ScoreKeeper Reviews THE BEATLES: REMASTERED (STEREO) Box Set
Published at: Oct. 12, 2009, 9:29 p.m. CST by scorekeeper
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here scratching the tickle of joy on the blue belly of the universe in time to bring you an album by album account of THE BEATLES: REMASTERED (STEREO) featuring the band's entire studio catalogue digitally remastered in stereo. This fourteen title, sixteen disc set, released by Apple Corps Ltd. and EMI Music, were immaculately assembled with original UK album art including expanded booklets containing original and newly written liner notes and rare photos. For a limited period, each CD will also be embedded with a brief documentary film (directed by Bob Smeaton) about the album. Although no plans have been announced for future digital distribution, it is currently being discussed at the label.
I have been an ardent fan – no, disciple of The Beatles for practically my entire life. Much of my own personal journey toward musicianship is paved with the songs of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. The first tunes I learned on the piano were Beatles songs. I taught myself bass guitar by picking up Paul's tuneful riffs from Japanese tab books. I'm proud of the fact that "Blackbird" is the only song I can adequately fingerpick on an acoustic guitar (which is not my main instrument) and if a book on the Beatles exists, I probably have it in my library.
On September 9th, 2009, Beatlemania quaked with the release of every studio album painstakingly remastered in stereo over a four year period at EMI's Abbey Road Studios by Guy Massey, Steve Rooke, Sam Okell, Paul Hicks, and Sean Magee.
In addition to the stereo remasters, a separate Beatles collection was issued restoring all original mono albums to their original mono format released as THE BEATLES IN MONO boxed set.
What's impressive about the process of this particular remastering project is that although the engineers had access to the absolute latest state-of-the-art audio technology, they exhibited the discipline to utilize it only when absolutely necessary. Unwanted artifacts in the audio including electrical clicks, microphone vocal pops, excessive sibilance, jagged fades, and bad edits were improved upon with careful consideration not to degenerate the original integrity of each song. Limiting was used sparingly and only on the stereo versions. De-noising technology, often associated with remastering, was also used subtly and sparingly. Only five minutes of the total 525 minutes of music was subjected to this process. No additional reverb was added to the mixes although through equalization and other dynamic manipulation of the audio it becomes clearer within the sonic spectrum and thusly more prominent.
For the past month, I've been listening to each album with critical ears wondering if the effort would stand up against the test of scrutiny. Would another dip into The Beatles catalogue be worth the additional expenditure? Needless to say, I had lofty hopes. I figured if Apple and EMI were going to release each album again on CD and ask fans to pony up more bread to replace their 1987 remasters then it should certainly exceed the value of their worth.
So how do these 2009 remasters differ?
For starters, it should be reiterated that they used the original UK masters and not the US versions which were varied in multiple ways back in the 1960s to assuage American aural palettes. As I soaked up each song, three major benefits to the remastering process became glaringly obvious.
The first and most rewarding benefit can be heard on the vocals. From the leads to the harmonies, each vocal track is stunningly crisp while bathed in a blanket of warmth so rich the overtones hoever endlessly in the air. It's almost eerie to hear John, Paul, George, and even Ringo's voice singing with such dynamic presence and clarity.
The second greatest benefit to these remastered albums is Paul's melodious bass. I've always considered Paul McCartney to be one of the premiere rock 'n roll bassists of our time. His inherent gift for melody has been ubiquitous in his playing since relegated to bass duty during the earliest days of the band. The unique 1962 Höfner 500/1 that Paul plunked was perfectly suited for his particular playing style. While the discerning qualities of the hollow bodied, flat-wound strung Höfner were always present in the '87 remasters, it is even more apparent in the '09 remasters. It's a glorious instrument which gracefully booms beneath the guitars with an ample amount of low-frequency presence without a hint of muddiness.
Finally, the third ingredient to receive the most benefit from the '09 remasters is Ringo's Ludwig drum kit. The snare pops! The kick-drum thumps! The cymbals are brisk and colorful. At times, the clarification of the drums within the mix due to the remastering process kicked them into the foreground a bit more than we're used to. They can get a tad hot for my tastes but I'm willing to embrace the minor negatives together with the emphatic positives.
These albums sound simply fantastic! They're far better than I would have imagined would even be possible. The true gift these albums bring is rediscovery. As a lifelong Beatles fan I'm finding myself listening to familiar tunes for the first time. These should be staple purchases for every Beatles fan while serving as a musical treasure chest for those just now discovering the Fab Four from Liverpool.
Having listened to all the albums several times in their entirety, I went through and picked out a song or two from each one to write about. I compared them with the '87 remasters and made attempts to document the most significant differences between them. You can also click on the album cover to visit the album's page over at amazon.com.
For further information you can also check out The Beatles official web site.
PLEASE PLEASE ME (1963)
"I Saw Her Standing There"
"Twist and Shout"
The very first song on The Beatles very first album, "I Saw Her Standing There" remains one of my all-time favorite McCartney tunes. For a standard rock 'n roll song from 1963 its innovation and musical creativity far supercedes its contemporaries. The entire album was recorded in a single twelve-hour session finishing off with John's shredded vocal chords singing "Twist and Shout" in one glorious take.
On the remastered album, both songs are as clear and bountiful as if recorded yesterday. Presented for the first time in stereo, all vocals, lead and background, are preserved in the right channel along with John's guitar while Paul's signature Höfner violin-bass, Ringo's drums, and George's guitar resides on the left channel. Although I'll forever be fond of the original mono recordings I have to admit that even a purist like myself relishes hearing these early Beatle tunes in true stereo.
WITH THE BEATLES (1963)
"Till There Was You"
If you want a quick quality assessment of the entire remastered collection, "Till There Was You" would be a prime candidate for immediate evaluation. The differences between this version and the original '87 masters are stunning. From a flat 2D mono presentation this song is magically transformed into a thick 3D sonic cornucopia of color. The crisp wooden clarity of the acoustic guitars on the left channel coupled with Paul's sultry voice on the right channel are impeccably blended to maximize each instrument within its sonic space.
A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964)
"Any Time At All"
This is another one of my personal favorite early Beatles songs. It's a quintessential example of John's broad vocal range. You hear his smooth lyrical vocals on the verses which immediately thrusts into a screaming rock 'n roll lead for the choruses.
The original mono version from the '87 masters now sounds surprisingly congested after hearing this new stereo master. In the new version, Ringo's drums are not as prominent which allows the guitars to creep forward a bit in the mix. As is typical with the majority of the songs on the remastered version, Paul's bass adds a bit more wallop which really drives the energy of this tune. Instead of separating the vocals from the rest of the instruments as on the previous two albums, John's lead vocals, as well as Paul's responding echo, are maintained in the center just slightly left with the instruments split evenly on both the left and right channels. It's a great solution to clarify the mix allowing each instrument to speak without impedance.
BEATLES FOR SALE (1964)
"I'll Follow The Sun"
Although BEATLES FOR SALE is a fantastic album, this particular remaster may be the least impacted of the bunch. Don't get me wrong, the overall sound quality is certainly improved. It just doesn't pack that jaw-dropping wallop the other albums do. The lone exception being "I'll Follow The Sun" which almost sounds like a brand new recording. The character of the acoustic guitar in the left channel was never heard like this in the '87 mono remasters. There's also a more prominent difference between Paul's double tracked vocals on the verses and his single-tracked vocals on the chorus which is spectacular.
This song also serves as an example of how the remastering process accentuates the reverb which is more subtle in the '87 remasters.
"I've Just Seen A Face"
A hauntingly beautiful song, "I've Just Seen A Face" conjures up, for me, painful memories of an impassioned high school breakup, but I digress…HELP! was the first US Beatle album released in stereo. In the '09 remasters the stereo spectrum is kept pretty much the same from song to song. The intent to clarify, clean-up, and improve the sound-quality remains the primary focus and not remixing the tunes themselves. The most noticeable instances of the improved quality wrought by the remastering process can be easily heard on tunes which favor acoustic instruments such as "I've Just Seen A Face." I find myself embracing miniscule imperfections I've never noticed before which were brought out.
It's even more apparent on "Yesterday." The sound-quality here is utterly breathtaking. The acoustic guitar and string accompaniment are rich, colorful, and chock-full of expression. The low G string on the guitar has bite and is not merely an amorphous bass tone as in the previous remasters. It's as if you're hearing the song for the first time. You can hear the rosin on the bows vibrate the rich wooden soundboards of each stringed instrument, fingernails scuffling over the round-wound guitar strings, and the double-tracked vocals on the final cadence of the chorus.
RUBBER SOUL (1965)
If it's unplugged folksy Beatles perfection you desire then look no further than RUBBER SOUL. This album is brimming with four-part vocal harmonies swallowing you up like dips into vats of warm butter. The sheer wall of vocals which smacks you in the opening of "Nowhere Man" is another impressive example of the magic behind this particular remastering process. I struggle with the fact that this was recorded in 1965.
If you're familiar with the YELLOW SUBMARINE remixed/remastered album which was released in 1999 there are some subtle differences between it and the current '09 remasters. The '99 album featured subtle remixes of each song. The wall of vocals on "Nowhere Man" are spread out fairly evenly from the left to right channels with the instruments nestled sweetly in the middle. The current '09 remaster is not a remix so the vocals are kept on the right channel while the left channel is reserved for the instruments. The '99 version sounds fantastic (perhaps a benchmark for the '09 remasters?) and is definitely a treat, but it's wonderful to have the original mix preserved in the '09 remaster.
Since becoming smitten with the remaster of "Yesterday," I've been particularly keen on the improvements of the various string accompaniments the Beatles employed throughout their tenure. None were more iconic than that from "Eleanor Rigby." A pop song sung to strings with no guitars, drums, or bass, "Eleanor Rigby" will forever be a favorite of mine. However, the somewhat dated, high-treble, and high-contrast sound of the original 1966 string recording was always something I wished could have been improved upon. In the '09 remasters, the string ensemble finally gets the treatment it deserves making the staccato strings sound like a full-bodied, multi-dimensional section.
This track was also remixed and remastered for the 1999 YELLOW SUBMARINE album and sounds fuller and more dynamic than the '09 remaster. Although I may prefer the '99 remixed version of the song to the '09 remastered version, it is still a godsend to hear the original integrity of this classic remain intact with the overall sound quality of the original mix enhanced.
This song, along with "Yesterday," are probably my two favorite improvements of all the remastered songs in the catalog.
SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1967)
"A Day In The Life"
When somebody asks me, "What's your favorite Beatles song?" I always reply, "A Day in the Life." Not necessarily because it's the best or it's the one I'm particularly closest to. Let's face it, it's a loaded question that is impossible to answer. I choose "A Day in the Life" because for me, this is the song that crystallizes who The Beatles were. It's a song that pits the distinct songwriting characteristics of John Lennon with that of Paul McCartney. John wrote and sings the 'A' section which is followed by a cacophonic crescendo of sound peaking at the start of the 'B' section sung and written by Paul. Ringo's stylistic drum fills, the implementation of orchestral overdubs, a rainbow of random audio embellishments, and the languishing sonic crash ending the tune, are all molded together to create, for me, the exemplary work defining The Beatles musical genius.
The '09 remaster is a welcome upgrade. One of the nitpicks I've always harbored towards this song was the sound quality of the piano. It's improved upon in this version although still a bit buried for my taste. The orchestral elements are especially pleasing. The crescendo is very rich and meaty while the low frequencies in the horn blasts to end Paul's 'B' section are accentuated well. Recordings from the 1960s tend to suffer from a loss of lower bass frequencies than modern recordings. They're restored feasibly well in this current remaster. More so than you could hope.
It should also be noted that the new liner notes written specifically for this remastered edition of the album are extraordinary.
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967)
"I Am The Walrus"
As is to be expected, the later you go into the Beatles catalogue, the less dramatic the differences are between the '87 remasters and the '09 remasters. The improvement is still near-miraculous, just not as overwhelming as earlier albums which utilized more archaic recording techniques and less time in the studio.
That said, you'll come across one particular song that still manages to drop your jaw in awe. "I Am The Walrus" is absolutely awesome! The cello, the vocal portamentos, the funky organ, Ringo's drum set, John's nasally vocals, and all the various orchestral elements are impeccably blended to create this humongous wall of color barreling down upon your ears. You begin to realize by listening to the '87 remaster how many elements are lost in the mix and how a careful and well-tuned ear can utilize technology to help reveal some of these elements. This song is a prime example of why I'm so excited about this new catalogue.
YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968)
I thought on this album I would comment upon George Martin's incredible score for YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968). With the Beatles music getting all the attention, Martin's underscore usually gets overshadowed. It's unwarranted because he composed a kaleidoscopic orchestral score worthy of placement along side some of pop-music's greatest songwriting creations.
As with all the songs on the album, the sound quality of the score is vastly improved. If I were a betting man not knowing any different, I would have sworn this was simply a re-recording. The orchestra in the cue entitled "Pepperland" sounds robust and opulent. Most importantly there's a real color separation in the sound between the string quartet with the orchestra, the horn staccatos against the strings, the double-reeds against the woodwinds, and the piano as a solo instrument. All of these elements suffered too much from sonic competition and had a tendency to get lost. This plum remastering of the score really puts the spotlight of success on the engineers who toiled to bring it all together.
THE BEATLES [THE WHITE ALBUM] (1968)
"Helter Skelter is a track we did out of total madness and hysterics in the studio," said Ringo Starr. "Sometimes you just have to shake out the jam!"
When Paul set out to record "Helter Skelter", he wanted to "make a very loud and raunchy rock 'n roll record with The Beatles." Thanks to the brilliant engineering efforts behind this remastered version, Paul might have finally received his wish. One of the more unique songs on THE WHITE ALBUM, "Helter Skelter" is certainly loud with Paul's chunky bass thrashing away in the foreground. Harrison's ripping guitar riffs and Ringo's persistent crash cymbals compliment Paul's shredded vocal screams creating a huge wall of the hardest rock that side of 1970.
If I had to take a guess, I might pick this song as one of the most difficult to remaster as there are so many clashing elements to the music. It's meticulously treated so that all the ingredients are clearer than I've ever heard. It's a treat to hear this hard rock song finally shed it's "wimpy" clothes and step into a recording worthy of its performance.
ABBEY ROAD (1969)
"Here Comes The Sun"
By the time we get to the last Beatles studio album you can probably guess what's to be said about the remastered version. Everything I've observed and mentioned until now is consistent and holds true to this album. The acoustic guitars sound amazing, the vocals are warm and gorgeous, the bass is energetic, and the drum's are crisp and squeaky clean.
What caught my ear on "Here Comes The Sun" are the quirky analog synth and organ tracks which were always blended just underneath the surface of the overall mix. In the '09 remaster they pop out a bit more revealing the song's quirky composition and production. It's rather stunning and quite cool.
LET IT BE (1970)
"Two of Us"
I realized a few years ago I wasn't as much of a Beatles purist as I thought I might have been when I instantly fell in love with the far superior LET IT BE – NAKED album released in 2003. This album was remixed and remastered under the direction of Paul McCartney which essentially took out most of super-producer Phil Spector's frilly orchestral overdubs and other embellishments. This new version took what was one of my least favorite Beatles albums (still loving it though) and turned it into one of my favorites. The purity and skillful craft of the songwriting was elevated to new heights by removing some of the fatty tissue surrounding it.
That said, it is refreshing to once again go back and hear the original Phil Spector "reproduced" LET IT BE album. Several tunes stand-out after benefiting from the remastering process but the one I was most impressed with is "Two of Us" which is transformed from a thinly produced folk ditty to a song with considerable girth and depth. It's musical weight does not deter from the integrity but rather gives it a fuller aural spectrum that is complimentary of the original material.
PAST MASTERS (1988)
I've made numerous references to the improvement of Paul's overall bass sound throughout each album. As I was listening through the catalog marveling at these improvements, I couldn't help get excited to hear my all-time favorite bass work in any Beatles song and that is "Rain." The bass in this song is really treated as the lead instrument with the guitars and drums mixed farther back as supporting instruments. It's melodic, soulful and acrobatically fluid. Coupled with John's intoxicating vocal melody, "Rain" has always been one of my all-time favorites.
The remaster did not disappoint. The bass bubbles up from below the mix and shines brighter than anybody has ever heard it. It bounces and bobbles along with John's hypnotic voice making a great sonic companion. The more I listened, the more I fell in love with it. It's another candidate for a quick assessment of the magic brought forth in these remastered albums.
So are there any negatives associated with this set?
While there is much to gush over about this set there are some small nitpicky things that managed to permeate my radar.
Although the new packaging, liner notes, photographs, and especially the pithy video documentaries are all immaculately assembled, the fact that these discs come in folded cardboard cases instead of the standard plastic jewel boxes makes me worried that they will not remain as pristine as my '87 catalog has over the last twenty years. They'll get dinged up, bent, frayed, and creased easily so it's only a matter of time before the outward appearance of the collection will show its wear.
Although I generally love the crispness of Ringo's snare enhanced throughout the entire catalogue, it often brought it to the forefront of the mix a smidgen too much on a few dozen songs. I find myself wishing I could be at the mixing console able to dial back the drums just a tad. It's a minor detail I'm well prepared to live with.
Two albums in particular, BEATLES FOR SALE and LET IT BE still have a hint of muddiness to the overall mixes which was true of the original '87 remasters a well. There's only so much mastering can do and I completely recognize this. It's not so much a critique of the engineers' skills but the revelation of a desire I've harbored for some time. It's definitely improved upon, but not as dramatically as the other albums are.
When these albums were first announced, I'm sure it brought more eye rolls than applause even amongst the die-hard Beatles fans of the world. Here we go again…yet another dip into the Beatles catalogue? Are you serious?
After living with each song over the past month I can honestly say that these albums far supercede any worries of throwing down the extra bread to add these to your collection. Just before I received the set I thought I'd place them side by side with my '87 remastered CD catalogue and enjoy them both. Having been through the '09 remasters it's a foregone conclusion to assume that I'll forever be listening to these albums exclusively whenever my ears demand a Beatles fix.
I am grateful for this new catalog beyond what my words here have adequately expressed. This is the real deal and I'm vastly impressed with the results.