Best Ever "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band"?
The album had been remastered at Abbey Road but it was felt that another version should be mastered elsewhere, in America. A mastering engineer friend called and asked if I knew where to get ahold of the particular model Studer machine used to originally master the album and I did!
Geoff Emerick arrived in New York with the master tape housed in a lead container under his arm and my reward was to get to hear it and meet Geoff. Not bad!
I took the opportunity to play for him Mobile Fidelity's stereo version and a red Japanese Odeon mono edition. Emmerick listened to the Mo-Fi for a few minutes and then insisted I take it off the turntable: "That's rubbish!" he exclaimed angrily. "They tipped up the top end." I recall him calling the EQ "grotesque" but my memory might be embellishing.
In any case the playback was memorable as you can imagine though at this point my system is much better than what was in that mastering suite. However, I wouldn't try to tell you that my sonic memory is good enough for me to remember what I heard so I could compare that to this new reissue or to the original pressing for that matter.
As I was about to leave the mastering suite I was given another "reward" for my efforts and that would be an unmastered CD copy of the master tape! And no, you can't have a copy. My understanding is that the 30th anniversary reissue was never released because no one could agree on which mastering was better on a track by track basis and so they just gave up.
Honestly, that CD sounds quite good for a CD as you might imagine, but I never took the time to compare it to my original UK pressing. Nor did I immediately think to pull it out for this review until I had a chance to listen to this vinyl reissue and compare it to the original.
Forget about analog vs. digital: this reissue sounds not at all like the original pressing. It has been completely re-imagined via EQ or whatever to sound like a completely different album. It's almost like what happens when a great work or art is "restored" and the patina that has accumulated through the ages is removed revealing a more colorful, three-dimensional vibrant edition.
Not everyone likes when that happens and there's no real way to know what the picture actually looked like when it was first painted though art historians have a good idea. Still, fans of fine art and of certain painters seem never to be happy about these restorations.
Once I'd listened to this reissue and compared it to the original I realized I had that CD so I excitedly retrieved it from the dusty CD rack and compared. Very interesting!
But first, let's talk about the reissue. If your brain synapses are arranged around the original pressing, as mine is, the opening few tunes are an absolute mind blower. I remember buying the American original at an E.J. Korvette's in Douglaston, NY. back in the spring of 1967. I had gone there just to see what was new, not knowing Sgt. Peppers... had been released. In fact I walked past the big display not knowing it even was a Beatles album! Like the cover itself, the store, perhaps at Capitol's behest had no signage!
Once I realized what it was, of course I bought it. I drove home too quickly, pulled out my little vial of bad weed, put some in a tobacco pipe and took a few tokes in the backyard of my parent's home (I had returned from college), ripped off the shrink wrap, slipped the record on my parents' Dual 1009SK, put on my Koss Pro4A headphones, flipped out the lights and had a listen.
For most of it I just sat there mouth hanging open but when the hounds and the fox hunters crossed between my ears I lost it and started laughing far louder than I thought because suddenly my mother was shaking me and asking what was going on? Talk about quick downers!
But enough about me! Here's what I think is going on here: when this album was originally mastered in 1967 the monitoring gear was not nearly as good as it is now. Abbey Road now uses B&W 800D speakers for that. This reissue features a totally new EQ compared to the original pressing.
It's a far more transparent sounding record. Instrumental separation is maxxed out almost like a 3D movie can be generated from one shot in 2D. You hear it immediately in the audience sound effect at the beginning. The audience is further back in space and more individual details emerge.
At first, the sound is startling. In some ways it sound like the album has been repainted on black velvet with each individual element now separated from what had previously been a carefully woven tapestry. It's as if the mix has been picked apart to give each element more to say.
Yes, the original sounds somewhat hazy by comparison as if on the reissue the proverbial veils have been lifted (an audiophile cliché) I try to avoid. Bass is deeper and fuller, the midrange is far clearer and transparent. "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" has always been a sonic painting suggesting neon but now the tape loop effects are neon against a black velvet background. I'm not going to do a track by track "walkthrough" as in the Revolver review because the EQ differences are remarkably consistent throughout.
The only negatives here are that the voices appear to have been EQed to a prominence that creates excessive and very mechanical sibilants. There's a sameness about the sibilants that's suspicious: do all four Beatles really have the same sibilant signature? Or is it either the microphone or effects characteristics that we can now hear with greater clarity?
Either way, what sound like real people on the other side of the microphone, though somewhat obscured, now sound very, very clear but somewhat artificial. You believe each Beatle is singing in front of you, as their voices exhibit a continuousness that the reissue seems to fracture slightly. For instance on "She's Leaving Home," Paul is "right there" on the original, though somewhat shrouded in a haze. On the reissue he's more transparent but slightly granular. Is that "the digits" as in an art restoration artifact? Or just a revelation of what's been hidden in the EQ haze?
It's also as if the haze might have been purposeful to obscure the tricks and to help produce a wholeness about the proceedings that tries to hide the individual elements.
Well, all I had to do to get some of the answers was to play that CD!
I can tell you this: the original pressing sounds much more like the unmastered CD than the new reissue sounds like the unmastered CD! That tells me the original pressing is a closer replication of the master tape than is the new reissue.
But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the reissue. Quite the contrary. It's a modern restoration based upon better monitoring gear at best, or 'modern' ears at worst. You can either hear it as a restoration or a correction or as blasphemy.
I hear it as both a restoration and a legitimate correction. However it is so different than the original that it cannot possibly be a replacement. It's a valuable addition. I think every fan of the record needs both, any old one will do (except for the Mo-Fi, which is a 'rubbish' re-imagining), even the Capitol original, which while not great, is not a 're-imagining', just a less than satisfactory facsimile.
So, is this "the best Sgt. Pepper... ever? Your call but it's the first "must have" in the box in my opinion. I still prefer the original because I'm wired to prefer it but that's just me. The reissue includes the original insert and an additional, very worthwhile one, much of which is about the cover art. Both the cover art and pressing quality on my copy were very, very good. The stars aligned on this one!