Welcome to another week’s #askNat segment. This is where I respond to a Beatles-related question or idea sent in from potentially anyone out there who happens to send me one. This week Steven Lindsay of Indiana writes this:
The one thing I have been amazed at with the 2009 Beatles Stereo Box Set is how great it sounds! The only way that it could sound that great was to have an excellent quality source tape that they were recorded on. I could understand that once The Beatles became as huge as they were, that EMI would use the best. But even with their first album it sounds fantastic! That is surprising with them being an unknown group at the time. My question is, did EMI just use the best recording tape on all the groups they recorded? I have been a Beatles fan all my life, and have read a lot about them. I am so thankful that I have your website and knowledge to learn even more. Thanks for doing all you do!
First off, a big thank you, Steven, for the kind words about the website. Positive feedback is always good and I’ll keep doing my best to keep this as fun, informative and entertaining to Beatles fans as possible. After all, they were the world’s best band! Secondly, my compliments to you on a well thought out question. The remastered box set certainly does sound great so let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.
Secondly, I want to comment on your statement about them being an unknown group at the time they recorded their first album. Just to get this in the proper perspective, the band had recently released their first two singles, “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” “Please Please Me” had just broken into the British top ten and producer George Martin knew he had a hit group on his hands and that they had to immediately get an album out. So my point is that by the time they did record their first album they were not ‘unknown’ anymore – they were the newest and hottest thing on the pop music scene in Britain. So, I’m not sure if there were varying qualities of tape used, but the Beatles would certainly have been using the best at this point. The Beatles went into EMI Studio 2 and recorded 10 songs to add to the 4 that appeared on their two singles on February 11, 1963 – a day considered by most fans as the most industrious day they spent in the studio. The end product of course was the Please Please Me LP which was released on March 22, 1963.
As far as the sound quality heard in even the earliest Beatles albums is concerned, one point to make is the source tapes. This past July (2012) I was listening to the radio program Dennis Mitchell’s Breakfast With The Beatles and the guest on the show was Dennis Ferrante, who has worked in the control room with John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Harry Nilsson in the seventies. During the interview Ferrante relates a conversation he once had with Beatles sound engineer Geoff Emerick where he asked Geoff how The Beatles tracks we hear today could be so quiet and clean since they did not have any noise reduction in Britain in those days. Geoff explained that one reason was that in America one-half inch tape was in use at that time, while in the U.K. they were using one-inch tape. So, what does this mean? Ferrante explained that this allowed for much more loudness and clarity without distortion since they had twice as much space to work with. Commenting on the remasters of the 2009 Beatles Stereo Box Set, Ferrante had one word to describe them – “brilliant.”
Another reason the new remasters sound as good as they do is because of what we have been used to over the past twenty-five+ years or so. The first remastered Beatles CDs from 1987 were well-received at the time, but as the years went on and advances were made in audio technology, nothing was ever done to improve them. Many Beatles fans began to resent this and it didn’t help that so many other artists were putting out remasters much more frequently. So it is without a doubt that a remastered Beatles catalog using the latest audio technology was long overdue.
To get just a little technical here, I want to point out that the 2009 remastered CDs are definitely louder than their 1987 counterparts. Recently there has been an increased awareness of the tendency to over-compress and master albums so loud that the dynamic range is flattened and the peak-level sounds are pushed to the point of clipping (distortion). This practice is now being referred to as the “loudness war.” While there is a a few cases of slight clipping in the 2009 remasters, thankfully it is well on the conservative side, preserving the dynamic range even though the overall sound is somewhat louder. Since we are focusing on the Please Please Me album I’ve included a comparison of “Twist And Shout” from this LP allowing you to see the differences in the waveforms of the 1987 remaster (Fig. 1) vs. the 2009 remaster (Fig. 2). Since the 1987 remaster used the mono version of the album, I’ve used the 2009 mono master of “Twist And Shout” from the Beatles In Mono box set for comparison. I’ve also included the 2009 stereo master of Twist And Shout” (Fig. 3) to illustrate how the stereo remasters graph louder than either of the mono waveforms. The key here is to note that in order for the dynamic range to be preserved, the peak-level sounds should maintain the same relationship to the quieter sounds.
Looking at these you’ll note that the 2009 remasters are definitely louder and the stereo remaster comes close to clipping near the end of the song on the left (top) channel, but the volume increase adequately preserves the dynamic range (Fig. 3).
As far as the Please Please Me album goes, I personally prefer the mono mix. The fullness in the echo of the vocals (especially in John Lennon’s account of “Anna”) is incredible. Ringo Starr’s drums sound very solid and Paul McCartney’s bass playing is superb. Although not as full sounding, the stereo version has more clarity and crispness (the added detail in the waveform of the 2009 stereo mix seen above in Fig. 3 accounts for this). It is also a great listen if the stereo separation (with the vocals all in the right channel) do not bother you. For an even higher quality digital sound The Beatles Stereo Box Set was also released as an Apple-shaped USB flash drive containing 44.1 kHz/24-bit FLAC files. The CD standard is 44.1 kHz/16-bit. 320 kbps mp3 files are also included on the drive.
Since I am certainly not a sound technician or engineer, I welcome anyone with a more robust knowledge of the differences I’ve discussed with the 2009 remasters to chime in with comments. Personally, I have times when I just like to grab the old vinyls and listen to them instead. They have a warm sound that is all their own if you have good copies and a good turntable. Nevertheless, we’ve come a long way since those only-vinyl days and it is also good to have choices.
Thanks again Steven for a great question! Have something to add? Comment here.
Thank you to everyone who has sent in their questions! Keep #askNat going by sending your questions to me in any of the following ways:
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Here are some links to Amazon to read more or purchase some of the music related to this post:
1) Please Please Me 2009 stereo CD remaster of original 1963 stereo LP that was The Beatles debut.
2) The Beatles Stereo Box Set 16-disc box set of 2009 stereo remasters of Beatles catalog with mini documentaries and upgraded packaging.
3) The Beatles Mono Box Set 13-disc box set of 2009 mono remasters of Beatles catalog w/upgraded packaging. Limited edition set.
4) The Beatles [USB] – 2009 stereo remastered box set in high quality 24-bit audio and mp3s all on one attractive green aluminum apple-shaped USB drive w/digital versions of CD booklets and mini documentaries.
5) Stereo Vinyl Box Set – complete set of remastered Beatles stereo albums in a beautiful box set (16 full length discs with full liner notes, poster, booklet, etc.). Available for pre-order only until Nov. 13, 2012.