Ask any music fan worth his salt what the best album of all time is and chances are they would at least make mention of The Beatles’ seminal record: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Though it’s hard to pick the one Beatles record that stands above the rest, there’s clearly something special about hearing the band really coming into their own on this album. It’s a concept album (sort of), it stretches the creativity of the band and it showcases their musicality like never before. Now, on the album’s 50th birthday, a new remix edition has been released. Is it just a standard attempt to cash in on the anniversary or is this actually a worthwhile purchase? I’m happy to tell you that this new release is the new standard for listening to the album.
What is remixing anyway? Usually, a producer takes the original stems of the songs on an album (if they’re available), tweaks a few things to give it his or her own signature flavor and bounces it back out again. Remastering is taking the finished recordings and tweaking those without really working on individual tracks. The conversation that Beatles audiophiles often have centers around the mono versus stereo mixes. In the 60’s, mono was the preferred mix because most people didn’t have stereo capability at home. The Beatles focused their efforts on mono mixes for the most part (and definitely on Sgt Pepper). A stereo mix existed, but it was thought of as the weaker mix and not truly Beatles-approved. Even a remastered stereo version from recent years is not held in as high a regard as the original mono version. Enter Giles Martin.
Giles Martin is the son of George Martin, the original producer of almost every Beatles track you’ve ever heard. George Martin was a phenomenal musical mind and is often thought of as “the fifth Beatle” owing to his stellar contributions to the sound of the band — the orchestral elements in particular. When George recorded the Beatles, he was limited to the technology of the day, which was four track recording. He could only record 4 things at a time onto a tape. If more tracks were needed (and on this album, many more were needed), he would have to bounced the original four tracks into one and then record three more against that and then repeat the process. With each track bounced, a little fidelity is lost. Plus, if anyone wanted to do a proper remix, they had to actually locate the original, individual tape takes to split out all the stems. No one had ever been able to locate those tapes, until Giles did. Giles took all the original tracks and used those to produce a real, thoughtfully mixed stereo version of Sgt Pepper. Clearly incredible effort went into this project.
So how does it sound? Is there a difference? You better believe it. Listening to this version with headphones is like being in the room as the band is recording. It’s amazing. The sound is just so, so clear. The vocals are centered and crisp. The guitars are panned appropriately and sound so live. But the real difference is in the drums and bass. Giles boosted Ringo’s drums in ways that simply weren’t possible in 1967. In fact, since vinyl was the medium of the day, drums couldn’t be pushed to far up in the mix because heavy hits would actually cause the needle to bounce out of the groove on the record! Now the drums are mixed right into the songs and it’s a joy. The bass, likewise, gets a bump and the hidden notes are suddenly revealed. I’ve heard this record many, many times, but listening to it like this was a completely new experience.
Of course, the album comes in a deluxe version that also includes a bunch of bonus content. You get some other studio takes of various songs and even some instrumental tracks from the sessions. They probably aren’t for everyone, but I really appreciated them. One real treat was the orchestral instruments track from “She’s Leaving Home”. Gorgeous. And you can hear George Martin counting the players in.
So I’d highly encourage you to pick up or stream this new mix of Sgt. Pepper! You’ll be happy you did.
And if you want to dissect it a little more, there’s a great Beatles podcast called “Screw it, we’re just gonna talk about the Beatles” that took a deep-dive into the differences. It’s pretty great.
Apple Podcast Link: