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Remastered Beatles CDs: A sneak preview*

August 25, 2009 | 12:01 am


How do the newly remastered Beatles CDs sound?

As one who got a sneak preview recently at Capitol Records in Hollywood, let me boil it down to one word: Fab.

These won’t leave anyone feeling that they’ve been missing out for all these years, and they’re not likely to make Beatlemaniacs out of anyone who hasn’t cared for the Liverpudlians’ sound before now.

But they do offer something that might have seemed nearly impossible so many years down the line: a fresh listen.

Two of EMI Records’ engineers who have overseen the remasters, Allan Rouse and Guy Massey, were on hand to A:B the new versions against the CDs that Beatles fans have been accustomed to since they were first issued 22 years ago.

Three of us — I was joined by writers for a couple of audiophile magazines — listened to a CD that included portions of new and old versions of 14 songs spanning the group’s recording career.

Calendar will have an in-depth piece in Sunday's Arts & Music section looking behind the scenes of the remastering process as well as a glimpse into the Fab Four’s entry into the world of videogames through The Beatles: Rock Band.

But here are a few observations from the preview session:

• “Till There Was You”:  On the ’87 CD, Paul McCartney’s voice still sounds dreamily mellow, somewhat masked, on the Meredith Willson love song from “The Music Man”; the new version brings out more fullness in his voice, as well as more crispness in the percussion work.

• “Eight Days A Week”: This exuberant track sounded immediately compressed in the old CD master; the new one gains openness and adds noticeable presence to the signature hand claps.

• “Yesterday”: Remastering can’t alter the beauty of McCartney’s classic lament, but now the pluck of his fingers on the strings of his acoustic guitar is even more visceral.

• “In My Life”: As in many of the previewed tracks, it’s the drums and bass that are most immediately improved. Even though it’s not a powerhouse track, Ringo’s rhythmic accents are bigger and sharper.

• “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: The opening guitar riff felt like it would rip through the speakers in Capitol’s Studio C with the added vibrancy Paul's lead guitar gets in the new version.

• “Good Night”: The closing track from “The Beatles,” a.k.a. the White Album, starts with string accompaniment that sounded canned on the old CD. I noted a slight harshness in the remastered version but also a fuller orchestral sound and an especially appealing purity in the flutes behind Ringo’s sweetly melancholy vocal.

• “The Long and Winding Road”: Paul may cringe at those sweeping strings that Phil Spector overdubbed onto his swan-song Beatles ballad, but they sound even broader and more spacious on the remaster than on the 1987 CD.

After the prepared A:B CD was through, Rouse and Massey opened the floor for requests. I asked to hear "She's Leaving Home" from the mono mix of "Sgt. Pepper," because the track was slowed down for the stereo mix that most U.S. listeners (myself included) are used to. McCartney's voice sounded sweeter, the harp more luminous.

I also got them to cue up Harrison's "Savoy Truffle" from the White Album. As a longtime sax player, I wanted to hear how the sax section came through the remastering -- nicely fat -- but the part that grabbed the attention of everyone in the room was the screaming guitar solo, which picks up considerable sting in the new version.

Tune in Sunday for more.

-- Randy Lewis

*Update: An earlier version misspelled the name of recording engineer Allan Rouse as Allen.

Photo credit: Apple Corps