Sgt. Pepper Wasn’t Broken. So They Fixed It.
For the Sgt. Pepper 50th anniversary remix, good intentions and modern technology revitalize a classic album.
Usually, the re-working and rerelease of a classic recording signifies nothing more than a sneaky cash-grab by either a record company, a producer, a recording engineer, or an artist’s estate (Many of us have assumed a permanent defensive crouch in anticipation of the avalanche of unreleased Prince recordings his estate is sure to authorize.) Why else would you mess with recordings that people already know, love, and own?
Well, you wouldn’t want a re-painted Mona Lisa, would you? Music and art are things of their time, and should generally therefore be left as is. In June, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the release of their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles organization released three remixed editions of the landmark album. This time, it’s different. It’s great. To understand why, you have to know a few things about recording technology and what has changed (i.e.: a lot) in the last 50 years.
What’s a Remix? What’s a Remaster? What’s the Point?
Modern recordings are made up of different performances captured at different times and played back together so that they sound like they occurred simultaneously. You could record, say, drums on one track, bass on another, guitar on a third track, and piano on another — when you play them back together, you’d sound like a band. It’s not uncommon for hit recordings to have hundreds of tracks within a "multitrack" recording, with layer upon layer of vocals and instruments stacked into a single musical arrangement.
Screenshot of Pharell Williams’ “Happy” multitrack recording.
Nobody can play a multitrack recording at home or in their car as is. All of those tracks have to be combined — or “mixed” — into a second, listener-playable recording. That’s what you buy, whether it’s a download, a CD, or a vinyl record. The mix may be monaural, which means it’s just a single track containing everything, or stereo, in which the recording’s sounds can be positioned in the space between two speakers. A multitrack can also be mixed into a Surround format, doing the same thing as stereo, but with more speakers positioned around the listener. The majority of modern recordings are in stereo, though in The Beatles’ heyday in England, mono was king. A stereo mix was merely a requirement for other world markets.
Mixing — or “remixing,” which just means redoing a mix — can be an art in and of itself. It involves balancing the relative volumes of the tracks, adjusting their tonal qualities, and adding effects such as reverb and echo. If the recording is the artist’s performance, the mix is the producer’s and the recording engineer’s.
Once the mix is complete, it must be prepared for download, CD, or vinyl. This process is called “mastering.” Depending on how good the mix is, mastering involves either a small amount of tweaking or the last chance for radical tonal or dynamic repairs. Mastering for vinyl is especially tricky given the constraints involved in etching audio signals into minuscule grooves on a spinning disk — if the bass content, for example, is too loud, the grooves collide and the disc is unplayable.
Vinyl mastering (STEREOPHILE.COM)
When records are reissued, it’s common to see them advertised as being “remixed” or “remastered.” Now you know the difference. If something’s:
By the time The Beatles became popular, four-track machines were in use in England. Most of the early Beatle hits were essentially performed live, with just a few other layers, called “overdubs,” added later. If the band ever wanted to add more than just a few extra bits, they could copy a mix of the four-track onto another four-track machine — this is called “bouncing” — and then fill up the second tape's other tracks. In the pre-digital days of magnetic recording, each time the song was bounced, its quality degraded a little, so bouncing was kept to a minimum.
A 4-track recorder used by The Beatles
Beatles and Not-Beatles
The three original Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison — had always been ambivalent about continuing as a group. Mark Lewisohn’s excellent Tune In reveals that they disbanded a few times before breaking through. Once there was the possibility, however, of making some real money by performing, the four musicians — having now added Ringo Starr — dedicated themselves to The Beatles business, for how long no one knew. Joined at the hip and caught in a maelstrom of their own inadvertent making, they toured for a few chaotic, non-stop years — with recording sessions squeezed in-between jaunts — before they announced in late summer 1966 that they would no longer be performing.
The four split off into four directions, each one exploring for the first time what it would be like to not be a Beatle. It’s clear that each one of them found the experience both liberating and confusing. After all, they’d been in the band since they were kids. Who were they if not Beatles?
In November, the group reassembled to begin work on a new album, still The Beatles but not quite any more. They looked different, and they felt different. Still, a job’s a job, and in January 1967, they signed a more lucrative recording contract that ensured they would continue being Beatles for a while, whatever that was going to mean.
On the left, August 1966, before quitting the road. On the right, four months later — moptops no more.
McCartney addressed the bandmembers’ identity crisis by suggesting they think of themselves as not The Beatles, but as a fictional group, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They didn’t have to do teenage-targeted Beatle songs; they could do songs the imaginary band might do. Maybe because not everyone totally bought into the conceit, the idea fell away somewhat as work progressed. Even so, along with producer George Martin, they were a finely tuned recording machine in the habit of topping themselves with each album. Sgt. Pepper was the last time they'd work together so cohesively for an entire album.
The Beatles' productions had been growing ever-more complex over the course of their previous two albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver, and by the time they started work on Sgt. Pepper, they had to bounce and bounce and bounce to have enough tracks to realize their creative ambitions. As spectacular as the final product was, from a sound-quality standpoint, the earlier tracks — the drums and other basic instruments — had been copied between four-track machines over and over, and sounded like it: thin and small and lo-fi.
Final tape box for the Sgt. Pepper’s song “Day in the Life.” Note track listing on right. (STEPHEN K. PEEPLES)
People may not have noticed within the context of the revolutionary overall sound, but it made the album seem more and more slight, and dated, as time went by.
Why the Sgt Pepper Remix Makes Sense
With modern equipment, it's possible to synchronize the original, pre-bounce recordings — in all their pristine glory — so the new remixes basically undo all that bouncing. And boy, does everything sound better: bigger, richer, deeper. Ringo’s drums slam, the vocals are airier, and the resulting clarity is often eye-opening.
Stereo Mono Mixes
Another issue the new mixes rectify is the sloppy manner in which the original stereo mixes were done. The Beatles and their producer really cared only about the mono mixes, and they spent hours, weeks getting them right. The stereo mixes, on the other hand, were tossed off quickly by engineers without the group’s involvement. As a result, the stereo mixes lack a number of careful special touches the band added to the mono mixes, and contain mistakes not found in the mono. Maybe most significantly, the stereo mixes fundamentally misrepresented who The Beatles were.
At its heart, the band was a white-hot little R&B combo. Their club act was made up of R&B and soul chestnuts, many of which appear on their albums. Check out Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me” on With the Beatles, for example.
The mono mixes of Beatle albums are muscular, full of an edgy, bluesy, emotional vitality that reflects the band's ethos. The stereo versions are universally more polite, clean, and soft. The mono “Dear Prudence” from The Beatles, for example, could make you cry; the stereo version is…nice. (Anyone interested in knowing who The Beatles really were is encouraged to get the mono box set of their albums.)
The new remixes were executed by Giles Martin, son of their original producer. With the mono mixes serving as his model for the new version, he has faithfully created, for the first time, a stereo version of the mono mix. Nothing here doesn’t belong. It sounds the same, only different, more exciting, and more alive. And that hot little combo now rocks.
Back to Bassics
Finally, part of the difference between the tame stereo and funky mono releases had to do with issues in vinyl mastering — stereo vinyl mastering was even less tolerant of too much bass than mono: Twice as much audio had to fit into each groove — and the new Sgt. Pepper brings McCartney’s brilliant bass work and Ringo's bass drum right to the front, where they propel the band as intended.
The 50th Anniversary Value Proposition
The Beatles believed in treating their fans with respect, and always tried to provide value in their releases. From each album’s recording sessions, they extracted a couple of the best songs for release as 45 RPM vinyl singles. This broke with the industry practice of using a throwaway as the second song, and also making sure every album contained the hit. For the Beatles, the accompanying album would not contain the songs on the single since their fans had already bought them — instead, the album would contain all-new, fresh material.
For example, from sessions for:
With Sgt. Pepper and The Beatles, they upped the ante further by including a sheet of cutouts and a custom inner sleeve (Pepper) and a poster (The Beatles)
While re-releases of the band’s catalog have sometimes seemed to be about squeezing additional sales from old product, the three Sgt. Pepper editions feel like a return to form, especially the “Super Deluxe” version.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 6 Disc Super Deluxe (Anniversary Edition)
There are some albums so pivotal that they merit study by serious students of music and recording. Sgt. Pepper is one such record. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is another. For such works, extended editions that reveal the creative process are invaluable as master classes in music and recording.
The “Super Deluxe” edition of Sgt. Pepper is massive, containing four audio CDs, a DVD, and a BluRay disc. These hold the new mix, session highlights, “Strawberry Fields Forever, ”“Penny Lane,” alternate versions of a few songs, and video content.
The packaging is beautiful, from an amazing lenticular 3D version of the album’s legendary cover, to the original cutout sheet, the custom sleeve, and a circus poster from which Lennon lifted the lyrics for one of the album’s songs.
If you’re a student of music or recording, or an obsessive Beatles collector, this edition is well worth the money.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 2 Deluxe CD (Anniversary Edition)
This two-CD set includes the remixed album and single, as well as a handful of session highlights. Really, the reason to buy this is if you want the fresh mixes of “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” as well as Sgt. Pepper.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band CD (Anniversary Edition)
This CD contains the new remix of the album. If you’re just interested in hearing a powerful, fresh reissue of The Beatles' classic album, this is the one for you.
It must be said: A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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