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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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:
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:
And, here's another article, this time from the New York Times
Thanks to Thomas Matteo, dk and Various for the links.