It's Beatlemania one more time and I get to be a part of it. The New Album Releases column existed before I entered the picture and I've pretty much held to the format used by others since taking over, but I shall, from time to time, declare a special occasion and do something different. This week is one of those occasions.
Like Brian Wilson, I sometimes wonder if I was made for these times. I do know I've always wished I could have been a part of Beatlemania the first time. I hate how The Beatles are always going to be a bit of a history lesson for me. The Beatles broke up three years before I was born. My mom watched them on Ed Sullivan. I was seven when John Lennon was murdered. I didn't get to experience what it was like when The Beatles ruled the world.
There won't be a reunion tour to recapture the glory years, but there have been a few moments when the world turned their attention back to the best thing to come from Liverpool in history. I remember watching The Beatles Anthology documentary and going to buy the first 2-CD volume of the three-volume set. It was the first time I felt like I got to be part of the phenomenon in real time, even if it was a celebration of past glories.
On Wednesday, September 9, 2009, Beatlemania beckons and I will once again answer the call, elated and bursting with anticipation. Once again, the world turns its eyes, ears, and hearts to an iconic band whose influence is incalculable. Amazon sold out of their copies of The Beatles' new box sets, so I'll stand in line at (Satan) Best Buy tomorrow to make sure I get mine.
The Fab 4 Lowdown
So what are we talking about with The Beatles' remasters? What are they and why should anyone care?
All 12 Beatles albums and the Past Masters collections have been digitally remastered and are being re-released separately and in two separate box sets. Past Masters was formerly two single-disc volumes which have now been combined into a single 2-CD set.
The first box set is the stereo box set, comprising14 discs. It includes:
- Please Please Me
- With The Beatles (CD debut in stereo)
- A Hard Day's Night (CD debut in stereo)
- Beatles For Sale (CD debut in stereo)
- Rubber Soul
- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
- Magical Mystery Tour*
- The Beatles (aka “The White Album”)
- Yellow Submarine
- Abbey Road
- Let It Be
- Past Masters
(“The White Album” and Past Masters are each 2 CDs.)
So, why should anyone care? Let's start with the assumption you're a Beatles' fan. If you are and you listen to your current Beatles CDs – which were put in circulation in 1987 – you'll notice they don't have the same sonic fidelity as many modern recordings. There are two reasons for this, one obvious and one not. The first is the earliest recordings are now more than 40 years old. Technology has advanced a lot since these albums were made.
A "master" is the recording that will be the definitive copy that is duplicated for the end user, usually into other formats (i.e. LP records, CDs, DVDs etc.). It's the master copy, the "source." Remastering is the process of making a new master for an album, movie, or any other creation. These days it usually refers to the process of porting a recording from an analog medium to digital one, but this is not always the case.
The Beatles' recordings were made using analog equipment. CDs are part of the digital age. Transferring vintage analog recordings to the digital age has always been tricky and still can be, but sound engineers have learned a lot about the process. They've learned some great techniques that can give music a sonic face-lift and allow it to sound as vibrant and young as ever. They've also found ways to horribly screw up vintage and modern recordings, rendering it virtually unlistenable.
A team of engineers was tasked with the responsibility of breathing life into the greatest catalog in pop music without screwing them up. The first batch of Beatles CDs are underwhelming. They're listenable and the great songs are still great, but the music in many cases sounds dated. I've read some of the technical details of the process the team of engineers went through to bring us these remastered CDs and I was impressed. They seem to have understood which modern tricks to avoid and which to use. It took four years and early reviews indicate they've succeeded brilliantly.
Oh, and I mentioned a second box set. This one is The Beatles in mono. It contains the 10 albums which originally mixed for a mono release, as well as the original 1965 stereo mixes of Help! And Rubber Soul, previously unreleased until now. This is more of a collectors' thing than a must have for the casual fan or even some of the serious ones.