Make it pop! Do we really need the Beatles to sound new?

Classic songs are now remastered to compete with contemporary pop on streaming services. But what do we lose when Yellow Submarine is ‘de-mixed’ for generation playlist?

Yellow Submarine, Ringo Starr’s turn on Revolver, has been a gateway for children into the music of the Beatles since its release in 1966. A new reissue of the album makes that relationship more explicit: Giles Martin, son of original producer George and the sonic custodian of the Beatles catalogue, says his “de-mixing” of the album – using AI to separate individual instruments that were originally squeezed together on four tracks – was done in part with a playlist-listening younger audience in mind.

Martin recently told Variety that his teenage children listen to old and new music side by side, veering from Fleetwood Mac to Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. “[W]hat I want to make sure is that when people hear the Beatles, that it has the same dynamic as the other stuff they’re listening to,” he said. He added that 1969’s Abbey Road, recorded on a then luxuriant eight tracks and the first Beatles album not released in mono, stands out from the band’s catalogue as “it sounds more hi-fi than the other Beatles albums”. This might be, he proposes, one reason why it performs so well on streaming services.

The subtext here is that the “older” a recording sounds, the less chance it has to cut through to younger audiences who have particular auditory expectations. Some catalogue albums are so rich and textured that they have effectively future-proofed themselves and still punch alongside contemporary recordings, which may explain why mid-1970s Fleetwood Mac tracks perform so well on streaming services and TikTok: the acoustic apex they hit back then has not diminished over the intervening decades. The sharpness of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill – made on cutting-edge synthesisers – has similarly endured.

Fleetwood Mac in 1977.
Fleetwood Mac in 1977. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“It’s that richness to the sound that makes it feel quite contemporary,” says Tom Gallacher, senior director of digital and marketing at Rhino, the catalogue arm of Warner Music Group. “Those albums were made on a scale that quite a lot of other albums at the time weren’t. They sound a lot more contemporary because they’ve got that depth of sound that maybe others don’t.”

With catalogue recordings now liable to go viral thanks to TikTok or TV, some artists, estates and labels want to give catalogue recordings their best shot at renewed success.

As a notion, however, Martin mixing old tracks specifically for a streaming audience so they do not jar with new recordings feels like an outlier – for now at least. Catalogue experts and engineers will talk about contextual listening for different use cases, testing recordings or remasters on everything from high-end studio speakers down to laptops and £20 headphones to ensure tracks sound as good as possible across them all – but they do not talk about specifically remastering for pan-decade Spotify compilations.

“That’s a playlist mentality,” Jessica Thompson, a mastering and restoration engineer based in San Francisco Bay, says of Martin’s statement. “In my world, it’s often about loudness. Is something loud enough to sound comparable to Harry Styles [on a playlist]? It’s a fine line. You want the Beatles to sound good when someone streams them on Spotify, but the art of doing that is mentally challenging. I wouldn’t want that job.”

Currently, the focus is on mastering and remastering for the specific requirements of each streaming service. Gallacher says any decision to remaster music for not just a new format (such as streaming) but also for a specific platform comes with significant costs. “It’s become more of a focus, particularly for Apple Music,” he says of this trend. “Their biggest thing now is working with Dolby; they want everything delivered in Dolby Atmos.”

Kate Bush performing Running Up That Hill in 1985.
Kate Bush performing Running Up That Hill in 1985. Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

At times, this can feel like the trials of Sisyphus for audio engineers and catalogue departments. Music has been mastered and remastered over and over again for different use cases – from CDs in the 1980s, to SACD and DVD-Audio in the late 1990s, through 5.1 Blu-ray, MP3 download, AAC download, the short-lived Mastered for iTunes, lossless audio/FLAC for certain download stores such as Bleep, and now high-resolution streaming such as Tidal HiFi, Deezer HiFi and Apple Music Lossless.

For a new recording, platform-specific mastering can be factored into the overall recording costs and done at source, but for catalogue it presents several financial and sonic challenges. “One of the great limiting factors in catalogue is when the original multitracks have been lost or cannot be located,” notes Dan Baxter, SVP of UK catalogue recordings at BMG. “If this AI [used on Revolver] really works, it opens up a world of possibilities to revisit some of the classics of music history.”

But while technology today allows for gently airbrushing recordings, Thompson says it should be used delicately and sparingly. “We can do things like correct speed anomalies, if a tape was a little wobbly, pull out an electrical buzz or fix a clunky edit,” she says. “The question really becomes: why? What are you trying to improve? When it comes to historic music, I don’t really see the point in trying to stereo-ise a mono recording or create an immersive mix of something that was originally intended to be experienced as a stereo record.”

For Thompson, the push to constantly remix and remaster tracks to fit perfectly alongside contemporary recordings risks ironing out all the kinks and bleaching out the blemishes that made them so special and appealing. “When you veer into some of the newer formats like Dolby Atmos and immersive, that’s where I jump ship,” she says. “If you took a recording from the 1920s, there is no need to make that sound like a Lizzo record. It’s going to sound like it was made in mono in the 1920s. And that’s fine. You can increase the fidelity and make it beautiful to listen to, but let it sound like its era.”

Contributor

Eamonn Forde

The GuardianTramp

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