It was 50 years ago today… I don’t want to admit that it was so long ago and I feel sad that John and George are both gone. I was not yet a teenager when Sgt. Pepper’s was released. This one flew under the radar for me. I was aware of the singles, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, but there were no singles from this album, so I didn’t hear any of it on AM top forty radio. I didn’t discover it until almost two years later when FM progressive (or underground) radio burst the dam of my imagination.
For me, this wasn’t an album to be listened to casually – it was an experience. Although not a true concept album, it was the first record that seemed necessary to listen to in its entirety, probably because of the segues of one song into another on certain tracks and the reprise of the Sgt. Pepper theme. It was the logical progression from Tomorrow Never Knows on Revolver, breaking the sonic boundaries of prior art in recording.
So, why is this new iteration of Pepper necessary? Didn’t we have a remastered edition about eight years ago? Yes, we did, but, this new edition is not only remastered, it is also remixed. So, what is the difference?
The goal of mastering is to put finishing touches on tracks that have already been mixed down. These touches might include, using equalization to make certain sound frequencies stand out more than others, using compression to increase volume or to bring cohesiveness to the mix, or tweaking reverb so that it sounds as if the various individual tracks were recorded under the same conditions. The main reason most recordings from the 1970’s or earlier have been remastered is that early CDs from the 1980’s sounded notoriously thin and lacked detail. After this initial round of remastering, however, remastering mainly was for the purpose of increasing the volume to match newer recordings which had become victims of the loudness wars.
Remixing involves taking the original unmixed tapes (called stems) and mixing them together into one final track. To understand why this is important to Sgt. Pepper’s 50th Anniversary Edition you must know something about how it was originally recorded. The Beatles, at that time, only had four track tape recorders to work with. This meant that if they wanted to go beyond this (and it should be obvious that Pepper’s couldn’t have been recorded on just four tracks) they would have to use a technique known as “bouncing”. To do this you would record four tracks on one tape recorder and then mix them down (or bounce them) to one track on a second recorder, and, repeat the process until you had reached the limit of sixteen tracks.
Every time you bounced to a new track you lost sound quality or fidelity. This is why it was important to remix, using the first-generation tapes, and not just remaster this album. The clarity is astounding. I can hear details that I never heard before, either in the original vinyl or the remastered CD. I listened to this new edition on Sennheiser HD 600 headphones (that were a gift from a good friend) and I was blown away.
The four CD set contains the original 1967 mono mix as well as alternate versions. This set is worth having and is definitely not just a money grab.