Hearing the Beatles Again, For the First Time
Since the Beatles stopped recording in 1970, it takes a bit of creative marketing to continue to capitalize on their genius in 2009. Several years ago the double CD Beatles Anthology was issued, which contained lots of outtakes and alternative versions of selected songs. This project was interesting from an historical perspective but you could understand why most of that material was never released. The latest marketing scheme is the release of re-mastered original tracks to enhance the quality of the sound. Many of us have already upgraded our original Beatles LPs with modern CDs so what would possibly make it worth replacing them all yet again?
Wearing my Opinion8ed hat I convinced myself I needed to find the answer to that question and decided to order the complete set. Well, almost complete – the full box set of 14 CDs includes a compilation album (Past Masters Vol. I and II), that I figured I could do without. And in some counterintuitive marketing ploy, the full set costs more ($199) than the cost of the 14 individual disks ($12 each). Go figure.
The official release date was Sept. 9, 2009 and my set of re-mastered Beatles CDs (actually a highly anticipated early birthday present) was delivered soon afterwards. I couldn’t wait to open the environmentally friendly packaging and check out the really neat cases – the CDs were designed to recreate the look and feel of the original British 33 1/3 RPM Long Play (LP) albums including cardboard sleeves, original liner notes and black CD labels made to resemble the original record labels down to the specific fonts and trademark design. There are also lots of photos and a mini-documentary for your computer on each CD that provides interesting background material.
And now for the music… Where else to start but the beginning: Please Please Me, the Beatles first album released in England in 1963. It didn’t take long for the jury to come back with the verdict on the sound quality. What a treat! The clean crisp sound just jumps from the speakers, gets inside your head and forces you to hear it again for the first time. It calls out to be cranked to the max and with today’s recording techniques, modern audio equipment and speakers there simply isn’t any distortion – at any decibel level.
I can recall the arguments of audiophile purists who lamented the introduction of digital music, complaining that only analog reproduction can capture the warmth and the full dynamic range inherent in a live performance. Perhaps that was true of the first generation CDs compared with the original LP recordings. But whether it’s John and Paul’s uncompromising vocals and patented Beatle’s harmonies, George’s subtle but ingenious guitar, Paul’s driving bass, or even a well placed cow bell from Ringo, the re-mastered sound is …
OK, I’ll just blurt it out: better than the original!
I don’t know how they managed to take old, original two-track and four-track recordings and somehow magically re-mix and enhance the sound – apparently it took a team of engineers four years to accomplish the task – but hearing is believing. It’s difficult to describe and quantify something as ethereal as sound quality but after several listenings I “saw the light”; that is I discovered that the re-mastered disks separate the various components and place them in unique spatial locations. I don’t just mean that the bass and drums come out of the left speaker and guitars and vocals the right – you can actually imagine the sound in three dimensional space.
I did a head to head comparison with the conventional and re-mastered versions of A Hard Day’s Night. If I closed my eyes while listening to the old disk, I could imagine myself at a performance at a large hall or arena where all the sound is mixed and pumped through the speakers and essentially comes at you as a single wall of sound. With the re-mastered disk you are sitting in a small club or in the studio and you hear the individual instruments and vocals coming at you from the different parts of the room. It’s kind of like the difference between 2D and 3D movies except not quite as extreme and you don’t need to wear those funny glasses. The later original recordings (e.g., Abbey Road) were much more sophisticated in the engineering and production. Nevertheless, when you listen to the re-mastered version it’s as if the band was moved from a small practice room where the sounds are on top of each other to a much more spacious accommodation where the sounds can really stretch out and get comfortable. The string players on Eleanor Rigby (one of the best uses of a classical string quartet in the history of rock and roll) are moved to center stage where the sweet upper strings and deep richness of the cello is juxtaposed with the bright staccato counterpoint so you can practically see their bows slicing through the air.
Of course part of the experience is full immersion back to the time when there was a new Beatles album every eight months or so. Over the course of seven years the Beatles produced 12 original albums and 214 songs. Each album would usually contain 14 cuts – most were just about two minutes long. So in that sense, they stuck to a successful formula (until the later years when they began to experiment with new styles, recording techniques, etc.) But over those seven years they pushed the envelope and reinvented themselves many times over. Forty years since their last recording, these new releases allow their original fans to enjoy them all over again, but more significantly will undoubtedly excite a whole new generation of fans.
Click on the YouTube promotional video below for a preview: