The remixed and revelatory 50th Anniversary edition of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band delivers -- for the first time -- a true high fidelity stereo presentation of this music while honoring the intent of The Beatles' original mono creation. Producer Giles Martin emulates the original mono mix on which the band (and his father, George Martin) worked so hard, while shedding new light on a beloved recording that many of us thought we knew inside out. Free from the shackled limitations imparted by mid-60s technologies and early recording processes, the new 2017 stereo edition of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a re-invention in many ways, offering newfound clarity, detail and dynamics many of us long time fans have only dreamed about.
This fabulous new stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper is a fine complement to the wonderful new 5.1 surround sound mix which I discussed in Part 1 of this review series (which you can easily read about by clicking here). Both versions present exciting new ways to experience one of the most influential recordings and overall pop art statements of the 1960s.
Now, for those of you who didn't know, over the years most people listened to the stereo version of Sgt. Pepper, a version of which The Beatles themselves were not involved in creating. The band put all their energy into creating the mono mix which, in 1967, was the dominant audio format for audio playback on vinyl records and of course for radio (and TV) broadcasts; stereo was still something of a novelty from a commercial standpoint, it was about 10 years old in the consumer marketplace at that point and mostly served a relatively niche market of classical and jazz music buffs and early-adopter audiophiles. Yet as stereophonic sound began to capture the imagination of mainstream pop music fans -- what with the advent of portable stereo systems, massive-furniture console home stereo systems and fairly high fidelity stereo headphones and not the least the ascension of stereo FM radio -- the stereo pressings of Sgt. Pepper became the much more common choice among listeners. Monaural records were rapidly discontinued from the general consumer marketplace (and thus original mono pressings are still somewhat collectible among Beatle-fanatics).
Not surprisingly, I have met many people over the years perplexed about the mono Sgt. Pepper. They question, sometimes quite aggressively: "Why would I want to listen to a mono mix when a perfectly adequate stereo version exists?" It is there that I have had to explain to them that (a) a genuinely "perfectly adequate" stereo mix didn't really exist (up until now!) and that (b) the mono mix of Sgt. Pepper was always the preferred version for The Beatles themselves as well as many hardcore Beatle-fans and audiophiles.
I can only speculate precisely why The Beatles themselves preferred the mono Sgt. Pepper but I can certainly offer you my perspective, Dear Readers, as lifelong Beatle fan: first off, the original mono mix rocks a whole lot more than the old stereo version, locking in the bass and drums in the center between your ears and delivering a better sense of an actual band performing. There is a stronger overall emphasis of the rhythm section in particular on the mono mix -- you could more readily hear Ringo's innovative playing as well as Sir Paul McCartney's buoyant bass lines. There are many other little details The Beatles attended to in the mono mix which were presented differently in the old stereo mix, especially the relative balance of instruments.
It is super important to understand that these new 2017 stereo mixes are made from as close to the first generation multi-track recordings as possible-- this is something that hasn't been done before for Sgt. Pepper. This is a more complex process than simply going back to the final master tape to "remaster" the album. Here, they have gone back to the original recorded production elements -- including interim sub-mixes, pre-final mix-down -- to recapture all that music in the highest possible fidelity as it was initially laid down on analog magnetic tape for the original recording session.
While I don't have precise information about exactly how this new Sgt. Pepper mix was created, I assume that they did this in a similar manner to the way the newer Beach Boys' Pet Sounds stereo and 5.1 surround mixes were created -- and for those who are interested, I wrote a feature about this back in the '90s for EQ Magazine, a link to which has been posted on a forum that you can find (text only, mid way down the page) by clicking here. There, they transferred original analog recorded elements to a digital recording format while employing as much of the key original studio processing that added to the sound of the album back in the day. Putting this (arguably) first generation musical information into a modern digital audio workstation type program (such as Pro Tools) would enable the creation of a new Sgt. Pepper mix free of the sonic degradation that might have happened if those same discrete tracks were "bumped" or "bounced" in the analog realm, be it for a final mix or a "sub" mix (more on that in a moment).
For those reading this who may not be conversant about recording processes, in analog recording, when you make a copy you lose information; inevitably there is a certain amount of distortion, tape hiss and other anomalies which begin to creep in and pile up sonically (if you will) on subsequent dub-downs, impacting the overall sound in subtle but distinctly audible ways. That is the nature of the medium, especially early on when the number of available tracks were limited; Sgt. Pepper was recorded on a 4-track machine, so that means only four channels of information could be recorded on a single reel of magnetic audio tape before the original producer, George Martin, had to make an interim reduction mix to free up additional tracks in order to create the intensely detailed, lush and rich sounds The Beatles were targeting. Mr. Martin and his team rose to the occasion, innovating new methods to capture the complex sound which The Beatles hoped to convey while trying to maintain the highest fidelity possible. For example, they invented a then-new method to sync multiple tape machines in order to record and playback simultaneously essential parts such as the orchestra without losing any sound quality from interim dub downs.
Eventually all this material would be mixed -- and thus effectively dubbed down again -- to the final analog master tape which would then be used for disc mastering and such. That Sgt. Pepper sounded as grand as it did back in the day is a testament to the skills of George Martin and his team, who ranked (and still rank) among the best engineering minds of their times, maximizing fidelity and minimizing the anomalies.
Understanding this legacy and its challenges, Producer Giles Martin has revealed a sparkling new Stereo presentation of Sgt. Pepper that sounds at once fuller, richer and brighter, timeless and yet still rooted in the flavor of 1967. It effectively removes a shroud clouding the original music.