Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Revolution 9/09/09

After a summer suffering through some increasingly back-and-forth 'Bloods n' Crips' games between this country's two ideological divides, perhaps it's time to get away from the silliness and dig into something a bit deeper, and perhaps something people from all sides can agree on. Namely, we all like, heck, even love The Beatles. And what better day than today, on the occasion of the release of their newly digitally remastered catalog, two complete box sets and even a video game, the latest in the popular Rock Band franchise.

Now, before you all gang up on me for going off-topic with this one, ponder this: What other entertainment entity has done more to promote peace, love and togetherness than the collective force of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr? Hey, the Beatles may not be bigger than Jesus Christ, but they're certainly more popular and more loved than Rush Limbaugh.

So, for those wondering why the heck there's so much commotion about a band that broke up forty years ago, let's take a look at what's happening.

1. First, for the first time since the original catalog was released on CD back in 1987, their entire recorded and released output from 1962 to 1970 will hit store shelves today in remastered form. As with 1987, that includes all thirteen original British album releases on the Parlophone and Apple labels, the American Magical Mystery Tour compilation and many singles, B-sides and other non-album releases. That's everything from their first, Please Please Me to Let It Be, their last. Along with the albums, the two-CD Past Masters set will collect all the non-album tracks, including big hits like "She Loves You" and "Hey Jude". All will be issued in stereo, with a few exceptions, and the first four CDs are actually making their official EMI stereo debut, after only being available in mono for the past two decades. Keep in mind that all albums represented will be issued in their original forms (so yes, this Let It Be is the one with the gaudy Phil Spector remixes). And the new CDs will not be padded with outtakes, demos or non-LP releases. Apple Corps. prefers to present the albums as originally intended and heard, which is a smart idea. That stuff can be found on the Anthology CDs.

Cynics may wonder why anyone would want to buy the same CDs they already bought years ago. Well, it all comes down to mastering. Lots of things have changed in digital audio technology in the past 22 years. Even the original catalog was a rather rushed affair, with CDs cut from outdated digital masters, hurriedly transferred without even proper equalizing. As a result, these old CDs sound rather flat and harsh. This is why many artists have reintroduced their old works over the years. The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Elvis Costello and many other notables have remastered their catalog several times over the years. It's what they do to make their old music relevant to the times. And the difference between the archaic 1980s technology and today's 24-bit mastering techniques is startling. The results are CDs that much warmer and more vibrant, and have more detail and clarity. As Neil Young said not too long ago, CDs have finally gotten to the point where they sound as good as vinyl records.

But how does it all sound? I've only heard a few songs thus far, but from what I've heard, the results are rather startling. Starr's drumming is much crisper. McCartney's bass guitar is more prominent. The guitars and vocals of Harrison and Lennon shimmer. The remastered songs I've heard so far are vibrant and have more warmth than the 1987 CDs. Even the poorly mixed (yet arguably their best work) Rubber Soul sounds more pristine. As McCartney himself said upon hearing the results over Abbey Road studio monitors, it sounded as if George and John were still alive, and in the studio with him.

2. The whole remastering process has been a massive undertaking. Fortunately, the Beatles have benefitted from having virtually all of their original multitracks and master tapes accounted for. They are kept under lock and key at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in suburban London. EMI even employs people who's sole job is apparently Beatles-related projects. The archives have seen some activity over the years, with various unreleased and outtake collections (like Let It Be... Naked, Anthology and Live At The BBC) and even some ambitious remix projects like Yellow Submarine Songtrack and Love. After many years of clamoring by fans, the band's Apple Corps., which has to approve any new EMI Beatles release. Finally, four years ago, McCartney, Starr and the estates of Lennon and Harrison signed off on issuing remasters. There were stipulations, though. Only the original master tapes with the original mixes (except for producer George Martin's minor 1987 remixes for Help! and Rubber Soul) could be used.

The first step was to inspect every master tape. All the tapes were in excellent condition, save for a little dust and some dried splicing tape, which required minor and delicate maintenance. Then the tapes were converted, one song at a time, into digital files, using the same technology used in Blu-Ray discs. From there, the editing and cleaning-up process began. The goal, as set by the engineering team was to make everything sound as close to the master tapes as possible. Organic sounds such as vocal imperfections and squeaking drum pedals remained, while electronic errors such as chirps and bad edits were cleaned up slightly. Limiting, a process used all too often these days to increase the volume of the recording (while removing dynamic range) was used very little. Noise reduction, used to remove tape hiss, was also utilized sparingly.

3. In addition to the individual CD releases, the Beatles are also releasing two box sets. The first compiles the entire stereo catalog, including the albums and Past Masters. The second is a collection of all the mono mixes for their songs. The mono set, also long desired among fans, is a smart move. Fans have been begging for these mixes for years, as many of them differ from the more widely available stereo versions. Amazon, in fact, sold out of their allocation of limited-run mono box sets, prompting EMI to press more.

Now, why on earth would anyone go out of their way to buy mono recordings in 2009? Well, back in the 1960s, mono was mostly how pop music was heard. Most music fans owned monophonic record players and heard pop music via AM radio and jukeboxes. Few people owned stereo setups, and those audiophiles that did typically bought classical music and sound effects records. Seven-inch singles were, at the time, available only in mono. And because of the differences between mono and stereo vinyl, they had to be mixed differently, as the thicker bands of mono vinyl could support more bottom-end content (such as bass). As a result, more time was spent by Martin and his engineers (as well as the band members) to create the more popular mono mixes. Stereo mixes were typically an afterthought, hurriedly done by staff engineers, and were still rather experimental. Hence, we often had differences between the two. And these days, the stereo mixes are the only ones we typically hear and purchase. The mono mixes of the Beatles' works, until today, have long been out of print, available only via bootleg transfers from high-quality vinyl sources (Beatles fanatics such as Dr. Ebbetts created these with the intention of distributing them freely online - a simple Google search can locate these downloads).

To give an example of the mono/stereo differences, the Sgt. Pepper album is quite distinctive. In the mono version, the lead guitar is more upfront on several tracks. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" has a trippy vocal phasing effect. "She's Leaving Home" is pitched much faster. And the reprise has edits in different places and McCartney yelling toward the end. All in all, the mono mix is more aggressive and in-your-face, while the stereo version sounds a bit more reserved. Needless to say, the mono recordings of the Beatles' works are a revelation, and are what the band members originally intended them to sound like.

And, truth be told, mono mixes done during the infancy of stereo tend to sound better. They just seem to pack more oomph and urgency. The Beatles' first two albums were recorded on two-track tape, with the limitations requiring them to place vocals on one channel and instrumentation on the other, in order for Martin to combine the two to make a good mono mix. The stereo versions of those two albums are essentially those two channels, making earbud or headphone listening a bit painful. This is why Martin was so adamant to release these only in mono back in 1987 (though A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale, both recorded on four track, were mistakenly issued only in mono, an error never corrected). Later multitrack recordings by the band seem to shine more in mono. "I Want To Hold Your Hand", the first Beatles song to be recorded on four track, packs more punch in its mono mix. The stereo version, with all its extreme separation, is a bit busy and sluggish sounding in comparison.

It wasn't until later, as engineers figured out how to take advantage of multichannel mixing and figured out how to make better vinyl LPs that stereo began to improve. By 1968, stereo achieved domination in the format wars (The White Album was their last to get a distinctive mono remix). Hence, later efforts such as 1969's Abbey Road sound great in stereo, because they made this one the priority (actually, no mono mix was ever done of this one).

And it's not just with the Beatles. I have The Who Sell Out in both stereo and mono, and the version I prefer listening to is the mono mix. Considering that it's essentially a concept album about 60's British pirate radio, perhaps this seems more appropriate. Plus, it sounds a bit heavier, typical of the Who's early work. And many audiophiles are insistent that early Motown recordings sound better in mono as well. Back in that era, more care and attention was afforded the mono mixes, while engineers were still experimenting with the whole concept of stereo.

4. Of the major offerings unleashed by the Beatles today, older fans will likely be more drawn to the catalog reissues and the mono box set. But the younger crowd may be more drawn to the other big product being released. The Beatles: Rock Band is the first video game licensed and endorsed by the band. The game, two years in the making, is very elaborate, and allows participants to 'play' along and even sing along with their favorite Beatles hits (the game comes with 42 songs, with more to come), and also allows them to follow along the 'long and winding road' of their career, with settings including Liverpool's Cavern Club, the set of "The Ed Sullivan Show", Shea Stadium, Abbey Road Studio Two and even the rooftop of Apple Corps. To add some variety, psychedelic 'dreamscape' settings are also included, so the band appears to be playing "Octopus' Garden" underwater. The graphics and detail are very impressive, the result of the fussy demands and advice by McCartney, Starr and the two widows. The finished product is one in which all parties involved are very proud of. And all the songs featured in the game have been remixed for 5.1 surround sound. Thanks to modern mixing techniques, Abbey Road engineers, particularly Giles Martin, son of producer George, was actually able to create multitracks out of the very early material, a process that an amazed George Martin equated to handing them a cake and getting the individual ingredients back.

5. With the release of the new CDs, the question of the relevancy of the CD format remains. Many media pundits are still rather obsessed about whether they will ever offer their catalog for online download. Abbey Road engineers are rather bemused about the concept, comparing it to retouching the Mona Lisa, only to make photocopies of it. Why would people rather download compressed digital files when the much-superior CDs are available for the same price? But that's the world we are living in now. Sure, it's not very complicated to put a CD in the computer and rip it into MP3s with iTunes. But people are still hung up on being able to pay to download files directly. The Beatles are among the few remaining high-profile holdouts that have yet to offer their works for official download (AC/DC is another). But it could still be on the horizon. Apple Corps. wants it to happen, but they're part of a complicated troika that also involves EMI and the other Apple that owns iTunes. McCartney, who has reissued all of his solo work in downloadable form (his latest release, last year's very good Electric Arguments, is even available in the lossless, open-source FLAC format), blames EMI, though he has been sparring with the label personally for several years since he bolted to release his music through indie labels. So yes, eventually you may be able to download individual Beatles tracks or whole albums through iTunes and other services. But why not just buy the CDs and load them into the computer. At a high bitrate (like the maximum 320kbps for MP3), the songs will sound better than anything you could purchase and download online).

6. In conclusion, the question remains. Will people buy it? Of course they will. And they are. Even forty years since they were last in a studio together, the band's catalog has made them still one of the industry's top-selling artists. The music has aged very gracefully, and still brings in younger listeners (even the original fans' grandchildren!). Roughly 40 percent of the buyers of 1995's Anthology set were under 20 years old. The 1 compilation from 2000 is one of the biggest selling CDs of all time, with roughly 27 million units sold. Other recent releases, such as Love, have gone multi-platinum. And they still sound fresher than many newer artists played on the radio these days. With the release of the whole catalog, as well as the Rock Band tie-in, observers predict huge sales, exactly what the recording industry could use desperately in this day and age, as sales of physical CDs are in a major slump. Currently, Amazon's sales chart is dominated by new Beatles releases in the top positions.

The Beatles giving the music industry a shot in the arm. History repeats itself.

NOTE: After reading this, if you're all of a sudden smitten by the Beatles Bug, clicking on the various product links will take you to the Amazon page where you can purchase these items. In addition, purchasing this way will help support this very blog you're reading. So, by all means...


tmode93 said...

How dare you post about the Beatles when Obama is indoctrinating our children to socialism, giving free health care to illegals, killing old people, having a communist czar, all while not even being a citizen of this country! HOW DARE YOU!


I'd love to have the mono boxset but wow what a price! Guess I'll have to keep dreaming until we finally buy a house :(

Aaron said...

You're right about the Beatles still being popular with younger people. I'm 20 and I have the entire Beatles catalog on my ipod, as does my 15 year old brother. I'm actually listening to Sgt. Pepper's as I type this, they're one of those bands that I can listen to no matter what mood I'm in. I've heard a lot of good things about these remasters and I really want to get them, but as a college student I obviously shouldn't drop upwards of $200 on anything, even if it is some of the greatest music in modern history. I've considered buying just my favorite albums individually, but then I can't decide which ones I should get because I love all of them. "I'll get Revolver, no, maybe Rubber Soul. How about Abbey Road? Then there's Sgt. Pepper's..."

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