Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 next week — so what's been done to celebrate one of the greatest records ever? They've remixed the entire album! The word "remix," in fact, may not capture the scope of the project — it's more like someone rebuilt a pyramid with fresh bricks. But a question remains: Why would anyone do so? I traveled to New York to meet Giles Martin, who spearheaded the project, to find that out.
Giles Martin is the son of George Martin, who originally produced and mixed the album. In fact, during George Martin's senior years, as his dad was losing his hearing, the 19-year-old Giles Martin served as his father's ears.
What's important to understand is that in 1967, albums mixed in stereo were still fairly new. You had to buy a system with two speakers to play those records, so albums were offered in both mono and stereo. (1967 may have been the rough turning point in the U.S. where stereo began to outsell mono — but still for many producers, mono remained a primary focus.)
When George Martin mixed Sgt. Pepper's, he spent three weeks mixing the mono version and three days mixing the stereo version. A few years later, mono records were hardly to be found, so the elder Martin's 1967 stereo mix became most everyone's de facto version.
For this 50th anniversary edition, being officially celebrated on June 1, Giles dug into the Abbey Road archives and found the original recordings, along with his father's meticulous notes, to make a new stereo version. Hearing my favorite album of all time remixed was a bit scary, but it's truly stunning.
Giles traveled to NPR's New York bureau with a laptop bearing the original mono and stereo versions along with his new mix. On this edition of All Songs Considered, we explore the case for remixing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in conversation with Giles.
The album and its many bonus tracks, packaged in many forms, will be out May 26.
Why remix it?
"I mean, it's the most famous album of all time. It's not as though it sounded bad. But if you think about when Sgt. Pepper was made, which is 50 years ago, it was really designed for mono, and the band spent a lot of time on the mono mixes. The mixes, in those days, were a performance [there was no automation, all hands were on the mixing console], they were live — and the band, with my father George Martin and with Geoff Emerick, mixed Sgt. Pepper. When the stereo [mixes] were done, they were done very quickly. But no one listens to the monos."
Why it sounds clearer now
"We now can go back to the early generations of tapes. It's hard to explain, but my father had to record everything on a four-track — that means you can record four things on one tape. And that was bounced to another four-track. [Each time sounds are bounced to another tape the sound degrades]. What we do is we go back to the previous generation [the original tapes], so we're mixing off generations of tape that they never mixed off. [Martin here is referencing the final takes of each instrumental part, which were transferred to four-track tapes, which were then used to create the final mix.] So it's almost like a car that comes straight out of a paint shop. The tapes are glistening. What was recorded in '67 sounds pure and crystal clear — there's not any hiss or anything. And with this version of Sgt. Pepper that's what we try to do — we're trying to get you closer to the music."
On making Ringo's Drums come to life
"You know, one of the criticisms of the stereo of Sgt. Pepper was that you couldn't hear Ringo. Now we can have kick drum, because if you think about that time in 1967, there was a protection [system from producers and mastering engineers] with records then, so you didn't get the needle to jump out of the groove. We've done a great vinyl cut of this, which we did half-speed, so it's a much more precise cut. We still use the same techniques, we've just developed them."
On the weight of expectation
"You're challenged by this weight of expectation, but the joy is actually just finding how great Geoff Emerick's engineering was, how great my dad was as a producer, how organized the recordings are and, you know, the beauty the arrangements — and how great the Beatles were at playing."