Speaking words of wisdom: Should The Beatles let it be?

It's expensive and it's said to be a revelation. But is the £200 Beatles remasters a con trick? Andy Gill has the first listen and gives the (negative) verdict

By now you'll doubtless be awash with Beatles, as EMI and Apple's latest carefully co-ordinated media blitz splashes across newspapers, magazines, television and radio all around you. For the next few days, it will be impossible to avoid Beatles soundbites, footage of the Fabs stepping off aircraft and mugging for the cameras, and George Martin reminiscing yet again about his time in the studio with "the boys". Tourists will be shown striding across that zebra crossing in Abbey Road, and the live feed of "All You Need Is Love" will probably be on a permanent loop if you press the red button on your remote.

When it comes to mass-media heritage bashes, nobody does it better than The Beatles. Remember the blanket coverage accorded the three-stage release of the Anthology series back in 1995/96, carefully sequenced so that by the time you'd bought the CD sets over 10 months, surprise surprise, the video sets were then available to buy as well? This stuff doesn't happen by accident, so it's no great shock to find that the new The Beatles: Rock Band video game is being released on the exact same day (next Wednesday) as the new CD remasters of the entire Beatles album back catalogue, up to and including the Past Masters compilation which mopped up all the B-sides, alternative mixes, EP tracks, German-language and single-only releases that weren't available on the albums.

Which means that within a week or two, all your Lady Gagas, La Rouxs and Arctic Monkeys will probably be swept out of the album chart as millions of baby-boomer fans – the ones we're told have all that disposable income to splurge – rush to buy the entire set all at once, at a list price of £14.99 apiece (discounted to £9.99 at most outlets). Some will splash out on the special box set of stereo mixes of all 14 albums, at around £205 (discounted to around £170). Bizarrely, the alternative mono box set contains fewer albums – for some reason, neither Yellow Submarine, Let It Be nor Abbey Road has been made available in a mono mix – yet costs far more, at £240 (discounted to around £200) for just 11 albums. I can well understand the preference for the mono mixes: that's the way the albums were originally mixed, with terrible "fake stereo" versions made of the very earliest albums, while even the later classics such as Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper were subjected to such perfunctory stereo treatment that it is not uncommon to find the drums in one channel and all the vocals in another, or similarly bizarre separations, peculiarities retained even for these remastered editions. But paying more for less seems simply perverse.

Still, apart from the welcome side effect of washing away the last vestiges of ghoulish Jacksonmania from the charts, what are the benefits of these new, remastered versions of the Beatles albums? Indeed, is there any great difference between the new versions and the old versions you already own?

For a while, I wasn't sure. Heard in-car on a long journey, it was impossible to tell, though it did offer an unrivalled singalong opportunity (which of course obscured any subtle improvements they may have contained). And even when I loaded some of the albums up in my iTunes alongside the previous CD versions and played tracks back-to-back, it was tough to spot the proverbial gnat's crotchet of difference between them – though I concede this may have something to do with the poorer quality of MP3 soundfiles compared with CD encodings.

But when I loaded different versions of the same song into the Mac's GarageBand music software and flipped the tracks' volume controls back and forth quickly, it was clear that some things had changed – and zooming in on the waveforms, it was apparent that some kind of compression/limiting process had been undergone, akin to the rise in amplitude that occurs if you apply the "Normalise" effect available in most music-editing programmes. In the case of "Getting Better" – chosen because, according to George Martin's technical notes in the Sgt Pepper CD booklet, it required the most bouncing-down (mixing several tracks down to a single track, in order to free up more tracks to record on) of any song – the bass end was chunkier and more solid. Which is fortunate, given that the bassist is still around to revel in his more imposing presence, while the two top-end guys will never hear the new mixes.

Elsewhere, With the Beatles seems to have profited most from the attention: "It Won't Be Long" just bursts out of the speakers with appropriately youthful enthusiasm, while the redoubled, wide-eyed freshness of "All My Loving" brings out its naive charm all the more. As for the singles, there's really no comparison between the limp, lifeless versions compiled on 1 and these remastered ones: even a comparatively subdued effort such as "We Can Work It Out" now fills the soundstage majestically, while "Get Back" finally receives the chunky impetus its retro-rockabilly style demands. As for the psychedelic excesses of Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, their paisley splendour is brought forth with much sharper clarity than before – a difference somewhat akin to increasing the resolution of a computer screen.

The initial transfers from vinyl to compact disc in the mid-1980s were virtually all dreadful, offering tinny, etiolated versions of the albums in question. This was probably because the punters weren't the only ones baffled by the new digital technology. The old-school sound engineers in charge of the transfers were all experts in analogue recording technology, but some clearly hadn't a clue what was happening with this new digital malarkey, and made basic errors – frequently swapping channels, and using poor source material, which is the most significant element of the whole remastering process. In analogue times, a "flat" master tape would be mixed first, followed by a second master with various equalization adjustments, to optimise the way the music sounded on record players. Pressing masters would then be made from this EQ'd master. But if a CD master is then made from this EQ'd master, the effect is to import into the digital realm inappropriate sonic characteristics designed for the analogue realm. To get the best transfer, one should use the original, un-EQ'd master, then add the equalization appropriate to digital equipment.

It was only later, when more digitally adept engineers (and listeners) pointed out what had gone wrong, that these kinds of mistakes were corrected. In many cases, this was doubtless done quietly, without making any great fuss. But when Led Zeppelin realised that their CDs had an impact more akin to a jester's balloon on a stick than to the intended Hammer of the Gods, Jimmy Page supervised further remastering sessions, whose results were released as a Remasters box set of the band's entire output. Ker-ching! Suddenly, remastering became yet another weapon in the music industry's sales armoury.

Nowadays, remastering old material is a technical high-wire act involving the subtle remoulding of the sound to fit the sonic expectations of a new era – so it doesn't sound too archaically weedy, in most cases – in order to attract new generations of listeners, without alienating those already familiar with the material in question. And since today's dominant sound profile involves heavy compression, to increase a track's "punch" and loudness, quite often the wider dynamic range of the original recording – the way it negotiates shifts in volume – is sacrificed to achieve this sound, often along with the further extremes of bass and treble information. So while a CD may sound "brighter" and louder, it can actually contain less actual musical information than an analogue vinyl disc.

Alongside this is the phenomenon of "warmth" which many listeners find lacking on CDs, an inevitable side effect of the digitising process of filleting each second of music into 44,100 tiny individual slices of information, thus replacing the original smooth analogue waveform curve with a representation of that curve comprising 44,100 tiny steps. The general rule seems to be that, if you want to hear the best possible rendering of your favourite albums, invest in one of those ridiculous £5,000 record decks and shell out for the 200gm audiophile vinyl records, which should offer the best of both formats. If you're not Bill Gates, though, these remasters will have to do for now.

Of course, it's all a matter of personal taste. Debate still rages on web forums over which of the various Led Zep CDs sound the best, a response which will surely be magnified a hundredfold by the Beatles remasters. And not all CD transfers are inferior: when I first heard The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds on a top-range CD player, for instance, I was astonished to hear all manner of things I had never before experienced on an album that was, I believed, as familiar to me as a favourite shirt. Doubtless this new batch of remastered Beatles albums will similarly surprise some listeners, and antagonise others.

On the one hand, they are clearly an unnecessary indulgence – surely, of all groups, the one least in need of increased "brightness" would be The Beatles, whose records were already so packed with inventive brio they effectively illuminated an entire decade, in the process dragging this country from the drab, monochrome Fifties into the rainbow Sixties. But on the other, I have to admit to being impressed, despite my initial scepticism, by the job done on these keystone works of our modern culture. If you've got a spare few hundred pounds burning a hole in your pocket, there are far worse things to blow it on than the mono box, which will probably retain its investment value more than the stereo box; alternatively, if you can't live without the three albums not included in the mono box, my advice would be: buy the stereo box, and move your speakers closer together. Simple!

REMASTER STROKES

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds
A remarkable remaster which made so much previously unheard information audible, it was like being in the studio with the band. The CD which persuaded me there might be something in digital technology after all.

Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, Pink Moon
The original recording engineer, John Wood, effected the remasters. The result: a listening experience akin to the original vinyl albums, with the added benefit of no surface noise.

Steely Dan: Entire Back Catalogue
Having previously been mastered from inferior sources, engineer Roger Nichols did the job right when he remastered them in 1999/2000.

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