ’80s, when they were using the primitive 16 bit 44 kHz sampling technology.

    Because of this progress, the Beatles on CDs today sound not only as warm as they can sound on the best analog LP pressing played on the top-of-the-shelf turntable/pickup/pre-phono equipment. The new remasters offer sweetness of sound that hasn’t been heard on any CD as of yet. In that respect, these remasters are a precedent in the music industry, and may indeed serve as fibrolators to kick re-start the industry that is right now going through a massive cardiac arrest.

    After hearing the brilliance of the sweetest sound offered to me on these new CDs, I’d be more than willing to shell out hard cash for other, equally sweet sounding CDs. If only I were able to find those on the market.

    So kudos to the Beatles remastering team. Some of you may call them “some nobody engineers”, but there is no denying that they did a marvelous job in pushing the warmth and the sweetness of sound to the absolute new frontiers.

    If you’re not able to hear the improvements, I’d suggest you either try to listen to these CDs on a high resolution stereo system, or go see your doctor, or, in case the preceding two advices didn’t work out, give up on listening to music altogether.

    Also, even if the remastering team had totally butchered the Beatles catalog, there is absolutely no need to unleash an attack on them, nor to get upset — no one’s put a gun to anyone’s head to buy those CDs, you can always fall back on the ’87 masters, or go back to the original LPs. Whatever the final verdict on the remasters may be, no harm done whatsoever.

  • Petty Nitpickery

    Glen, mostly agree with your assessments. Like Bill, I really dislike the overly-compressed mastering in most contemporary pop/rock music, but I don’t really hear it here. Sure, the stereo remasters are compressed a bit and sound more modern (that bass is cranked a bit… but, AFAIK, McCartney was *not* part of the project, he simply approved it), but “sonic trainwreck?” C’mon. I have the vinyl too. And while these are still Redbook CDs, they’re quite listenable and enjoyable. And yes, the mono discs are even better.

    Okay Glen, my nitpick for you: *please* look up the meaning of the word “literally.”

    Cheers!