Hopefully by now you have read Part 1 of my preview about the newly remixed Surround Sound version of The Beatles' legendary 1969 masterwork Abbey Road. If you missed Part 1, please click here to jump to it.
The 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe edition of Abbey Road features a Blu-ray Disc containing not only the new 5.1 surround sound mix but also the new 2019 Stereo mix, the latter being our focus for Part 2 of this review series. Both productions were driven by Producer Giles Martin and presented in high resolution, 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity. The album includes a CD version of the new Stereo mix as well as two discs of session outtakes and demos.
The challenge Mr. Martin faced in tackling this project was enormous. Understanding and appreciating what he has accomplished here, I think he was very successful in delivering a fresh take on a classic recording which doesn't sway radically from the original's sound design and intent. This new 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe edition of Abbey Road offers additional clarity without changing the feel of the album. Essentially, it brings a 50 year old masterpiece into the 21st Century with a fresh sheen that will hopefully keep newer listeners entranced for the next 50 to 100 years or more!
In Living Stereo
While I think the 5.1 Surround Sound remix of Abbey Road is the more significant achievement on this new boxed set and a primary reason for buying it, the reality is that at present more people are probably interested in the Stereo mix. To that, the question may arise in your head: do I need yet another version of this album? That answer is personal, one only you can answer, Dear Readers. But if you are a Beatle fan and a lover of this album then you no doubt will want to hear this new 2019 version in some form.
Things to consider: even if you only listen in Stereo, the Super Deluxe 50th Anniversary edition of Abbey Road will give you arguably the best sounding digital version of the album available today, presented on Blu-ray Disc.
Regarding analog versions, unless you have a pristine original UK pressing from 1969, chances are this is going to be a very significant improvement to your listening experience of Abbey Road. It is certainly much better sounding than the original and 2009 CD versions I have. It is certainly much better than my original US vinyl pressings; I've yet to get my hands on a really pristine UK original vinyl copy (tho' I do have some versions). And until they remaster the original mix in a full analog process (as they did with the Beatles in Mono boxed set) and release that version in high resolution form as well as new high quality vinyl, this new 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe edition of Abbey Road is arguably the best sounding option at present.
"But it is not the original mix!" you say. This is true! But that doesn't make it bad. Producer Giles Martin has done a fine job of creating a fresh view of the album which still sounds like Abbey Road should sound. Sure there are some little details popping up here and there that are subtly different -- but, as a lifetime Beatle fan who owns at least six different copies of the album, I find the differences very cool! And... remember folks, you can always still listen to the original versions -- those aren't going away any time soon!
The 96 kHz, 24-bit LPCM version of Abbey Road included on the Blu-ray Disc in the set sounds terrific. The music is full and clear and -- unlike most CD quality versions -- when I turn the volume up loud on my home Stereo systems it doesn't hurt my ears. In that regard, the Blu-ray Disc presentation of high resolution audio behaves a bit more like a vinyl listening experience. This is one of the reasons I believe in high resolution digital audio even though I am also a big analog fanboy (and have many many thousands of LPs to prove it!). When digital is done right, it can be good.
Here is one teensy tiny example of the difference between the high res and standard CD quality versions that is pretty easy to visualize. On "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," when they hit the anvil -- "bang bang," metal on metal -- the high resolution Blu-ray Disc version of the recording doesn't slam your eardrums like the crunchier sounding CD quality version and CD quality streams seem to do. The Blu-ray version is clear, but it sounds warmer and more pleasing to the ear. This is at least my experience.
There are numerous details popping out of the new mix which were not super audible on the original 1969 mix. Some of the details we heard on the 5.1 surround mix carried over to the Stereo such as the cool scraping guitar strings at one of the breaks in "Come Together."
Curiously, on the 5.1 Surround Sound mix the producers were able to bring out a previously mostly unheard Organ solo by Billy Preston on the song "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." If you listen to the original Stereo mix you can hear some of that Organ part but it quickly gets buried, I suspect due to the sonic space it was taking up in the two-channel sound field. But in the 5.1 mix, the engineers effectively have three dimensional space to work with so it was possible to bring up the Organ solo without stepping on the other parts. Of course this is just me speculating here and I might well be wrong; it might simply be that they wanted to make the 5.1 experience distinct from the Stereo.
The two CDs worth of Outtakes included with the Super Deluxe Edition of Abbey Road are fascinating and better sounding than any bootlegs you might have heard to date. This is the real stuff!
My only complaint is that these were not included on the Blu-ray Disc in high resolution form, but that ultimately is a minor detail. These generally sound real good with no harsh anomalies jumping out at me.
Some of my favorites thus far include the Trident Recording Studios session for "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" where the band takes what John Lennon calls the band's "last chance to be loud" as they had received some complaints from neighbors due to the volume. Amplifiers had become serious monsters of energy by that point so it was a far cry from The Beatle's early 60s sound volume wise. This outtake is cool as they do keep Billy Preston's soloing up higher in the mix and there is some bad-ass guitar skronk going on in the right channel (John perhaps?) which sounds like someone blew out a speaker on an amp!
I love getting to hear the basic drum and guitar version of "The Ballad of John & Yoko" with Paul playing the drums -- he's not Ringo, but he is a good time keeper! It is really fun hearing the studio chatter when John refers to Paul as Ringo who replies to John "Ok George!"
As a Beatle fan it is pretty mind numbing to finally hear outtakes of songs like "Octopuses Garden" and "Oh! Darling." It is jaw dropping when McCartney notes that they are doing Take 36 of "You Never Give Me Your Money." The outtake of "Polythene Pam" lets us hear up close and personal what an innovator Ringo was at designing unusual drum patterns that still rocked.
The early takes of "Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight" sound remarkably well formed even at that stage of the recording. The isolated instrumental Strings and Brass version of that song is amazing to hear. The first take instrumental version of "Because" is haunting as are the Orchestral tracks underlying "Something" -- the latter showcases George Martin's tasteful and supportive arrangements which lift the song up and helped to make it such a distinctive hit recording.
"The Long One" is a fascinating trial edit of the multi-song suite and central focus of Side 2. Here on the 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe edition of Abbey Road you will learn that they were considering a pretty unusual song to be a part of that sequence, not the punctuation mark it became at end of the record.
Overall the packaging in this 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe edition of Abbey Road is exemplary and of very high quality. The disc mini sleeves are reproduced on glossy stock mimicking the original UK editions of the album and the labels are like UK Apple Records editions. The hard cover book is beautifully printed and constructed. The many photographs -- including outtakes from the original photo session that delivered the iconic album cover image -- are coffee-table / library worthy. This is a super keepsake for The Beatle fan, for sure.
If I have any "complaints" about this set it is just that I might have liked it to have gone a step further with the little details such as giving us lyrics to the songs. Unless I missed something, I did find unusual that there was almost no information on the Surround Sound mix apart from a mention in the introduction by producer Giles Martin and some technical text on the back cover. That surround mix deserves better treatment.
Beatle fans being Beatle fans: we always want more, more, more...
But for now there is plenty here to enjoy here so lets celebrate...
Happy 50th Birthday, Abbey Road!