Meet the Beatles, Again
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.”