Ever since the Beatles' albums first appeared on CD, in 1987, fans have complained about the discs' anemic sound quality. After a 22-year wait, the caretakers of the band's legacy are finally doing something about it - with remasters of all 14 albums hitting stores on September 9th. "I remember going into a museum and seeing Winston Churchill's old papers, and they were getting browner and crinklier," says Paul McCartney. "And what the joy for me is, our stuff is going the other way. It's getting clearer, and as long as the mixes and stuff are very carefully followed, which the guys at Abbey Road do, you know it's not as if it's just a bunch of people in China doing it."
ROLLING STONE's July 1987 review of the original CD releases complained that they were "shriller and more grating" than the vinyl versions. And as digital sound improved over the years, the CDs' shortcomings only became more obvious. (In contrast, the Rolling Stones' catalog has been remastered at least three times since its original release.) But it wasn't until four years ago that McCartney, Ringo Starr and Beatle widows Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison finally approved the idea of remasters — and a team of Abbey Road engineers (headed by Allan Rouse, who worked with George Martin on 1995's Beatles Anthology) immediately went to work.
The first step was to transfer the original master tapes — housed "in a vault with two steel doors, both with combination locks, an alarm, two cameras and a smoke detector," says Rouse — to digital files, one song at a time. The remastering team spent hours debating how much to clean up the recordings by removing hiss and other flaws. "What we did agree on was that if it was part of the Beatles' performance, we weren't going to remove it," says Rouse. "The squeaky chair at the end of 'A Day in the Life,' breaths, coughs, anything that was actually really part of the performance, those stayed. Anything that we considered to be technical — clicks, sibilance, pops, bad edits, drop-outs, hum, things that were a technical problem — we would either try and improve them or, if possible, remove them or, repair them."
One of the most fraught issues was loudness. The 1987 CDs are dramatically out of step with current trends in mastering - they sound puny next to more recent rock releases, which make extensive use of audio limiting to reduce dynamic range and make songs seem louder. After extensive debate, the engineers ended up using a "tiny amount" of limiting — which still had a major effect on the sound: "I Am the Walrus," the title track from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and other rock tunes have a newfound heft and thump. "It gave it a little lift," says Rouse.
The remasters mostly offer improvements that are subtle but noticeable. "Love Me Do," for instance, loses its dusty, distant haze of age, and "The Long and Winding Road" no longer has what Rouse described as a "muffled" quality to it. Otherwise, it's a matter of suddenly noticing details: McCartney's nimble bass line on "And Your Bird Can Sing," the vivid three-dimensionality of Starr's opening and closing high-hat on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the cinematic quality of the choirs and orchestra on "Good Night."
But even before engineers began tweaking them, the digital transfers immediately sounded better than the 1987 versions, for two reasons: Analog-to-digital converters have vastly improved since then, and they were also able to work at a higher resolution than before: specifically, 24 bit, 192 kHz, which is used in the Blu-ray audio format. At that bit rate, the engineers say, the digital version is indistinguishable from the original masters — but, alas, there are no plans yet fora Blu-ray release. ("There's plenty of time," McCartney says.) The engineers were well aware that many listeners won't even spend much time listening in CD quality, let alone Blu-ray — they'll rip the CDs to their iPods and listen to them in lossy MP3 or AAC formats. "It's like if you clean up a painting and then you photocopy it or something," says engineer Paul Hicks. "The thing is, it's still going to look better, even though it's a photocopy. It was definitely worth doing this, because the resolution might not be as good, but it will still be clearer and better, and hopefully there will be things people are going to hear that they haven't previously."
In addition to the stereo remasters, the team assembled a new box set. The Beatles in Mono, which collects every existing mono mix of the band's music. It's the first time that the mono mixes of Sgt. Pepper, the White Album and Magical Mystery Tour have ever been released on CD. (Confusingly, the 1987 CD releases of the Beatles' first four albums - Please Please Me. With the Beatles. A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale — used the mono mixes. The new releases will use the stereo ones instead, with the monos relegated to the box set.)
The mono versions are no mere curiosity. They can be radically different, to the point where there's entirely different vocal effects on, say, "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" — and rock songs like "Helter Skelter" hit with a revelatory, garage-y force. Up until Abbey Road, the Beatles themselves focused almost entirely on the mono versions. "In the main, we thought in mono," McCartney says, noting that the band spent weeks on the mono mix of Sgt. Pepper, and then left the stereo to George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. "The stereo mix wasn't really important to us - we figured, well, you just spread the mono."
Some Beatles fans will be eager to compare the new remasters to their original vinyl — but while the engineers did make their own comparisons to the LPs, matching them wasn't the point. "No one's heard the master tapes apart from us," says Guy Massey, one of the engineers. "And you have to remember some of the limitations of vinyl — they had to cut some of the low end off to master it." Adds Rouse, "These releases are just a little closer to the master tape than you've heard before."
McCartney judges the reissues by an even higher standard. "It sounds like it did in the room when you recorded it," he says. "We had this pure sound, then the minute it goes clown a bunch of wires it's going to get fucked up to some degree. So it now sounds like I'm back in the room, in the session."
The remastered albums come with new liner notes and mini making-of documentaries, but no bonus tracks. After the outtakes-filled Anthology release, the Beatles are reluctant to dig deeper into the vaults - which include hundreds of hours of unreleased recordings, from unheard Beatles tunes to early versions of tracks that ended upon solo records. "George Harrison and I were joking when we did the Anthology — we were saying, you know, the next album should be called 'Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel,'" says McCartney. "Because there is that element to it, like, 'Come on, guys, fuck, we made all these Beatles records so lovely and shiny and terrific and now we're looking for the outtake that got away.'" Still, there is material McCartney would like to release — including "Now and Then," an extra Anthology-era song that (like "Free as a Bird") found Harrison, McCartney and Starr adding to a John Lennon recording. "George didn't like it — basically, he didn't think it was good enough," says McCartney.
McCartney admits he's no audiophile. "I can listen to a record on the radio on the beach and it sounds OK to me," he says, sitting in Abbey Road Studios, where he's co-producing a new album by his son James' band, the Light. "I'm probably the least tech person in the universe, you know. And John wasn't an audiophile either. It was always George Harrison who spotted when Capitol re-EQ'ed our albums [in the Sixties]." So McCartney sees the remasters in emotional terms, not technical ones. "Now I hear John and think, 'There he is,'" he says. "Like, you can almost close your eyes and you can kind of see him, because the quality is so real. So I like that about it."