UK: After years of anticipation, the most prestigious back catalogue in popular music has received a comprehensive sonic upgrade, writes David Davies. A total of seven people, including engineers Guy Massey and Steve Rourke, worked in phases over a four-year period to remaster The Beatles' 12 studio albums along with Magical Mystery Tour and the Past Masters compilation.
The stereo and mono remasters hit the shops last Wednesday (September 9) at the same time as the much-discussed 'The Beatles: Rock Band' computer game.
For many aficionados, however, it is the emergence of the digitally remastered back catalogue that constitutes the most significant development. The first Beatles CDs, issued in 1987, were widely regarded to be lacking in the dynamic range and detail of the original releases - a criticism that remasters project coordinator Allan Rouse attributes to them having been "transferred flat" in the early days of the digital music era.
The new editions therefore seek to restore all of the "highs and lows" of the original albums, whilst simultaneously removing erroneous noises including microphone pops and clicks. "It hasn't just been shoved into a computer, turned all up to the max and left as loud as possible," Rouse told Pro Sound News Europe sister publication Music Week. "They've really kept the highs and the lows, the atmosphere and the ambience of the recordings intact, just really done minutely back from every single inch of tape."
In total, approximately 12 months across a four-year period were spent on the remastering project at Abbey Road Studios, with each album requiring at least two weeks of work. "You can remaster an album in a day but that was the seriousness with which we took it," noted Rouse.
Equipment deployed during the time-consuming endeavour included CEDAR Audio's Retouch audio restoration system, which was also used during production of 'The Beatles: Rock Band'. According to Abbey Road surround remastering and restoration engineer Simon Gibson, "there's no way that 'Rock Band' could happen or we would have been able to offer the first half of the [Beatles] catalogue without Retouch."
For The Beatles' label, EMI, the success or otherwise of the remasters will be determined by the number of fans that can be convinced to replace their existing CDs. While there has been some criticism regarding the unfussy nature of the reissues - no bonus tracks or 5.1 layer - leading music critics such as Jon Savage and John Harris have lauded the considerable improvement in sound quality. The omens for this to be the most successful reissue campaign in recent memory look good.
The only cloud on the horizon is the continued absence of a deal to make The Beatles' back catalogue available for digital download. While the solo work of all four Beatles can be purchased on iTunes, their work as a collective remains a notable omission from the major online outlets. The press release announcing the remastered CDs revealed that "discussions regarding the digital distribution of the catalogue will continue. There is no further information available at this time."
For a limited period, each CD features a short embedded QuickTime documentary. All of the stereo CDs are available separately and as part of a lavishly-packaged 14-disc box set. A 10-disc mono box set is also available, although the mono albums cannot be purchased separately.