I make no bones about it, I love the Beatles, from "Meet the Beatles" to "Abbey Road" -- every album is extraordinary. I'm hardly alone in my praise. Every fan has their own story arc and mine is deep and long. Speaking of long, the Beatles iconic "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album is now celebrating its 50th anniversary with a brand new stereo mix. The spiffed up version sounds very different from the original 1967 mix, so much so it takes some getting used to. It sounds like a different album.
The difference in clarity is the first thing you notice, Ringo Starr's drums are so much more present, Paul McCartney's incredible bass playing is positively vivid. George Harrison and John Lennon's guitars are likewise more alive. Vocals are clearer than ever.
Stereo wasn't that big a deal in the UK in 1967, so the Beatles lavished most of their attention on the mono "Sgt. Pepper's" mix, and barely touched the original stereo mix. So now it's finally getting the attention it deserves.
"Sgt. Pepper's" never would have happened if the Beatles didn't stop touring. They had been on the road non-stop from 1960 to 1966, and once they stopped doing concerts they put all of their creative energies into recording. The Beatles logged over 400 hours of studio time working on "Sgt. Pepper's."
Today's bands record on virtually unlimited numbers of tracks, but "Sgt. Pepper's" was made on four-track analog tape recorders. When the four tracks were filled up with music the engineer would mix them down to a single track and transfer that to another four track recorder and work from there. Over the course of making "Sgt. Pepper's" that process was repeated over and over for each tune, and with each transfer some sound quality was forfeited, but due to the limitations of 1967 technology the Beatles had no choice.
Luckily, all generations of the four-track session tapes were archived, so for the new "Sgt. Pepper's" the engineers mixed direct from all of the first generation session masters, and what a difference that made! No wonder "Sgt. Pepper's" never sounded better.
The new "Sgt. Pepper's" is available in a number of formats, a single CD, two CDs, two LPs and a box set with three CDs, high-resolution audio 5.1 channel and stereo DVD and Blu-rays that also include a terrific 1992 making-of "Sgt. Pepper's" documentary. The box set also had a beautifully illustrated hard cover book. For now I don't see any MP3, streaming or hi-res download options, but I assume they will be available soon. The two CD and two LP sets have fascinating session outtakes I'm sure hardcore Beatles fans will enjoy.
Comparing my 2009 remastered "Sgt. Pepper's" CD with the 2017 remixed CD, I found the differences striking. The new one is more present and alive, the 2009 version is muted and the stereo imaging lacks depth. The drums and bass sound so much clearer and more dynamically alive on all of the 2017 remixed versions.
I couldn't find any of my really old "Sgt. Pepper's" LPs in my collection, but I do have a mid 1980s Japanese pressing, and it sounded much brighter and thinner than the 2017 remixed LP. It was no contest, the new one is more open, clearer, fuller, richer tonally and better in every way than the Japanese "Sgt. Pepper's" LP.
I also played the new "Sgt. Pepper's" Blu-ray Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio 5.1 channel surround mixes over a Denon AVR-S730H receiver and the music's high-res sound and clarity were stunning, as for the surround mix it was mostly pretty subtle and the subwoofer channel wasn't doing much.
I could play the stereo 24 bit/96 kHz mix over the HDMI connection to the Denon receiver, but not from my Oppo BDP 105 Blu-ray player's optical or coaxial outputs to a separate digital converter like the Mytek Brooklyn. That's because the Blu-ray and DVD have copy protection that only allows outboard converters to play a 16 bit/48 kHz down mix. At home that still sounded substantially better than the new CD, but I also loved the new LP's sound on my SME 15 turntable. As always, your results may vary.
As I listened to the various versions I was flat out amazed how much better the sound and music was. Too bad we had to wait this long to hear "Sgt. Pepper's" like this!
Buoyed by the "Sgt. Pepper" remix, I have hopes we'll see 50th anniversary special editions of the Beatles "Yellow Submarine," "Magical Mystery Tour," "White Album" and "Abbey Road" in the coming years.