Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Re-Meet The Beatles

The Beatles--"Dr. Robert (original)" (mp3)
The Beatles--"Dr. Robert (remastered)" (mp3)
The Beatles--"Norwegian Wood (remastered)" (mp3)

I have a long history of owning Beatles music. When I was 7, my brother and I got our first Beatles album, either before or after we saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was Meet The Beatles, one of those "American" versions that chopped up and rearranged the British albums. We bought other Beatle albums, especially the earlier ones, but some of the later ones, we never owned. Abbey Road we heard on a cassette tape that my brother borrowed from one of his friends. By the time the red and blue anthology albums came out, we had moved onto other things, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Chambers Brothers and Iron Butterfly, and so avoided that round of Beatle purchases.

Which led me to buy a boxed set of all of the British Beatle albums back in the late 80's, early 90's, because when you're my age, you always return to the Beatles, however often they move in and out of your life. Very, very soon after that purchase, everything turned to CD's. A few years later, I bought the same boxed set, this time on CD. And, as they came out, I added to that Live At The BBC and the CDs that contain outtakes and alternative versions. In short, before 2009, I had bought a lot of Beatles.

Last night, I started buying the Beatle records again.

On CD once again. With rare photos this time. And a mini-documentary on each CD. And supposedly better sound through remastering. I stood in front of that rack at Target, looking at all of the nicely, subtly, attractively-repackaged albums, in eco-friendly cases this time, just as friendly as the original records.

I know there is a boxed set coming, in fact, two boxed sets, depending on whether I want to own the Beatles in stereo or in mono or both. But I was also calculating in my head just doing the whole deed right then and there: for about $180 I could own the latest, "best" version of the Beatles. And I couldn't help feeling like I was getting scammed, having now purchased the exact same songs for, in some cases, the fourth time.

But you know what it was. It was the sound, the chance for better sound, that called to me. The website Tone Audio claims that the remastered Beatles are a "feast for the ears," going on to say that they contain "[n]ear-miraculous improvements in the key areas of information retrieval, hidden details, palpable physicality, expanded midrange, transient presence, and frequency response." And the bass and drums are supposed to be there in ways they haven't been.

So I stood in front of that rack at Target and thought, I can't do them all, not all at once, not only can I not afford to do it, but what if I'm just buying the same thing and the better sound is really not all that much better? So which ones do I buy? Abbey Road for that suite on the second side, which ought to sound amazing, if anything does? The White Album for its stripped-down sound and variety of song styles? Something early with a favorite song on it, like "I've Just Seen A Face" on the Help! soundtrack? Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for all of the obvious reasons?

In the end, I suppose my choices were pretty conventional. I went for Revolver and Rubber Soul, right in the middle of the group's output, right when they're getting control of the current recording techniques and pushing the boundaries of those same techniques. I like those records because they aren't full of hit songs, and so they still sound fresh to me, even after all these years.

Props to George Harrison, because in spite of all of the Lennon/McCartney classics in their catalog, the first song to undergo a serious listening of the remastered sound was George's "Taxman."

Now, you never know whether you hear what you hear or what you've prepped yourself to believe you hear, but I thought from the start that the songs sounded appreciably better. Couple this with the fact that the Beatle albums are recorded pretty damn well to begin with. And remind yourself that you aren't going to hear things that you didn't hear before (necessarily), you're just going to be more aware of them. On "Taxman" it was the bass that caught my attention first. With the possible exception of "Come Together," I don't often think of Beatles songs as having a bottom. On "Here, There, and Everywhere," it was the unadorned Epiphone guitar playing rhythm that stood out. It wasn't louder in the mix, I don't think, but there was just more of it.

Some things can't be fixed. On "Got To Get You Into My Life," there are two drum tracks, and one of them is way too low in the mix. But "Doctor Robert" came alive in a way it never has before, with more crunch and punch to John's rhythm guitar and more separation between it and George's 12-string parts. And that's the key to most of the songs--more separation. It may be because I've been listening with such focus, but I am simply more conscious of the construction of the songs, who's doing what. I like that. It makes the songs, in a way, feel new to me.

When I want to test out the quality of a recording, however, it is acoustic, rather than electric, music that I seek. "Norwegian Wood," off of Rubber Soul, is simply gorgeous. It sounds like it could have been recorded this year.

The songs posted above are here so that you can test some of this for yourself, though I don't know that computer speakers are the best way to make a judgment. On my ones at home, the two versions of "Doctor Robert" sound almost identical, but those speakers do not have the depth or range of the Bose system I used to compare the CDs in my living room. MP3 files undoubtedly diminish some of the sound quality, as well. So, worth it? Your call. I do think the remastered versions have better range and separation, and I know they are louder. That means they fit into the mix of the other music I listen to better.

All of the remastered Beatles CD's are available at Target for $11.98, or $16.98 for the double cds. If you buy two, you get a $5 gift card.


Anonymous said...

I bought the same 2 cds first too.

Anonymous said...

Pitchfork reviews of the albums

rubber soul


Bob said...

I thought this from Pitchfork was spot on:

Listening to the new masters, the differences in sound quality generally manifest in three ways: songs have more "punch," with Paul McCartney's bass (an absolute wonder throughout) and Ringo's drums hitting with more force; the separation is better, so that instruments and (especially) layered vocals have more definition-- when the Beatles are harmonizing, you can more easily pick out the different vocalists, and the voices have more presence; and finally, the sound in general seems just a touch brighter, with various sound effects, cymbals taps, and so on, ringing with more clarity. The differences to my ears are not quite night and day, but they are certainly there, and they are noticeable. And it's satisfying to have these albums, absolutely some of the best-engineered records in the history of pop music, sounding as good as they can.

jed said...

did you know McCartney played the solo on "Taxman?"

troutking said...

I love Paul's bass playing on "And Your Bird Can Sing." I can't wait to hear that!