The Absolute Sound September 2023
When the news came out of yet another re-mastering of a Beatles album, my first thought was, "Really, another one?" It was a reflexive thing; no cogitation involved. Maybe it reminded me of the constant re-packaging of products like Star Wars movies, with better and better production values and "special features" and add-ons that lure us to shell out the bucks again. And again. And yet, I didn't complain when something like the Director's Cut of the original Blade Runner was released, and yeah, I bought it. I'm a big fan of re-mastering worthy LPs and have my special box of all-analog reissues (still have to double-check one of those MoFi albums), plus a good number of "reissued" CDs, and, no, I didn't seem to have a problem with buying five versions of Getz / Gilberto. So, why pick on the latest iteration of The Beatles?
To get my mind straight, I went back to the reviews. The new version of Revolver is the latest in a long line of reissues, starting with the original mono albums, then the stereo CDs, then the remastered stereo and mono CDs, then the stereo LPs, and, in 2014, The Beatles in Mono LPs mastered from the original tapes, then the re-do of Sgt. Pepper. I probably missed a few others. Neal Gader's report on the Revolver reissue in February's Absolute Sound was filled with superlatives and accolades. The album was "demixed and rebuilt," resulting in sonic descriptions like "profound," "fully expressed and liberated," "more discreet and detailed," and many others. You would almost have to think that this was the best version of Revolver ever produced.
Since I have the TBIM collection and was sold on it partly because of Mr. Gader's original review of that box set, I went back to that report from TAS December 2014. In it, he gushes about the sound of TBIM's Revolver album: "relaxes the incessant forwardness found on the CD reissue," "rush of energy and vitality," "truly soars with greater tonal expression and dynamic transparency," and many other compliments. You get the idea. He also stated in that 2014 review that "today the Beatles catalog is an admixture of formats that differ materially from one another. While the myriad of quirky differences has been well documented for years, ultimately the monos represent the truest intention of how the Beatles wanted their songs to be heard."
All these positives about the earlier mono LPs do make one wonder how much better the new reissue could actually be? Mr. Gader's dueling superlatives didn't actually say the latest version was now the best, but that was implied. Or rather, that's what I inferred.
This brought to mind a quote from Don Was, president of Blue Note records: "What record producers and artists intend for the audience to hear is the first commercially released issue — not some hypothetical master tape or enhanced later version [Marc Maron's WTF podcast of January 25, 2018; youtube.com/watch?v=bsCuvfn1TcO]."
Part of me would like to subscribe to this philosophy, because I like the idea that there is a clear, simple standard of what is the absolute best. But everyone knows that many great albums could have used additional TLC to make them a little or, in some cases, a lot better. Another huge factor is that I can't afford all the original Beatles albums in mint condition. But if I want to spend the money (and I did), I can own re-issues that are cleaner and just as good as or better than the originals, packaging and all.
I have the feeling that most audiophiles like the idea of a consensus on which version, pressing, or mix of any great album is considered the best. Americans love rankings. Though the sound of music is exceptionally subjective, a consensus can probably be arrived at for any number of releases. If the mono versions of The Beatles albums are "the truest intention" of the artist, that should carry some weight. It would certainly affect whether I buy the album or not. But it may mean little to someone else, and it doesn't mean you should buy the "truest intention" album and shun the "demixed and rebuilt" one, or the next fancy technology, either. Audiophiles are smart enough to judge for themselves with the help of intelligent reviews — not only for ranking but also, potentially, for more enjoyment of the music. Mr. Gader's intelligent reviews never claimed either version was the better or best, something I wrongly expected them to do. All he said was that he really enjoyed them and gave the reasons you and I might enjoy them too.
In that same February issue of TAS, I almost missed this at the end of Jonathan Valin's review of the Thriller reissue: "When it comes to mastering you can, I suppose, make an argument on behalf of any procedure that either:
1) Makes the music sound more faithful to what is recorded on the tape;
2) More faithful to the sound of a live performance;
3) More faithful to the artists' intentions; or
4) Just more fun to listen to (italics mine)."
Conclusion? I think I'm going to be less picky and have more fun.
I'm glad I got that straight.