The Beatles, Remastered - some hopes, fears and predictions - Mastering Media Blog

Monday, 31 August 2009

The Beatles, Remastered - some hopes, fears and predictions

The Beatles' digitally remastered catalogue will finally be released, in it's entirety, in just over a weeks time. As a complete Beatles nutcase, I can't help but be excited about this - but I'm also slightly nervous. 

I've written before about why I love the Beatles' music so much - and, in particular, the way that they worked with producer George Martin.

So, the idea of lovingly restored re-issues of these classic albums, revealing even more detail and magic, is exciting - whereas, the thought of heavy-handed processing or fashion-led mastering (can anyone say "scooped mids" or Loudness War ?!?) makes me nervous - especially when spokesmen have said the new releases sound "louder and brighter" than the originals.


Will these re-issues reveal the original masters in a new, inspirational light ? Or, will they be yet another cynical re-hash of music we already own ? Here are some of my hopes, fears, and predictions for this release.


Hopes

  • Better transfers Digital audio has come a long way since the eighties, when many of the original Beatles CDs were released. In particular, analogue to digital converters have come along in leaps and bounds. So, there is a distinct possibility that even a flat transfer of the original tapes would sound significantly better than the original versions
  • Sophisticated restoration Even more than converters, restoration technology has improved immeasurably over the years. Without a doubt the tools used will be made by CEDAR, who effectively wrote the book on this stuff, and they can achieve quite incredible feats - fixing problems with the original sources like hiss and distortion, without any of the undesirable side-effects that some of the older technology involves
  • Sensitive enhancement Make no mistake, the original CDs sound pretty good already - but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. Not massive changes, but great mastering should be constant proof that "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts", and I hope these releases will be perfect examples of this. 

Fears

  • Heavy-handed processing The last Beatles re-issue I listened to in the mastering studio was the "Blue Album" - which sounded great, and incredibly clean. So clean, in fact, that we hooked out the original CD release of Abbey Road, and compared the two. Sure enough, the track we chose ("Come Together") had been de-noised - ie, the hiss had been reduced. Which I found an odd decision. Don't get me wrong, it's not that there were any unpleasant side-effects (artefacts) from the process - it's just that it wasn't that hissy to begin with. As George Martin has observed, the original 2-inch master tapes of these albums are incredibly clean - the only noise really comes from tracks where multiple reduction passes have been carried out.
  • Too loud No surprises I'd be interested in this issue ! But, you may be surprised to learn that I've nothing against the idea of making them louder, necessarily - just not unnecessarily so. The fact is, a certain amount of EQ, compression and limiting would certainly have been used in the original vinyl cut of these albums, and the goal of modern CD mastering should be to achieve a comparable result on CD. In fact, another reason that the original CD releases are considered to sound "cold" by some people may be because they were made from the final mixdowns rather than EQ-ed production masters. This is a common problem with early CD releases - it removes a generation of analogue tape, theoretically getting a cleaner transfer, but also risks missing out on some of the positive benefits of the vinyl pre-mastering process along the way.

Now know you know the things I think might be in store for these releases - finally I thought it might be fun to make some predictions about we will actually hear on September 9th


Predictions

  • This will be a low-level, anti-loudness war release Despite some speculation to the contrary, I'll be amazed if the levels on these are high by today's standards. The original releases had plenty of headroom, so I'm sure they will be at a higher level than that, probably with some gentle limiting - but these CDs will sound just as dynamic as the original releases.
  • The sound work will be subtle & tasteful - perhaps not even going far enough EMI's mastering studios have a track record of appropriate, restrained work, and I don't expect the Beatles' remasters to be any different. In fact, if anything these may sound too close to the originals for some - for example, fans of the "Love" mashed-up versions may be underwhelmed.
  • It will have been extensively restored and de-hissed - too much so, for some tastes As a mastering engineer, this is the aspect I'm most curious about. I have little doubt that the masters will have been painstakingly, exhaustively restored - how else could they have spent four years working on these releases ? The question is, how successful has it been, and crucially, how necessary was it ? Have they gone to the lengths of re-making all the reduction mixdowns digially - for example in "Strawberry Fields Forever" ? Will it have been worth it ?

But my final prediction is simpler and clearer - these remasters are going to sound great. The original CDs sound excellent - these can't fail to sound better ! And personally, I can't wait to hear them.


What are you expecting from these releases ? How do you think they will sound ? Will we be able to even hear the difference, or is it just a cynical ploy to cash in on the release of the "Rock Band" game ?


Update #3 - Most reviews seem positive about the remasters - if all goes well I'll have some feedback for you early next week. In the meantime, here are some interesting links about the released CDs:

Beatles Remastered 2009 (from Mix Magazine)

Mono or Stereo ? Help ! (Nice comparison of the two box sets, with samples)

Beatles fans deserve more in the remastering department (A less positive take on the new versions)


Update #2 - Lots of requests for opinions about the final release coming through - I'll posts something as soon as I can !


Update - thanks for all the great comments on this post ! It turns out I was right about the use of CEDAR, but much more interestingly their ReTouch software was also used in a far more radical way - to remove entire instruments from the mix for the Rock Band game:


Using CEDAR ReTouch in creating The Beatles' Rock Band game


We use ReTouch for traditional restoration tasks, but removing complete instruments - wow! Hats off to Giles Martin for that idea.


Meanwhile here's an article about the making of the game from Wired magazine, if you're interested:


The Beatles Make the Leap to Rock Band


And, here's another article, this time from the New York Times


While My Guitar Gently Beeps


Thanks to Thomas Matteo, dk and Various for the links.



21 comments:

dk said...

Good post. I too have had 09-09-09 on my calendar for a long time. I look forward to picking up the box set next Wednesday, as well as the Rockband version. It's a day that couldn't come too soon.

Regarding the elusive, "what's it going to sound like?" it is believed that the soundtrack to The Beatles' Las Vegas show "Love" offers a superb taste of what the remastered catalog will sound like. Of course, "Love" is in part a stunning Beatles mashup, but it's also a remarkable recording. Enhanced sonic detail with a richer frequency response is the best way of describing it. The production team on Love are such purists that there is scant evidence of processing or [gasp] excess compression in those recordings. But we'll see next week. Until then, cheers.

ianshepherd said...

Thanks for your comment ! Personally I don't think the differences will be as profound as with "Love" - that involved completely re-mixing the original tracks (for example, the stunning version of "I Am The Walrus") - and this isn't really an appropriate approach for mastering - the original Sergeant Pepper mixes were only 4-track, so that limitation will still be present.

In fact, I'm curious what the stereo versions of the early albums will be, since they were originally released in mono only, with some pretty horrible "pseudo-stereo" versions following later.

Lots to be curious about :-)

Thomas Matteo said...

I read an article, on Wired online I think, about the Rock Band version of the tracks. They had to go and artificially separate the early mono tracks to obtain multi-tracks for the game. They did this by determining and isolating the individual frequencies for Paul's voice etc.

Look it up, it has some interesting details from Giles Martin.

The Rock Band re-mixes seem to be a third, independent release and reworking of the songs and it would be interesting to have them on CD.

Various said...

There was an excellent documentary about George Martin on Radio 2 last night. They played some of the individual tracks (it's been done in a few music documentaries, and it's always a treat - in this case we got to hear John's original guide vocal for "Come Together", and some of George's unused guitar riffs for it!) And they also demonstrated how they can correct a vocal drop-out on "Please Please Me", and how they can split "Taxman" into its component instruments even when they were all on the same track (which I suppose was necessary for the Rock Band game).

There's also an extensive article in this month's Mojo magazine that describes exactly what's been altered. They haven't touched the performances, but they've fixed vocal drop-outs (like the one towards the end of "Day Tripper"), and the shift to mono in the middle of "I Am The Walrus" has been made less obvious. But as you said, they've been careful to do it conservatively, and keep those imperfections that are part of the songs' character.

It's all sounding very promising!

> "It will have been extensively restored and de-hissed - too much so, for some tastes"

Yes, the Mojo writer comments that "Dear Prudence" sounded a bit odd to him, while acknowledging that this is a very subjective area where nostalgia and your experience/memories of the old versions play a big part.

> I read an article, on Wired online I think,

You might be thinking of this one in the New York Times.

Thomas Matteo said...

http://www.wired.com/gaming/gamingreviews/magazine/17-09/mf_rockband

Thomas Matteo said...

lol, from the NY Times article:

"Apple’s preoccupation with security meant that the high-quality audio “stems” he created never left Abbey Road. If the separated parts leaked out, every amateur D.J. would start lacing mixes with unauthorized Beatles samples."

they do realize that people are going to rip the tracks from the game anyway the second it comes out, right?

"That compression, in which the loudest parts of a song are turned down while the quiet parts are untouched, results in an artificially even sound — an effect of Abbey Road’s 1950s equipment that is treasured by Beatlephiles."

wow, I wish I could use this "compression" thing as well, it would help my drums. I guess I'll have to travel back to the 50s, (when they invent a time machine), and steal the original equipment, then bring it back to the present. Then everyone will be able to use, what did he call it again? Ah, "compression".

ianshepherd said...

Thanks for the links, guys ! I've added them to the post so that everyone can check them out.

Lol @ Thomas - but, 1950s compressors DO sound great...!

Darren said...

Can we be expecting an update on Wednesday?

Thanks for the information... I am a long-time fan of The Beatles', but I can in no way consider myself an audiophile. I'm almost completely in the dark regarding the issue, save the information I've found in blogs. It is a subject in which I have developed a growing interest, though.

Any information you can give would help me make this (potentially very expensive) choice.

ianshepherd said...

I won't be a able to post a comprehensive review, but I certainly want to follow-up by looking at a few of my favourite tunes - watch this space !

tina hensley said...

help...as an owner oif all the original LP's (not to mention some 45's too) I want to buy a boxed set for my son. Stereo or Mono? I do want the best...please advise...anyone...anyone

ianshepherd said...

Here's a great comparison of the mono and stereo versions, with samples:

Mono or Stereo - Help!

Hope that's useful !

ianshepherd said...

PS. Short version - if you want ALL the albums, you need to go for stereo.

Also, as an owner of the mono versions, these will probably be the most exciting for you to hear :-)

Here's another opinion:

The Mono Remasters

Bill Jacobs said...

My worst fears came true! The Beatles succumb to the loudness war! The stereo remasters are too loud! The added compression/limiting or whatever else they added give them an annoying hyper-compressed sound. I wish I could smack those mastering engineers. See a wave form comparison at http://mastering-media.blogspot.com/2009/08/beatles-digitally-remastered-hopes.html .

ianshepherd said...

Er... no.

I'll be posting my own opinion soon, but I can safely say that the masters are definitely NOT "hyper-compressed" - in the mastering, at any rate.

Also the link you posted is to this site...?

Endevor-1 said...

I am sort of working on my own comparison between the MONO originals and the MONO re-released.

My overall summary is that they sound like they were recorded in 2009.

The vocals have a cleaned brightness to them, and the tambourines shine in every track. I also believe that some were edited differently and maybe sped up/slowed down a notch. I will post my audio examples. Great site btw...

Matte said...

There was no Viagra UK crap in this one, The Beatles un pure sounding effects, I really enjoyed this work, pretty clear and the best way so far (excluding Vinyls) to listen to The Beatles

Carlhus said...

I was wondering if you ever posted your piece on the Beatles remasters that you mentioned in the comments. I haven't checked on all the posts past this one other than reading the names of the posts, and the titles don't seem to be about reviewing the remasters.

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