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#askNat – concerning today’s improved sound on yesterday’s music

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.

Please Please Me LP, 1963 Beatles debut

Please Please Me LP, 1963 Beatles debut

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.

2009 Beatles Stereo Box Set

2009 Beatles Stereo Box Set

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.

Fig. 1-Waveform for "Twist And Shout" from 1987 (mono) Please Please Me CD

Fig. 1-Waveform for “Twist And Shout” from 1987 (mono) Please Please Me CD

Fig. 2-Waveform for "Twist And Shout" from the 2009 mono remaster of Please Please Me

Fig. 2-Waveform for “Twist And Shout” from the 2009 mono remaster of Please Please Me

Fig. 3-Waveform for "Twist And Shout" from the 2009 stereo remaster of Please Please Me

Fig. 3-Waveform for “Twist And Shout” from the 2009 stereo remaster of Please Please Me

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.

The Beatles Stereo Box Set Apple-shaped USB Flash drive, 2009

The Beatles Stereo Box Set Apple-shaped USB Flash drive, 2009

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:

1) There is a designated form that you fill out right on the website where you can give your name, location, email address and submit your question. The form is right here and is the same form used to submit requests for BROWs (Beatles Rarity Of The Weeks), but modfied to do both BROW requests and #askNat questions.

2) If you are a Facebook user, you can submit your question right on TheBeatlesRarity FB wall at www.facebook.com/beatlesrarity. If you think about it, try to remember to flag your question with “#askNat”.

3) Similarly, if you are a Google+ user, you can submit your question on TheBeatlesRarity Google+ page at www.gplus.to/beatlesrarity. Google+ supports hashtag searchability so it will be helpful if you preface your question with “#askNat” here too.

4) For you Twitter users, www.twitter.com/beatlesrarity gets you to the right place. Post your question and be sure to add “#askNat” somewhere in the tweet.


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.

6) Any of your favorite Beatles-related music: The Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

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12 Comments

  • Jeff says:

    Concerning the “Remasters:” I have a real problem with some of them. For example, the fix they made to “Please Please Me” where the music drops out. They fixed that. Also, on “Eight Days A Week,” I can’t hear the volume-pedal guitar part anymore on the “Hold me, love me” section. Remastering does not mean taking things out or putting things in. There is no excuse for them changing things that were already there. If they were going to do that, they should be called “remixes.” I know that’s a fiddly little point, but when things mysteriously disappear, I get a bit ticked off. Just my opinion.

    • Happy Nat says:

      Jeff, I agree with your point about remixes vs. remasters completely and feel the original sound should be preserved for history’s sake. But I see differing opinions on where the line is drawn between the two – how much tweaking can you get away with before it is a remix and not a remaster? It’s not a question for me as I am not a sound engineer. But many (including Steven, the writer of this question) are very happy with the remasters and feel they have restored the original sound very well. I invite others to chime in.

      • Jeff says:

        I hear ya. I’m no sound engineer either, but when stuff comes up missing, it’s kind of like depriving us of what we are used to hearing. I don’t mind if it’s loud, but let us hear what was there.

        P.S. you have a spectacular site here and I wish you many more years of rarities and insights! Keep up the great work.

        • Happy Nat says:

          Thanks Jeff! I actually had a bit of free time earlier and did some comparison-listening to “Eight Days A Week” to see if I could decipher the “missing” volume pedal guitar part you are referring to. I played the 1987 “Beatles For Sale” CD and compared it to the 2009 mono remaster (since the 1987 CD used the mono mix) and could not make out any difference. I also compared the 2009 stereo remaster with a stereo Japanese import CD of Beatles For Sale (too lazy to break out the vinyl, I guess). I could not tell a difference other than a slightly higher clarity on the 2009 remaster. I even compared the stereo and mono Capitol mixes that appeared on “Beatles VI” but still hear what I think is the volume pedal. So I suppose I am missing something here. Can you tell me specifically which “hold me..love me” section you are referring to (there are 4) or is it all of them? And are you comparing the stereo mixes or the mono mixes? There was also a 1993 stereo remix (made for the first Red Album compilation issued to CD – and also used on “1,” I believe) but I can’t tell any difference there either. Please help me clear this up.

  • Elliott Marx says:

    I feel that Jeff is correct, if parts go missing that would be a remix. By Eight Days A Week the Beatles were recording on 4 track tape. That would mean that the mix had to be bounced down to stereo. The tape the recorded on would be the “tracking” tape while the two track reduction would be the “master.” A true remaster would have nothing to do with the first tape and would be limited to the second. Even today’s technology could not cleanly remove a part from a master tape. The only control you would have would be in the realm of EQ, compression, limiting, and if you were nuts some sort of digital stereo widening or reverb. I think the 2009 remasters sound great. But I do not know to what extent that they pulled a fast one and actually remixed. I do like the various remixed albums – Let It Be Naked and The Yellow Submarine Songbook. Those sound great and, in my book part of the official cannon and deserve periodic upkeep like remastering.

    I think that Steven’s original question is fascinating. But in the end I see EMI as a truly major label. I doubt that they would have been associated with inferior tape stock for any officially sanctioned product baring the EMI name. Abbey Road was by no means the only studio space in London. If you are going to book a band into that expensive, expansive space, why cut corners with the final product?

    Before The Beatles precipitated George Martin’s ascendance as EMI’s hit maker, Norrie Paramor was producing great sounding rock and roll records for the label. The early Cliff Richard records sound truly excellent too. I think that the major label had an obligation to produce better sounding sides than independent labels. Having George Martin on your side doesn’t hurt either.

  • Tony Maxwell says:

    6:22am Friday, October 5, 2012:

    I get out of bed to finish the work week, and I’m almost out the door when I decide to ‘slag off’ and enjoy the day, and the Anniversary – 50 years since the release of ‘Love Me Do’. I must celebrate appropriately…

    8:54am:

    Everything is done! I called in sick, did some laundry and some house cleaning, got the rest of the day to myself…

    9:18am:

    I’ve opened up my framed ‘Special 12” single featuring rare recording of ’Love Me Do’ from Parlophone/EMI Records’ from 1982 to re-listen and record to CD on my computer. (I thought this was a 30th-anniversary release; I’m in shock that it’s a 20th-anniversary disc!) I check out Happy Nat’s ‘Collector’s Corner’, and – what??- NO mention of 12 R4949?? The 45 is listed, but not the 12-inch?? Hmmm, interesting..

    9:41am:

    Re-connected my turntable to my pc, started the Audacity equalizer and finally got the sound I wanted! Forgot how much John’s harmonica adds to the overall feel, and wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the Andy White drums from Ringo’s – to me the main difference is in the uncertain timbre of Paul’s “Love Me Do” solo line. I was never a huge fan of this tune, but for the ‘historical perspective’ experience, it takes on an entirely new vibe for me, even though I probably would have selected ‘P.S. I Love You’ as the A-side, and just as probably would have been wrong.

    It’s still a bit fantastic that this ‘anniversary’ record is older than the anniversary it’s celebrating! And I’m older than both of them..

    11:30am:

    Dad calls to give me the official news that I did not get my copy of the 50th anniversary EMI single in the mail from Amazon today, as promised. I use his address to get my mail, since he’s home all day.

    Oh well, I’ll check my email to see if there’s any update..

    11:33am:

    Email from Amazon, from 5:33am this morning –

    Hello,

    Due to a lack of availability, we will not be able to obtain the following item(s) from your order:

    The Beatles “Love Me Do (7″)”

    We’ve canceled the item(s) and apologize for the inconvenience. If you see a charge for the canceled item, we will refund you within 1-2 business days.

    If you are still interested in purchasing this item, it may be available from other sellers. Please visit the detail page for this item below:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009F879HK

    wh-whh-whaaaat??

    I desperately search the interwebs for an answer..

    11:56am:

    I don’t believe it. I mean, really, my own disappointment is minimal – I didn’t think getting the 20th-anniversary disc was a big deal.. THIRTY YEARS AGO..

    But Ringo is slighted AGAIN??!?? First by George Martin, then FIFTY YEARS LATER by EMI?????

    ..This day turned out to be more memorable than I could have ever imagined.

    Sorry, Ringo – multiply that by millions more, and don’t blame Andy White, blame the idiots at EMI

    • Happy Nat says:

      I hear your grief Tony! You must have missed the update I posted on the recall a couple days ago? Yes..EMI screwed up big time! I have a erred copy and I suppose for better or worse it will become a collector’s item (like the butcher cover, I suppose). Anyway the Collector’s Corner article concentrated on the “real deal” 1962 version of the record but I guess some info on the anniversary releases wouldn’t hurt. I may make an addendum later (or just add some comments). Enjoy your rest of the day off!

    • Happy Nat says:

      Tony, did you mean to stick this over on the “Love Me Do” thread (lol)?

  • I found this discussion years ago regarding quality of tape used by EMI in the 60s:

    http://www.stevehoffman.tv/forums/archive/index.php/t-287659.html

    There’s probably more to it, but I think the actual quality of EMI tape had something to do with the quality we hear preserved today, compared to other acts that were recorded in the UK in the early/mid 60s.

    Hope this is interesting to someone :)

    • A bit more on the ‘whale oil’ tape stuff: http://www.stevehoffman.info/faq.html

      • Happy Nat says:

        Thanks much Michael! Haven’t had a chance to read this through yet but I plan to soon.

        • Great!

          The care with which Martin/Smith/Emerick recorded the Beatles – the equipment, tape quality, mic quality, professionalism – all of this is underrated imo. With most other acts of the time – much of it just *sounds* shoddy – hasty quick takes, poor sound quality, etc. I say this not just listening in 2012, but every on vinyl in the 70s and 80s. Obviously EMI had great talent in the Beatles, but the staff and equipment certainly played a role in capturing and preserving that magic which may never quite be fully understood.

          Thank you for all that you do re: Beatles stuff – you dig up some amazing stuff!

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