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The Masters, remastered At long last, the Beatles' complete catalog enters the digital age

If it isn't the single greatest canon of work to emerge from the 20th century, it is at the very least the most far-reaching popular music ever recorded.

And finally, it's getting the treatment it deserves.

Pop had never even imagined the possibilities of the form the Beatles would ultimately perfect, prior to the band's existence. Since their dissolution in 1970, no one has come along to truly better the Fabulous Four, either. Many have come awfully close; a few have deigned to touch the hem of the Beatles' garment. But it still feels safe to say that, in rock music, the Beatles were and are as good as it gets.

Interesting, then, that the band's catalog entered the age of the CD with a limp, not the swagger the material itself would suggest.

One needn't have been an audiophile to find the band's albums in the digital form to lack the warmth, clarity and depth one remembered from youth, back when vinyl records spun in the living room, God was in heaven, and all was right in the universe. The Beatles on CD, beginning in 1987, sounded tinny, thin, and not particularly well looked-after.

That will all change -- resoundingly so -- on Tuesday, when the Beatles' entire catalog is released in remastered form, through Apple Corps LTD. and EMI Music.

For the first time since CDs came along and kicked vinyl to the curb, the full majesty of this music will be revealed. Interestingly, on the same day, the much buzzed-about and amply preordered "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game will hit the streets.

The smart money is on a whole new generation of listeners falling beneath the spell of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

>Proceeding with caution

Though there is an entire subculture of hardcore Beatlemaniacs devoted to the study of the technical apparatus employed to produce the Beatles' 525 minutes of recorded music -- the tape machines and microphones used, the mono vs. stereo debate, the variances in vinyl pressings, and so forth -- in truth, for most listeners, this minutia is a secondary concern, if that.

In layman's terms, the problem with the Beatles' catalog on CD for the past 22 years has to do with the way those CDs were made.

Basically, this entailed directly transferring the original analog masters to compact disc, without remastering them, which would require the creation of a new digital master recording. Vinyl records and compact discs are birds of an entirely different feather, though, and even the untrained ear could detect the gist of the problem -- albums as dynamically vigorous and sonically full-spectrum as, say, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Abbey Road" sounded flat and lifeless on CD.

Beatles aficionados have been crying foul all the while, demanding in often self-important voices the rectifying of this situation. After all, the Rolling Stones have had their catalog remastered several times during this same period. Why not the Fabs?

When word began to leak out that a team of engineers would be entering the EMI vaults to begin a restorative process involving the original stereo master tapes, many received this news like they might've the announcement of the second coming.

Happily, the end result of this lengthy, labor-intensive process justifies all expectation. The albums included in the remaster campaign -- the original 12 studio releases, plus the singles compilations "Past Masters I & II" -- sound absolutely fantastic.

Doubtless, many will still claim that their original vinyl pressings and hard-to-find mono mixes sound "better," but unless you have in the area of a hundred grand worth of stereo equipment, that's not likely to be the actual truth. It would not really be gilding the lily to suggest that this music has never sounded better than it does on these newly remastered discs.

Great care was clearly taken as the engineers -- Guy Massey and Simon Gibson, principally -- transferred the original stereo masters created by "fifth Beatle" George Martin to Pro Tools digital files, one track at a time. Working in the same Abbey Road studios where the Beatles created most of this music, the two proceeded with extreme caution, as if they were restoring the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As each individual song was mastered, Massey and Gibson checked it against the original vinyl pressing; the concern was maintaining both the continuity between, and the integrity of, the original recordings.

Modern digital mastering is capital L loud, compared to its analog progenitor, and part of the quest here was to bring the Beatles' music firmly into the present.

The big fear amongst folks who hold this music to be sacred was that it would be overly modernized -- as in, made too compressed, too clean, too brittle -- in the process. But the engineers did indeed tread lightly, applying the technology subtly and sparingly.

Really, one couldn't reasonably have hoped for more.

>And, in the end...

Ultimately, there is as much here awaiting your discovery as you are willing to look for. On the surface, all of the albums have been vastly improved, most obviously in terms of the presence and fullness of the bass guitar and drums. Early recordings -- "With the Beatles," "A Hard Day's Night," "Beatles for Sale," for example -- found the drums rather buried in the mix, the bass drum often close to inaudible. To say this has been deftly dealt with is a serious understatement. Similarly, Paul McCartney's genre-defining bass playing is now presented in pristine fashion, its abundantly warm, round tone adding significant melodic detail and sonic oomph.

In a word, it's crushing.

By the time we get to the later-period work... well, words fail to adequately describe the experience of listening to "I Am the Walrus," "Strawberry Fields Forever," or "Hello Goodbye" in their new form, at high volume. The pleasure is of the sublime variety.

Some might interpret all of this audio-fetishizing as much ado about nothing.

They'd be wrong.

If you care about this music, hold on tight -- you're about to hear it as if for the very first time. Again.


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