Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Beatles remastered

So here we are, the Beatles catalogue has been entirely remastered, so where are we now? It's a much more complex matter than one would imagine.

Sound on Sound (October 2009's issue, page 74 of the UK edition) has an interview with the team of engineers behind the remaster. There are two completely different versions of the mastering, respectively made for the mono and stereo CD boxsets.

The stereo remaster is exactly what I had been fearing: the mastering has brought the sound of the Beatles in line with contemporary 'taste', which means that there are a lot more low frequencies, more loudness and the vocals and single instruments that used to stand out in the original mixes are now blending anonymously in the mix. To be fair, the master has not been done at 'Metallica' levels, and there is no obvious sign of distortion,but I still find that the delicate balance of many songs has been compromised; in other words, I believe that the mixes as they are do not make too much sense once you have a sound as rich as this.

The mono boxset on the other hand has been created specifically to satisfy audiophiles and purists. I have yet to acquire this version but I am hopeful that it will be less diappointing.

The article on Sound on Sound goes on to add a lot of detail about the transfer process from the original tapes, the minimal de-noising which thankfully only applied to the intros and codas of the songs, and many other interesting details.

Speaking of de-noising, a certain liberal use of it is partially the reason why the first CD release of the Beatles sound much worse than the old vinyls. When the catalogue was digitised for the first time in 1986 the technology was still in its infancy; no one questioned the quality of 16 bits and software DSP. Well, actually audiophiles did, but you can't stop progress, even when it's a bit shit.

Another important point is that there has never been a real complete version of the Betales catalogue on CD. It was none less than Sir George Martin in 1986 taking a few extra liberties and choosing to elect the mono mixes of the first four albums and the stereo version of the rest as 'the one to use' for CD.
What's more George Martin felt the need to entirely re-mix 'Help' and 'Rubber Soul' for their first CD release.

And here is something else, perhaps the most important bit of information, that engineer Guy Massey points out: for all the Beatles albums the important mix was the mono version. It wasn't a case of mixing in stereo and then simply summing L+R for the mono mix: on Sergent Pepper they spent three weeks doing the mono mix and then three days for the stereo version. In days where even just volume automation was not even imaginable this lead to completely different versions of the songs, sometimes with different effects applied to different parts.

If this is not confusing enough, there are all the stories regarding the differences between UK and American releases of the original albums, where certain choices of tracks hard-panned left and right would supposedly be the result of gross mistakes rather than artistic choices.

At this point it is difficult not to experience the feeling one gets when entering a showroom with 30 different models of televisions, all with different colours and brghtness, and wondering which one is the right one.

What makes this debate even more futile is the fact that at least one or two generations of listeners will come to know this music through Guitar Hero, where the individual parts have been completely altered to fit in the game play: to quote again from Sound On Sound "we did push the boundaries with that sometimes – if there isn't a guitar for three quarters of the song, we'd put a string element or a piano element in, so at least the guitar can still be playing something". Bloody hell.

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