Today, the Beatles’ entire catalogue — thirteen discs,1 plus a double-CD “Past Masters” collection of non-album tracks — is being re-released.
Everyone is describing this as a “remastering” of the discs, which were transferred to CDs in 1987. That’s twenty-two years ago, when digital technology was in its infancy. The discs haven’t been upgraded since. Their inferior sound quality reflects the technological limitations of the era.
Reading various media reports, it seems to me that “remastering” is a misnomer:
Unlike the 2006 special release “Love,” for instance, these weren’t remixed from the original Abbey Road multitrack tapes. Rather, a team of engineers performed meticulous cleanup on various stereo and mono masters, both literally and figuratively: Dust was removed from the old tapes, electrical clicks and hiss excised, EQ and other filters tastefully applied.
The engineers cleaned up existing masters; they didn’t go back to the source tapes. Why? Because they didn’t want to risk offending fans by producing a new mix: after all, many of us have memorized every note of the Beatles’ music.
By all accounts, the new versions (remastered or not) represent a dramatic improvement in sound quality. “Restored” is the appropriate descriptor for the process. After all that’s the word we use when technicians delicately rehabilitate a centuries-old painting. As Newsweek recognizes, that’s precisely what has been done to the Beatles CDs:
The overall effect, immediately obvious when you slip one of the remastered discs into a decent stereo, is like scraping a layer of grime from the Sistine Chapel. Abbey Road’s remasterers resisted the common urge to scrub every extraneous noise, inflate the overall volume, or remix the tracks, leaving us, as a result, with the truest representation yet of how these songs were supposed to sound.
Does sound quality matter?
Let’s be honest: only audiophiles and obsessives care that much about sound quality. Rather, the vast majority of remastered discs will sell to ordinary fans forking over hundreds of dollars to update their libraries even though they weren’t particularly dissatisfied with the old Beatles CDs.
Speak for yourself, Mr. Romano! I don’t have a good enough ear to make the grade as an audiophile. I’m just a music lover. Even so, I can distinguish superior sound quality from inferior sound quality, and I appreciate the difference.
A case in point: I have always thought that Help! stood out as having better sound quality than many of the other Beatles CDs. This week, I learned that there was a problem with the EMI master tape of Help!. As a result, when the engineers converted it to CD in 1987, they went back to the original tapes and made a new master:
The CD’s released in 1987 were not from the original master’s, with the exception of Help and Rubber Soul which were re-mixed from the original four track multitracks. (the two track mixes were deemed unusable by George Martin due to their condition)
Help! was remastered from the original tapes in 1987: that explains why it sounds better. My ears were not deceiving me, even though I don’t claim to be an audiophile.
I, for one, plan to buy the new edition of the CDs. (In stereo, not the mono versions — although the mono set is selling like crazy.) I have always been disappointed by the sound of the “White Album” and A Hard Days’ Night, in particular.
I expect that those of us who listen closely to our music are in for a real treat!
1Please Please Me (1963); With The Beatles (1963); A Hard Day’s Night (1964); Beatles For Sale (1964); Help! (1965); Rubber Soul (1965); Revolver (1966); Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); Magical Mystery Tour (1967) The Beatles (The White Album) (1968); Yellow Submarine (1969); Abbey Road (1969); Let It Be (1970).