I received my advance copy of the 50th anniversary remix of the Beatles legendary Abbey Road album this past Monday evening. After several hours of listening alone and even with my fellow Beatle fanatic friend Frank, I fine-tuned my notes quickly so I could bring you this preview by today, Wednesday. This new edition of the album comes out this Friday, September 27th, almost exactly 50 years after it was released in 1969.
I am assuming a number of things in the writing of this review, particularly that you know about The Beatles and are familiar with the music on their final masterpiece Abbey Road. There are a multitude of different formats you can choose from to hear the new Stereo mix including long playing vinyl records, compact discs, streams (and probably downloads). I am reviewing the "Super Deluxe Edition" of the release which features a Blu-ray Disc containing not only the new Stereo mix but also the new 5.1 surround sound mix, both done by Producer Giles Martin and presented in high resolution, 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity.
Martin, some of you may know, helmed the restoration of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper and White Album reissues -- both including fabulous Surround Sound as well as Stereo remixes (which I reviewed here; click on the album titles in this paragraph to jump to those stories). Mr. Martin is also responsible for the breath-taking mash-up soundtrack to the Cirque Du Soleil Beatles show called Love (still playing in Las Vegas after many years!).
The focus for this first part of my review will be the new 5.1 surround mix of Abbey Road. Since I don't have a new Dolby Atmos system yet -- and I imagine that many of you are in the same boat -- I will explore the DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD versions also presented on the disc.
That said, my first tips for playing this new Abbey Road Surround Sound remix are:
- Make sure you are sitting in the sweet spot of your home theater set up!
- PLAY IT LOUD!
After several complete immersions in this mix I can honestly say that I am enjoying this brand new 5.1 presentation of Abbey Road. It has grown on me with each spin. While I personally would've liked some parts of it to be a little bit more adventurous, I simultaneously have to applaud Producer Giles Martin for exercising respectful restraint while demonstrating love for the music and the artists as well as the original mixes as developed by his Father. Abbey Road is one of the classic records of the Beatles catalog and remains one of the most endearing and respected Stereo mixes of all time.
Accordingly, for the most part, this new remix of Abbey Road tends to keep listener's focus centered on the rhythm section, keeping drums and bass in the front channels along with vocals. Sometimes, signature guitar and keyboard lines take center stage. The rear channels are used for extra guitars, keyboards, harmony vocals and occasional special effects. There is nothing gimmicky about this mix (although I'm sure the Producer and the surviving band members must have considered the prospect tempting at times!).
People always ask me what the surround mixes sound like so (spoiler alert!) following are some initial track-by-track details I noticed when listening to this fine 5.1 version of Abbey Road. Please also note my perspective: I always enter experiences like this with a very open mind knowing it will not sound exactly like the original mix (what would be the point of that, after all!?). Again, this is not a replacement for the original mix or even the new 2019 Stereo. It is simply a compelling new way to experience our favorite music.
My Track By Track Rundown
"Come Together" -- Easing us into Abbey Road 5.1, the rear channel percussive reflections are a sweet signal to let you know that you are entering a different experience perspective on this music. I heard some cool guitar string scraping at one of the breaks, something I'd never heard in the original mix.
"Something" -- Mostly Stereo, the Orchestral Strings are super prominent in the rear while rich amplifier tones enhance George's guitar solo front and center. Ringo's drums sound huge here! You can almost feel the drum heads flexing on that classic Tom Tom intro. Be sure to look for the "Easter Egg" of the original promotional film for this song which is also presented in surround sound!
"Maxwell's Silver Hammer" -- The rear channels are used for Piano, Moog as well as electric and acoustic Guitar parts as well as sweet harmony vocals ...
"Oh! Darling" -- The arpeggiated signature Guitar lines show up in the rear surround channels along with vocal harmonies, keeping the core band up front. The instruments lock in and rock appropriately, yet there is still a nice immersive feel.
"Octopus's Garden" -- There is a lovely tight double tracking of the electric guitar on the verses in the rear surround channels. Ringo's vocal also gets thickened back there at times and the band's harmonies fill up the room with rich Doo Wop inspired joy.
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" -- One of the all time great headphone songs, the 5.1 mix of I Want You (She's So Heavy) is a wonder as it essentially transforms your whole listening space into that pair of headphones. This ballsy electric blues is mostly up front yet it puts some of the mania in the rear channels while the mayhem engulfs you in the middle. Great raw guitar amplifier tones come through the front left channels and that big Organ -- played by Billy Preston -- is super up front now... and seemingly everywhere! His previously buried-in-the-mix solo is fantastic but due to the broader mixing canvas that 5.1 surround sound affords it doesn't really step on the rest of the music (which is probably why it was buried in the Stereo mix).
Ringo's Tom Toms resonate clearly and Lennon's voice is so raw and cool sounding when he comes in rasping "She's so heavvvvvvvvvyyyyyyyyyyy!" The ending sound storm is huge but not as insane -- or gimmicky -- as it might have been. I am sure that would have been very tempting to fly the instruments and effects all around the room like Dorothy in the tornado from those opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz. Instead the mix envelopes you like a favorite familiar blanket.
"Here Comes The Sun" -- It is beautiful how the Moog Synthesizer line trails off at the start left to right even more clearly than on the original LP, moving over and around you. This mix delivers really super clarity on the String Section, which appears in the rear channels. The Acoustic Guitar is rich, round and woody.
"Because" -- Surprisingly this version keeps vocals mostly up front. This might have been a nice opportunity to put the listener in the midst of the band but that might have been too far away from the original intent of George Martin's mix and awkward sounding in the album listening sequence. Harpsichord and Moog sounds punctuate the mix sweetly from the rear channels while the solos are mid room.
"You Never Give Me Your Money"-- The Piano intro to this song has never sounded quite so natural and Ringo's accompanying Cymbal work is crystal clear. I hear some slightly different Guitar textures coming through and the Tambourine sounds as if you are in the studio with them while the band was recording. It is a nice touch hearing the Crickets in surround sound and the (I think it may be) Tibetan bowl-like sounds segue the mix neatly into the next song along with the "1234567" countdown.
"Sun King" -- This is just lush, lush, lush and more lush... Fat Guitars, round Bass, natural sounding Tom Toms shore up those celestial voices! George's guitar comes up from the rear. Its cool but, again, tasteful. And those Crickets in the rear channels really help set the mood transition.
"Mean Mr. Mustard" -- This is simply big and fun. (And... suddenly I hear where The Captain & Tennille might have found inspiration for their groove on "Love Will Keep Us Together!").
"Polythene Pam" -- John Lennon's voice sounds haunting here and the back up harmonies coming up from rear are super impactful. Ringo's slinky drumming sounds sexier than ever. Having the lead Guitar solo come from the rear is novel and effective, still allowing the rest of the mix to rock out rather righteously.
"She Came In Through Bathroom Window" -- Starting with the same basic set up as "Polythene Pam,"the hand claps are super pronounced now but once again Giles avoided gimmicky cliches.
"Golden Slumbers" -- This track is majestic with gorgeous strings and horns everywhere! Rich orchestral sounds swell from the rear making for a rich round immersive listening experience.
"Carry That Weight" -- Ringo is the star here (no pun intended). The horns feel a bit extra reverb-y and that is ok. Personally I would have liked a bit more aggressive use of the surround channels on the Drum and Orchestra breaks, but this still works nicely.
"The End" -- Ringo's Drum solo has never sounded better or bigger. It is amazing that its really just a four piece rock band here as it sounds "ginormous!" The choral "Love You" chants at the end punctuate nicely from the rear surrounds as does the big final ending chord.
And there you have it! This new 5.1 surround sound mix of Abbey Road opens up the music and listening experience while keeping more or less true to the album's original sound and intent. For me personally, Abbey Road 5.1 is in many ways a much richer way to hear the album than Stereo but it will ultimately remain a supplementary perspective on The Beatles' swan song and George Martin's original mix.
In Part Two of this review I'll look at the Stereo mix and some of the outtakes in the 50th Anniversary super deluxe edition of Abbey Road.