Written by 4:28 am Audiophile Music

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper at 50 (Part 1) : The New Surround Sound Mix

Mark Smotroff heard a film today, oh boy….

There is much to discuss regarding this new ultra deluxe boxed set celebrating The Beatles’ landmark 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.

AR-BeatlesSgtPepper50cover225.jpgFor the skeptics, please note that the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Super Deluxe Edition is not a tossed-off simple repackage cash-in.  The intent behind this project was to do something different celebrating the album’s 50th Anniversary, shedding new light on a beloved recording and giving the fans something special. While most people have heard and owned the Stereo version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band over the years, the reality is that The Beatles themselves were not involved with the making of that version of the album; they put all their energy into the Mono mix which, in 1967, was the dominant audio format, Stereo still being something of a niche commercial market at that point, less than 10 years old… 

All the commercial radio stations at that point were still broadcasting in Mono.  Most people had Mono transistor radios and maybe some sort of automatic record player with a built-in speaker and amp, if you were lucky. Boomboxes weren’t even a thing then. There were no Walkmen. There were no iPods. There were no iPhones. 

Mono was the thing…

Accordingly, Producer Giles Martin has thus set out to create a new perspective Stereo mix that honors the intent of The Beatles’ original Mono creation, emulating the feel and overall vibe they’d worked so hard on, yet delivering a higher fidelity soundstage which a modern two speaker mix can enable.

These new Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Super Deluxe Edition mixes are downright revelatory. 

For the first time these mixes have been made from the original multi-track recording elements, virtually eliminating the sonic degradation which occurred when “bumping” tracks down in the analog realm.  Remember, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was effectively recorded on a four-track tape machine, so producer George Martin had to innovate to capture all those sounds which The Beatles wanted to convey in this album. He and his team invented a new sync method to link multiple tape machines together while recording — expanding their number of available tracks at a given time — yet inevitably still had to create “sub mixes” or “reduction mixes” along the way to free up space on a tape (i.e.. mixing four tracks on one machine down to one on another tape deck, freeing space for more recording elements).  

AR-Beatles50Bluray225.jpgBy going back to the original pre-mixed multi-track source material tapes — which thankfully still exist in the EMI archives — and bringing them into a modern digital audio workstation type recording program (probably ProTools, the industry standard), Giles Martin has been able to present us with a new mix that literally removes layers of murk which had blanked the original music, be it Mono or Stereo versions.  I have to admit, I was initially surprised at how bright the new recording sounded, but as I’ve given it repeat listens I realize that phenomenon was more about my ear getting acclimated to the increased detailing and lack of distortion, hiss and other sonic anomalies present in all prior versions than any problem with the recording.  

For an added bonus, while Giles Martin was working on this Stereo re-invention, he took things a step further and created a quite lovely and complementary 5.1 surround sound mix.  These recordings are included on the Blu-ray Disc within the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Super Deluxe Edition in high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHd. You also get a high resolution PCM Stereo version (which we’ll discuss in Part Two of this series). For those who have yet to get a Blu-ray player, the set includes a DVD containing the same material only in standard resolution DTS and Dolby 5.1 formats as well as PCM Stereo.  

Both discs contain not only the full album as well as the single sides of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” (songs which were recorded at the same time as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and not included on the original album due to the convention back in the day in England of not duplicating single releases on the LP)  You also get restored great looking and sounding promotional videos for both of those songs plus “A Day In The Life,” all of which also have new 5.1 surround and stereo mixes.

And those are just two of the discs in the set! You’ll also get four CDs chockfull of outtakes, alternate mixes, the original Mono mix and the new Stereo mix.  You also get a 100-plus page hardcover album-sized book with loads of information and incredible period photos. This set is a Beatle-fan’s dream, folks. I’ll go into more detail on the other CDs and bonus goodies in Part Three of this review. 

But, for now, lets dive into the new 5.1 Surround Sound remix… 

Giles Martin has achieved a sweet and happy balance here, creating an immersive listening experience while maintaining a somewhat traditional Stereo sound stage that honors the richness of the Mono mix. So fear not Dear Readers-who-are-haters-of-overly-immersive-surround-sound-mixes: the new 5.1 Surround Sound mix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band feels like a playful old friend who will sometimes sneak up to surprise you when least expected, delivering a tasteful multi-channel listening experience without being heavy-handed.  This new 5.1 mix of  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band complements and respects the music and does not draw your attention away from the underlying recording —  an important distinction. 

]]>For example, at the Chorus ends during “Strawberry Fields Forever” you’ll hear that sort of Sitar-Harp sound skip gingerly around the room leading into the next Verse.  Likewise, on “A Day In the Life”  the mix is gently immersive, blooming only as necessary, especially on the massive final chord; as much as I might like to hear a madly-wild tripped-out aggressive surround sound mix on this song, Giles Martin’s decision to keep things grounded is wise because the song is already madly-wild and tripped-out enough! 

AR-BeatlesSgtPepper50Package225.jpgVocals are now much clearer, enabling you to make out every syllable. You can more easily detect individual Beatle voices even amidst densely layered harmonies. On “Fixing a Hole” those lush voicings are much more up front, almost like the way George Martin mixed The Beatles’ backup vocals for the Abbey Road album (think “Because” and “Sun King”) two years later. It is really beautiful to hear these richly detailed parts. 

The strings on “She’s Leaving Home” are remarkable, offering up detail — such as low cellos on the chorus — which I’d never fully noticed before. Remember that in addition to the recordings being bounced down multiple generations (losing fidelity along the way) there was always some level of compression applied to the vinyl records to accommodate the limitations of the average record player back in the day — if a record was cut too hot, the discs would make the “needle” skip (if you will) because some lower cost players simply could not track that sort of wide range musical information.  That said, with this newly very Hi Fi presentation, this song feels almost like this could be a modern recording by The Kronos Quartet. Its really haunting to feel the Harp behind you as Lennon’s aching voice floats away with a somber “Bye-bye…”

The cut-up-spliced-tape Calliope carnival parts on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. kite!” trip gleefully around the room; hey, it was 1967 after all! The rich combination of Indian and traditional orchestral instrumentation on “Within You,Without You” — Violins, Cellos, Sitar, Dilruba — makes for a lovely surround showcase as those final rushes of Harp-like sounds gently hug you. The back up harmonies on “When I’m 64” really pop!  And now you can feel the earthy woodiness of the acoustic guitar opening strums to “Lovely Rita” — and throughout — delivering a wonderful rhythmic twang.

Ringo’s drumming on “Good Morning, Good Morning” is absolutely fierce throughout while the raw urgency in Lennon’s vocal sounds borderline punk emanating from the center channel. Spoiler alert: listen closely for the animal noises at the end of which culminate in the back left rear speaker; those final clucks behind you give way to that all important electric guitar pull-off riff which leads us back into the Reprise — diagonally across the room in the front right channel! This new surround sound mix makes me realize what a quite brilliant production choice it was for The Beatles to begin wrapping up the album with this song as it leads into theSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (Reprise)” and into “A Day in the Life.” 

AR-PepperTapeBox2225.jpgThere are three videos on the Blu-ray Disc and, curiously, those mixes seem to be a little different than the audio-only surround sound versions (so be sure to compare and contrast when you get the set to decide for yourself).  Also interestingly, the surround sound audio for these videos is quite different than the previously released surround mixes on The Beatles #1 collection of just a few years back and on The Beatles Anthology DVDs from 2003 (which contained as far as I know the first attempts at mixing Beatle music into surround sound). So, for example, the bass on the videos for “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” seems more prominent — perhaps too much so — on the The Beatles #1 version than on the new Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Super Deluxe Edition. And while on “A Day In The Life” the sound on The Beatles #1 version is much bigger than on The Beatles’ Anthology DVD set (the Anthology version of this song also has some different video edits happening in it, so hold on your copy for now!), the new Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Super Deluxe Edition version differs significantly as well. Most notably, on the big build up orchestral section, Mal Evans’ time-countdown is is much more audible on the The Beatles #1 version.  All that said, the newer mix is indeed more true to the original recordings, bringing us full circle back to the original purpose of this set.

Gosh…. With all these new mixes to consider, you really get a sense of just how well Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was recorded. It reminds us that The Beatles were recording in one of the best studios in the world — EMI’s Abbey Road — with one of the best producing, mixing and engineering teams in the world at the time (George Martin, Geoff Emerick) with the best equipment available.  

The result, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, remains, a world class artistic statement and this new deluxe edition gives us a fine alternative perspective to study for the ages. It is an amazing new way to hear a favorite album more clearly than ever before.

(Visited 3,416 times, 13 visits today)