Finally. Apple and EMI today made the announcement people have been waiting over a decade for, that they are going to release remastered versions of the Beatles' albums on September 9, 2009.
Why that particular date? Well, it is the date that the Beatles’ “Rock Band” version comes out - but you really need to listen to “Revolution 9” for the answer.
To quote that … um ... “song,” “Number nine … number nine … number nine.” What better day than 9/9/09? John Lennon would be proud.
And fans will be happy … finally. Beatles fans have been listening to muddy versions of Beatles albums on CDs that were put together in 1987. Remastering technology and CD mastering technology have moved on greatly since then. Every classic artist and band - Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who - have already remastered their CDs. (Some, more than once.)
So Beatles fans have been waiting awhile for this - so much so that in the bootleg world a mysterious Dr. Ebbetts has been making his own meticulous remasters of the Beatles' albums using a turntable, pristine vinyl copies of the albums and computer post-production audio technology. They are very popular downloads with hardcore fans.
But will the fans be happy? With every Beatles decision nowadays it seems there are always a few caveats. To be hippie psychedelic about it, to the yin with the Beatles, there is always a yang.
The best part of today’s announcement is that they are releasing CD remasters. Digital downloads are not being announced yet, but for many of the hardcore fans it is the actual CD remasters that are important and not the digital downloads.
One surefire way for the Beatles to have made a mistake was to have issued digital downloads of their remastered songs on someplace like iTunes and then months later released the CD remasters. The Beatles and EMI probably could have made more money that way, as some people would possibly have bought the downloads and then gone out and then bought the CDs.
That, however, would have dissatisfied hardcore fans who want the Beatles music in the best possible quality, and not in some “lossy” download format. They are still working out the details of the digital downloads and no doubt they will come to some agreement with someone –- or, as George Harrison’s son Dhani recently hinted in an interview, would make them available themselves.
Also, it's good news that that they are releasing both the mono and stereo versions of the albums. This is important because in the 1987 CD incarnations they made decisions that have been debated for all the years since.
Beatles producer George Martin and the Beatles spent more time mixing their albums for mono than they did for stereo, and significant differences are apparent between the mono and stereo versions, which are particularly noticeable in “The Beatles” (the “White Album”). In 1987, they decided to release the first four albums –- “Please Please Me,” “With the Beatles,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Beatles for Sale” - in mono and the rest in stereo. Ever since then people have been clamoring for both the mono and stereo versions of the albums to be released.
This time the Beatles are doing that - although with many of the early albums they could have included both the mono and stereo versions on the same CD because the running times were so short. So people will inevitably complain about having to buy the same album twice when they could have bought one CD with both versions on it. The yin with the yang.
How good will these CDs sound? Extraordinary by all accounts. Mojo magazine got a chance to listen to a few of the tracks back in October and said the newly remastered songs had an “immediacy, intimacy and freshness that, until now has lain half-hidden beneath the patina of old-school digital remastering and even older school master-disc cutting.” However, one wonders why George Martin or his son (and co-producer on the recent “Love” album) Giles Martin are not listed as being on the remastering team. One would hope they were consulted.
The team behind it are “old” Beatles hands, so to speak. While they didn't work on the original recordings during the 1960s they have been working on many Beatles projects since, including “The Beatles Anthology,” “Yellow Submarine” soundtrack and “Let It Be … Naked.” They clearly are trusted by the Beatles and given free rein to make decisions.
In the press release they clearly did not make these decisions lightly. It took them four years to remaster the albums. Considering that is half the time it took the Beatles to record them, the team clearly spent a lot of time on them. The process was described as a lengthy procedure done a track at a time. They used a Pro Tools workstation operating at 24-bit 192 kHz resolution, which must mean something to tech heads. The actual tapes were said to be in good shape although there was a slight buildup of dust, which was removed. There was considerable thought given to what restoration processes were, such as whether they could fix electrical clicks, microphone vocals pops and bad edits. They decided that as long as it did not impact the original integrity of the songs it was allowed. When each album was completed they were “auditioned” in Studio Three of Abbey Road to see if further alteration of EQ was needed.
Now, one of the biggest problems that will be complained about is that these releases do not cover all the Beatles’ album releases - just the core ones the Beatles released. There is no talk of releasing remastered versions “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl,” “The Beatles’ Rarities” (of which there were U.S. and UK versions) or “Live at The BBC” - nor are there any extra tracks. There are mini-documentaries being included as QuickTime files with archival footage, photographs and studio chatter.
But, again, hardcore fans have been spoiled by online bootleggers, in this case a group calling themselves Purple Chick, that have been collecting all known versions of songs for each album and putting them together in a package for each album. The Beatles would have done well to take them as examples in what people are willing to pay in their quest to acquire everything the Beatles did. Indeed, the Beatles would do well to follow Dylan’s “Bootleg” series or Frank Zappa’s beating the bootleggers at their own game, releasing the bootleg albums legitimately.
In the end, all told, this is a good announcement, one that will take Beatle fans’ cash and make them happier. It has been a long time coming. Surely digital downloads will be sorted quickly, and for audiophiles one would think these releases will probably be duplicated on vinyl, although that has not been announced.
But a Beatles fan is never completely satisfied, so hopefully the Beatles and Apple will move quickly from this release to releasing the film “Let it Be” on DVD, all the Beatles’ music videos on DVD … and then let’s start a discussion about “Carnival of Light” and the 27-minute long version of “Helter Skelter.” The fans want them, Beatles, all you have to do now is put them out.
- Todd Baxter, CNN Chief Cameraman and Video Producer (and unofficial Beatles expert), London