The Beatles 2009
So the big day, September 9, Beatles Day, has come and gone and after being away on a brief trip, I returned this morning to a number of voicemails that began, “Are the Beatles reissues worth the money?”
I even had a call from one of my writers. For shame. No, not really. I fully understand times are hard and shelling out $179.99 (on Amazon.com) for the full Stereo Box enchilada may be too much for some. I have to say though that one hundred and eighty bucks for the entire Beatles stereo catalog in its U.S. configuration is pretty reasonable. The boxed set is very basic and no nonsense which is good because often times boxed set designers get too fancy and outstrip the capabilities of the manufacturing end of things. Just a two bay rectangular box with CDs stacked on top of a ribbon for easy accessibility. Also if you can’t afford the entire apple (or in this case, Apple), then the bites at $11.99 (again Amazon.com) for the individual volumes seems very reasonable.
Reasonable that is if the sound is demonstrably better than the original CDs, which came out in 1987. As I mentioned in my feature on the new reissues in the October issue of Stereophile, the chief engineer on the project Allan Rouse doubted whether the average listener could tell the difference between the new reissues and the original CD transfers.
An average listener aside, the bigger question for audiophiles is can the trained ear using good gear detect a difference? Again, as I mention in my article, the differences between the old and new CD masters are significant and for fans and audiophilic types, more than worth the money.
One complicating factor with closely examining the sound of the new reissues was the fact that Apple/EMI would not let any music out until the week of release and that edict included critics, deejays and music biz folks although I’m sure some folks somewheregroundlings at Apple Corps for instancemust have been exempted from the embargo. Having now received my actual finished copy of the boxed set, I’ve dug into several tracks in depth to see what the differences really are.
Let me first say that I think the LPs will always sound superior to CD versions no matter how much tweaking of the sound of the original mixes goes on. If someday new mixes are commissioned then perhaps the CD sound will give the LPs a run for their money. But in terms of dynamic range, imaging and that wonderful overused analogue bugaboo term, “warmth,” the LPs get the nod. Why LPs are not part of this new sprucing up of the Beatles catalog is unknown. Rouse had no idea when I asked him. Seems to me that would have been as much a win-win as the new Mono Set whose initial pressing of 10,000 units sold out faster than its admittedly more numerous Stereo counterpart. No worries though kids, both CD sets will be reprinted ad infinitum until every last ducat has been squeezed outta this project.
Using my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 3D CD playerwhich by the way is a great machine that I have always adoredat the exact same volume, the first thing you notice when you A-B new against old is that sonically the new transfers make the originals sound flat and onedimensional. There is a newfound fullness, multi-dimensionality and also a sense of space that the originals lack. On first listen, this new sonic heft can easily be mistaken for loudness, for compression, but it’s really just a wider dynamic range and the presence of more music that you’re hearing. In the stereo CD of Rubber Soul, I AB’d “Drive My Car” repeatedly against the 1987 originals and the audible differences for me came down to several things: increased separation and clarity between instruments, a more expressive, luxuriant emotional tenor, and an exquisite and exacting sense of bringing out and enhancing details like the roundness of the bass line or the edge on the vocals, which were always there but which are now so much more alive and present in the mix.
After listening for the past few days, several sonic constants have appeared. The contributions of Paul and Ringo, alone and as a rhythm section are now more prominent. Paul’s bass is now something you can regularly hear and be impressed by. Ringo’s tambourine on “Got To Get You Into My Life” (from Revolver) now sounds like a glorious idea come to fruition. Another “Gee, I never heard that before,” moment comes from the layering, particularly of the vocals, which is now so much more defined. On “Doctor Robert,” again from Revolver (a lesser tune that I, of course, have a cheesy affinity for), the harmonies have a new energy.
Energy, in fact, may be the word that best describes the positive sonic alterations inherent in the new remasters. What you really hear is an audible new jolt of energy. Words like cogency, potency and sparkle also apply. This music, on the medium of CD, is suddenly more alive than ever before. Best of all the CD format’s worst quality, that cold digital brightness that’s made so many CD transfers damned near unlistenable, has actually been used, very judiciously, to great effect. I would venture to say that the Abbey Road team has finally harnessed this demon and made it serve rather than harm the music making.
On Lennon’s “Rain” (from Past Masters) one of the band’s most elaborate sonic creations, one that used a series of overdubs at different tape speeds to achieve an odd tonal effect and near the song’s end, backward vocals, the new remaster when compared to the original CD transfer, focuses and revitalizes the panache of this underrated curiosity. The guitars have more bite, Ringo’s snare pops with new vigor and the background vocals are separated more than ever before.
Finally, after listening to the The Beatles (aka The White Album), which despite much love for Abbey Road has always been my favorite Beatles album, the proof as they say, is in the air. The sound is appreciatively better, richer, more intense. The overdubs on this record have always sounded clumsy to me but on the new remaster, that problem has been minimized. AB’ing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” is yet another example of how clarity has been strengthened while the music that was always there, the Harrison/McCartney harmonies float above the mix with a new urgency and Clapton’s guitar has a thrilling new sting. Anyone who cannot hear he differences here needs to upgrade their gear or perhaps retune their ears. It’s easy to fall back upon metaphors when describing the exciting new sound that rises from these remasters but I’ll use only one. In listening to these new reissues, it makes me think that the music was like a half-opened flower that has now been brought into full and beautiful bloom.
A word about packaging: The glossy paperboard packs that the new reissues come in are well thought out and a definite success. If you like Beatles photos, many rarely seen (at least by non-fanatics), these new packages are a bonanza. The Rubber Soul package for instance contains 11 photos, only four of which were included in the original CD package