The Beatles crowning glory contains hidden gems
50 years after its original release Sgt. Peppers was back at number one, so much for progress! The most celebrated album by the most popular band (ever?) has been given a major makeover by original producer George Martin’s son Giles Martin. The idea being that when the album was mixed by his father and the band it was the mono release that got all the attention. Which might explain why on the last overhaul of the catalogue, the Beatles remasters done by Allan Rouse in 2009, it was the mono versions that sounded the best. For Sgt. Peppers Giles went back to the original four track tapes and created a new stereo mix with the assistance of engineer Sam Okell, he states on the extensive liner notes that “We soon realised why we were doing this. The music recorded five decades ago sounds both contemporary and timeless; trapped in a time-lock waiting to pop like a cork from a champagne bottle.” And boy does it pop.
The result is quite a shock to anyone familiar with the album, which is almost entirely dual mono, with very little in the way of stereo information. The opening and title track starts with an orchestra tuning up which is in stereo but as soon as John Lennon starts singing along with the guitar both are in the right channel alone, then the trumpets and audience comes in on the left and are joined by the chorus. There is no stereo image whatsoever, what Giles Martin has done is to try and bridge that gap with panning and reverb to create a sense of depth and image coherence between the speakers. And he has had some success in this respect considering that most of the tracks were mono themselves and thus don’t have any natural imaging ability.
Inevitably with a modern remix there have been other changes too, the most obvious being the bass which is far more powerful than could be achieved in the sixties. This is largely why the album sounds so different, that and the sense of loudness that has been introduced to make the sound leap out at you. The degree to which this is obvious varies with the different tracks though, George Harrison’s sitar army on Within You Without You is relatively unscathed, there’s a bit more atmosphere as a result of reverb but it sounds good still. When I’m Sixty Four is more open and it’s good to hear the full tonal colour of the Rickenbacker bass. There is plenty to be enjoyed whether you know the album or not.
Record Two, the Sessions is the real goldmine here, these are the mixes that never got polished up so sound much more natural and open, there is no sign of anything other than tape compression so everything sounds fresh. They are also at their original speed whereas on a lot of the finished songs the pitch was adjusted for a more exciting psych sound. In my book it’s the sessions that make this essential, it’s nice to near a refreshed version of the album but the sound while full of energy seems crude, so go back to the source tracks and hear where it all started.