De-mixing the Beatles
Albums Are Not Stems
There are financial incentives to try and make old recordings match current sonic standards. Not only does it create new product for old fans – “Super Deluxe Editions” – but it positions rereleases for streaming playlists alongside current pop hits. Giles Martin, who has been digitally remixing his father George Martin’s analog productions for the Beatles, explained it this way to Variety:
“I now have two teenagers who are 13 and 15, and they listen to stuff in the car and they play me stuff like they discovered it, like The Chain by Fleetwood Mac. They’re listening to Rex Orange County or Olivia Rodrigo or Billie Eilish, and then there’s music that was not (from) now, and that could be Fleetwood Mac, it could be the Arctic Monkeys, it could be the Beatles, but they’re all the same era for them. And what I want to make sure is that when people hear the Beatles, that it has the same dynamic as the other stuff they’re listening to.”
This idea isn’t entirely new – the mastering engineer we work with, Alan Douches, has always taken care to play our work against comparable records on the radio, to check that it could slot alongside without too much disruption. But every time we bring Alan a new set of songs, he approaches that process differently because sonic standards continually change. Each album of ours is marked not only by particular moments in our musical and personal lives, but by a moment in audio technology.
What’s different from that approach to the one described by Giles Martin is the testing ground is no longer radio programming, but playlists. And playlists roam across time and genre. They can be, in this way, a bit like freeform radio – only without the freeform, without the radio, and even without a DJ. Just the random-seeming part.
But if Giles Martin really expects the Beatles to play alongside Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish with no sonic disjunction, he is aiming for albums from the 1960s to sound like those from the 2020s. That’s a sixty-year spread - which is like the Beatles aiming to make their albums sound like music from the earliest era of sound recording.
Is that a reasonable goal? Should we also expect the classic folk and blues 78s on the Harry Smith Anthology to sound like the Beatles, as well as like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish? Why stop at the 1960s?
Giles Martin implies he’s doing it for the kids – but it’s hard for me to believe teenagers need any help in this regard. His teens are already listening to music of different eras together. A number of young people in the 1960s were particularly interested in the way 1920s records sounded – that is a part of how we got a lot of the music of the 1960s. And when my friends and I started to record music in the 80s, we were very interested in how the music of the 60s sounded – that was part of how we contributed to the music of our era. We didn’t need the Beatles to sound like Joy Division. We listened to them both, sometimes even back-to-back. No Martin Hannett remix of Revolver necessary.
Breaking an album like Revolver into isolated stems for remix is also a quixotic task. It was originally recorded without any separation of instruments and voices beyond four tracks of tape - all the sounds the Beatles and their engineers used on that album were layered together onto those limited set of tracks – and then, in one of the most iconic achievements of 20th-century audio recording, they were mixed brilliantly to a single mono channel. The only way to undo that process is a proprietary AI technology called, appropriately, “de-mixing.”
“The simplest way I can explain it,” says Giles Martin in Rolling Stone, “It’s like you giving me a cake, and then me going back to you about an hour later with flour, eggs, sugar, and all the ingredients to that cake, that all haven’t got any cake mix left on them.”
I don’t know but I’d rather have a cake.
Here’s the original 1966 mono mix of Rain, from a single recorded at the same sessions as Revolver – a version which at present seems to have been withdrawn from all online services in preparation for the forthcoming Super Deluxe Edition, except perhaps as the soundtrack to this bootleg video:
And here’s how that 1966 version of Rain sounded as interpreted by four young people on stage at CBGBs in 1989, plus their slightly older producer at the soundboard (the trio Galaxie 500 was augmented here by guest lead guitarist Dave Rick):
Would we have aimed for so much murk had we only known a remixed version of Revolver-era Beatles, updated to the current standards of 1989? The Billboard Top 100 that year was dominated by Bobby Brown, Poison, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Milli Vanilli, and Debbie Gibson. What kind of Revolver would have sounded seamless next to those records? I’m not sorry we never found out.
Listening to: Maria Rita, Brasileira (first released in 1988)
Cooking: Byrrh (“recette originale depuis 1873”) on ice with lime and sparkling water
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Welcome to Capitalism! If there's still gold left in those old recordings, surely someone will find a way to get it out! Just another thing to be foisted on us to buy (again).
I for one won't bite. Another thing to consider is the cultural context within which those Revolver tracks were made. 1966 : the Vietnam war, the three assassinations, civil rights movement, women's liberation plus many other intangibles.