Friday, September 4, 2009

New Beatles - digitally remastered studio-produced albums

You still can't buy "Can't Buy Me Love" from iTunes. But the Beatles' music is taking a step toward catching up with technology.

After four years of audio engineers working from Abbey Road Studios in London with the original Beatles recording tapes, on Sept. 9, Apple Corps Ltd. and EMI Music are debuting the digitally remastered Beatles' studio-produced albums. All told, 29 CDs, in one of two box sets will go on sale. They "have the integrity of the original master tape, they're just phonically superior" to previously released recordings, says Kevin Howlett, a radio producer who consulted on the project. Diehard Beatles fans have been complaining about the lackluster quality of Beatles CDs since they were released 22 years ago, with one reviewer calling the audio "tinny and desperately malnourished."

Apple Corps Ltd., which was created by the Beatles in 1968, and EMI Music control the Beatles catalog. They are betting that they can benefit from the hype surrounding the release the same day of The Beatles: Rock Band, a video game that lets players simulate recording and performing with the band. So far, the move is paying off: Pre-order sales for all the new Beatles CD box sets are among the top 15 pre-order music best-sellers in's history. The retailer has sold out during pre- order sales and says it will restock.

To attract musical purists as well as more casual fans, they are releasing two versions: a limited-edition "mono" box set of recordings as they were originally configured by the band and producer George Martin; and a "stereo" box set of the same songs mixed later by Mr. Martin to satisfy the growing demand for the new "stereo" medium in which vocals and instrumentation could be separated and fed into different speakers. The CDs in the stereo box set will also be sold individually.

Apple Corps has been notable in not selling Beatles songs online as downloads. EMI declined to discuss Beatles downloads; Apple Corps didn't respond to requests seeking comment. Many young music fans who primarily buy music online
haven't been buying the Beatles. CD sales have declined 54.7% in the last five years. Year-to-date CD album sales in late August 2004 were 387.4 million units. During the same time frame this year, year-to-date CD album sales were 175.4 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a company that tracks music sales.

Bill Gagnon, EMI Music North America's senior vice president and general manager for catalog marketing, isn't concerned. "We don't feel it's going to impact the sales of this particular project," he says.

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr declined to comment, an EMI spokeswoman said.

After first marketing to the core Beatles constituency—men 40 or older—the label plans to push the box set as a holiday gift for people who are becoming fans thanks to the video game Rock Band, Mr. Gagnon says. In lieu of selling the albums online, EMI will "employ an online street team" which will promote the Beatles CDs on music Web sites and social media networks, he says.

The remastered Beatles CDs will come with the albums' original cover art and liner notes, as well as additional photographs and writings. Each CD includes a short documentary video. The documentaries, each about five minutes or less, use photographs, video and audio snippets from tape that rolled as the musicians recorded. From "The Beatles" (better known as the "White Album"), Ringo Starr complains, "I've got blisters on my fingers." During the making of "Abbey Road," John Lennon says, "Stop it, you disgusting middle-aged squares."

Seasoned followers, however, will find a lot of retread in the liner notes. In an essay already printed in an older CD's liner notes, artist Peter Blake recounts how the record label tried to get permission to use the likenesses of people such as Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan on the Sgt. Pepper's cover collage. Mae West initially turned down the Beatles, responding in a letter, "What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?" The band persuaded her to reconsider, according to Mr. Blake.

Record labels often repackage existing albums and market them as collectors' items; it's an inexpensive way to market to an established fan base. But the rerelease of the Beatles catalog was more complex.

Audio engineers digitized the master tapes of more than a dozen albums. To retain the artistic purity, they rid the recordings of any unintentional mechanical noise, such as hiss, clicks, sibilance. But they maintained the musicians' ancillary sounds—coughs, breaths, side-chatter.

Fourteen-year-old Kevin Kaspar of Carmel, Ind., says when he was 12, his sister, then 17, lent him the Beatles's 2006 "Love" CD containing songs that had been remixed for a Cirque du Soleil show. He plans to buy the video game and new CDs next week. "I've been babysitting and saved my money to buy both," he says.

Wall Street Journal, 9/4/09

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