Sgt. Pepper Smackdown

Ah, the joys of new formats and remastering. As Tommy Lee Jones famously said in Men In Black, “I guess I’m going to have to buy the White Album again.”

This time, it’s worth it. We waited for years into the CD era before The Beatles’ catalog was finally issued. Even at the time, the reaction was kind of, “meh.” Sgt. Pepper in particular always sounded a little wrong to me. So with the recent re-issue of the remastered catalog, I’ve started to pick up a few and see how they work out.

Today I sat down with the ’87 and the ’09 versions on my CD changer, and switched back-and-forth a track at a time to note the differences. What I found was that the ’09 is a big improvement. The sound is warmer, and fuller. Where the old one was mostly harsh highs and muddy lows, the new has rich midtones, modulated yet more present highs (especially as regards the vocals) and a cleaner, clearer bass.

The title track brings more focus into the center, while keeping the spacing of the lead and background vocals (far left, and far right, respectively). The horns when they come in have more “space” around them. While this recording will never have the three-dimensionality of a good orchestral recording, it goes much further than the old as far as making space between instruments and clarifying their positions across the soundstage.

“With A Little Help From My Friends” always suffered in the original CD. Especially in my car (not that I was testing there) it was just dreadful. Where the old had a thin vocal, a harsh guitar and a bass that was kind of tubby, or slappy, or something. The new is warmer — though still a little metallic — in the vocals, and the bass is much more focused.

“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” has a much more present lead vocal, better bass, and a really nice sense of “spread” when the multi-track vocal splits apart after the second verse. I also liked the separation between the lead vocal and the guitar that doubles it.

“Fixing A Hole” has a warmer and fuller sound too; the harpsichord opening is more clean, with a sense of an acoustic instrument more than a synthesizer, and the lead vocal is mixed beautifully to fill all the way across the soundstage evenly.

The more natural-sounding acoustic instruments are especially noticeable on “She’s Leaving Home” and “When I’m 64”. In the former, the ‘cello and upright bass sound smoother and more real, and there’s a better sense of ensemble with the violas and violins. In the latter, there’s real distinction in space among the clarinet trio, and their sound is warmer and more natural. The bass sounds like a bass, not like some kind of electronic hum.

“For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” really shines. Where the old was kind of thin and flat, the new has more space and depth, and the crazy calliope cut-and-paste at the end really brings that old psychedelic thing back.

“Good Morning” pulls a lot of recording tricks out of the bag, and makes a good test of a stereo system. Here’s one place the old one succeeds better (though in a minor way) from the new: the chase from right-to-left is a smoother transition. But that’s more than made up for in the punchy sax ensemble in the new (is that a bass sax in there?) and the easier-to-listen to vocals.

Oh yes, and then there’s “A Day In The Life.” The Beatles’ magnum opus is well taken care of. The old is really rather flat compared to the new, to put it simply. The remaster gives it more punch, and a bigger dynamic range. It’s especially noticeable in the big runups, which fall kind of flat in the old one. The percussion instruments have a deeper and more details sound (the maraca in the left channel stays in more consistently), and the stereo balance tricks, like the movement of the lead vocal from right-to-left in the second verse, are very convincingly rendered.

And the final piano chord is really there. The group had asked for a couple of things that never made it into the US pressing. First, two 15kH tones after the end of the fadeout; then a loop of laughter and patter in the inner groove. The inner groove made it into both CD versions, but the 15kH tones are, I think, only in this one. You can’t really hear them, but you can feel them. It also gives a little more space before the nonsense inner groove.

Somebody took my old “Revolver” CD, so I’m not going to be able to do an A/B of that. I’ll just enjoy the new one.

Oh, what did I listen on? A Rotel RCC 955 5-disc CD changer; an NAD 116 preamp cabled to an NAD 2600 power amp; and a set of Vienna Acoustics “Bach” speakers.

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