By Matt Hurwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
In the late '60s, with a little prodding from his sons, my father finally gave in and replaced his monaural Garrard turntable with a stereo one. Suddenly, Sgt. Pepper's band sounded so much bigger. And clearer. I could hear two distinct guitars playing, not just a generic guitar sound.
Two decades later, in 1988, I finally broke down and bought a CD player and the first of many Beatles CDs -- now, that was a jump from what I'd been hearing on vinyl for years. There were so many more instruments I'd never noticed. And notes I'd never heard.
On Wednesday, things are about to change once again, as the sound of the Beatles' music takes another giant leap forward.
Twenty-two years after the original release of the Fab Four's British catalogue on CD, the group's music will finally be reissued, the release bearing the fruits of a 4 1/2 -year project by engineers at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London to remaster the entire catalogue. All 13 original albums, from "Please Please Me" to "Let It Be," plus the "Past Masters" collection (now a two-disc set, culling from both sides of all of the group's many non-album hit singles), are being reissued in stereo, individually and in a boxed set that lists for $260. The artwork in the new releases is fully expanded from the simplified four-page booklets of the '80s, with loads of never-seen photos from Apple's archive, along with historical and recording notes.
In addition, for purists and curious fans alike, there is "The Beatles in Mono" box ($298), a collection that contains all 10 of the Beatles' albums as originally released in mono (plus a "Mono Masters" set).
So what's different from those CDs you already have? As any surviving Beatle will tell you -- and both are known to say it -- the Beatles were "a great little band" -- a rock band. What comes through on the new stereo masters is the power and quality of the original recordings of that rock band -- the quality the Beatles themselves would have heard and intended when those recordings were created.
That means you can now hear John Lennon's raucous vocal in all its powerfully shredded glory on "Please Please Me's" "Twist and Shout" (the result of recording the group's first album in one day, with a cold, no less). The Beatles' first four albums were, until now, available on CD only in mono. "A Hard Day's Night's" title track always was a great way to start an album, but its full stereo mix, now presented with vigorous dynamics intact, provides a serious kick. And "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band's" launch once again reminds listeners they're hearing what was the cutting edge of rock-and-roll and creative recording of 1967, its rich, unusual soundscape including some sounds that couldn't be replicated even today.
(For those wondering about "master tapes" and "mastering," the "master tapes" are the original stereo tapes Beatles producer George Martin and his engineers created -- the finished product from their recording sessions. "Mastering" requires the expertise of an engineer who specializes in that next step -- adjusting various bass and treble ranges and other fine-tuning before the disc heads to the pressing plant. "Remastering" means, in this case, using current technology to finalize the recordings so that they sound optimal for modern ears.)
"The technology now is far superior to what it was in the '80s, when we did them in the first place," Abbey Road Beatles project coordinator Allan Rouse told me recently at a private listening session in Hollywood. Rouse, who was accompanied by one of the project's mastering engineers, Guy Massey, joined the studio in 1971. Rouse explained that the massive improvements in digital transfer technology had grown so much over the course of two decades that more of the magnetic tapes' content was recorded into the mastering system than had been done in the '80s.
George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on "The Beatles" (a.k.a. "The White Album") reveals the presence of a Ringo Starr kick drum that was integral to rock's greatest rhythm section, alongside Paul McCartney's bass -- a beat that drives the song with a robust heartbeat not heard before. Not heard, that is, outside of the studio control room at Abbey Road when the song was mixed in late 1968 -- until now. On Abbey Road's "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," one can even hear the tip of Starr's drumsticks as they tap his cymbals -- before, we just heard the ringing of cymbals. Ringo was always there, we just didn't hear him.
In the days of vinyl, Paul and Ringo, though they played with enough punch to "make the needle jump off the record," never got a chance to actually make that happen. A powerful bass line like McCartney's on the 1966 single "Paperback Writer" (found on "Past Masters") had to be toned down during mastering for disc, because such bass recordings would, in fact, cause a phonograph needle to jump from the groove. According to original recording engineer Geoff Emerick, the sound from McCartney's bass speaker cabinet on that track was actually recorded using a similar large speaker cabinet placed face to face with McCartney's, to act as a microphone -- in order to nab all of it. That's what we hear on the new "Past Masters" -- all of the harmonics and dynamics, high and low, of McCartney's Rickenbacker bass guitar.
The remastering team also removed technical flaws, such as pops, clicks and other non-Beatles sounds, leaving the recordings pristine. Gone are McCartney's "p" mike pops (those annoying puffs of air one makes when saying words like "popcorn" or "whisper," in McCartney's case) from "Let It Be," but you can still hear Starr's squeaky bass pedal on 1963's "All I've Got to Do" (from the group's second album, "With the Beatles"). "We weren't trying to change history," Rouse said.