If It Sounds Good - It Is Good!
— Duke Ellington

Sgt. Pepper's Redux (or, Happy(ish) 50th!)

Fifty years...wow.

Let me start by saying that this is going to be more technical (yep, more DynamicsLUFSpeak) than musical criticism here. Since the 50th Anniversary Remixes came out on the 26th I've been giving them a spin through the Apple Music Machine, and doing some comparison to the 20th anniversary that came out on CD in 1987 (and was my big exposure to the full length as a young Engineer) and it's been one of my favorite albums ever since. Sgt. Pepper's is my 2nd favorite Beatles full-length (Revolver is my first, FYI) and I'm quite impressed by this new Remix as a whole, but I also have some concerns with the final product and some of the decisions made in the process. I've run it through my 'Dynamics Check' rig and provided a few screenshots to illustrate my quibbles.

Like all music criticism, it's subjective and personal and you might find what I say a load of whatever, but as an Audio Engineer I wholly believe that quality shines above trendiness. There is plenty of quality to be found here, but some things leave me scratching my head about why they were done. Regardless of my observations, it's still a masterwork and an inspiration for many, many musicians after 50 years. This has not changed in this release. :)

So, onto the spoiler bullets and 'TL:DC (Too Long; Don't Care)' bits:

  • Should you rent/buy/listen to it? Most certainly yes.
  • How does it sound? Giles Martin and Sam Okell did a very respectable job at updating the mixes and they are a delight to listen to. That said, there are some issues that I personally don't care for.
  • This is a 50-year old album. Who cares? Everyone who isn't you kiddo. If you haven't heard it, you'll never know...

Okay, into the depths...

The overall Dynamics are a bit overhyped. It's not Popfodder Hypercompressed® like many songs we've examined in the current 'Chart Hits', but in comparison to the 1987 release (which has its overcompressed moments as well), this version was seriously taken up on the loudness scale (see Chart below). It's still listenable and enjoyable, but I can hear a good deal of overcompression in multiple songs and certain parts. This may be from conversion of 50+ year old masters, or it could be any treatment for noise or other artifacts in the original recordings, or it could just be how they wanted it to sound. It could also be all of the above. Regardless, I really wish it was 'toned down' a few dB overall.

I compiled a Chart comparing the Peak to Short-term Loudness (PSR) and Peak to Maximum Loudness (PLR) readings from Dynameter, letting every song play so I could get as accurate a PSR and PLR as I could. I also did the same for three of the tracks I felt were changed the most from the 1987 CD version. The new Remixes are pretty hot for Macro and (especially) Micro Dynamics...

They're honestly all over the place, especially when compared to the 3 tracks from the '87 release. For modern Streaming values, we should be looking at about 12 for the overall PLR and floating around the 8 mark for PSRs. Although some are very close, most are all several dB off that scale, especially on the PSR (Micro) side. Even though Apple Music is keeping everything level-matched with SoundCheck, I still found myself 'tweaking' the playback volumes at times to counter the loudness discrepancies. This is not what should be happening here, and could be considered 'low level' Loudness War material at these levels. Again, the original could get pretty hot in places too (check out the PSR/PLR of Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! from the '87 version), but since it was at a much lower overall volume level, this was more tolerable and even novel for the time as the rest of the tracks fell into more reasonable loudness levels. 

On the overall curve, here's the frequency response and Dynameter readings for the original 1987 CD release (opening track, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band) at about 1:30 in:

And the 2017 Remix - same track, same approximate time:

Note a couple of things: First, the overall curve is incredibly similar in both (if you ignore the gain adjustments) - they did a great job at matching the overall response from the original release. Very nice. Second, notice how much the bass frequencies have been boosted, not only in actual volume, but in frequency response - I'll talk more about this in a bit.

Now compare Dynameter between the two cuts (sorry about not expanding it in the original - trying to get the screencap at the right time). It's not horrible, per se, but it is showing the increased gain and a pretty good bit of dynamic reduction. It's 'Modernizing' the mix (obviously), but IMO they went a wee bit too far into the red here. Truthfully, most won't notice the change (except for it now sounds louder, which they will perceive as 'better'), but it will affect playback loudness on streaming - even with Spotify now at -14 LUFS normalization. Argh.

Lastly, check that high end rolloff curve - it's beautiful. That's what our ears like, and sooooo nice to see that they didn't push it into the extreme as so many songs feel they have to today (like the dreaded 'EDM Bubble' boost around 10k). Doubleplusgood bonus points here. :D

Okay, about that bass. On pretty much every track, McCartney's bass sticks out like a sore thumb. It was pronounced in the previous versions, but it was nowhere near as up front as it is in the '17 Remixes. On my Blue Mo-Fi's, Beyer headphones, and B&W 601's, it gets just downright annoying at times, stealing the show and overshadowing other elements. I loves me some nice bass (and this is classic McCartney after all), but the upped levels, panning changes and extra EQing downward tends to shift the focus to the bass guitar while masking many of the other instruments (and the opposite panned side too). I did a quick trip through Air Pods from my iPhone as well, and although it's not as overbearing as on my other reference monitors (as expected from small drivers), the bass still dominates as mentioned above - sometimes even more so depending on the pitch being played. Seeing as earbuds are how most will listen to this it makes me wonder if this was an oversight on final referencing... I can't prove this (obviously) but it sounds to me like Paul was there saying 'take me up a bit..' quite a bit during the mixdown. Also, the guitars sound more 'pushed' into the background than on the 1987 version. This might be a way to clear space for the elevated bass and drums, but takes away some of the power and bite from the orignak, it's another decision I don't particularly care for.

Moving on, let's check out A Day In The Life through the Dynamics Check setup - here's the 2017 Redux version:

And the 1987 CD version:

Again, great overall curve matching, but if you compare the Y Axis scale, that's close to a 6dB jump in overall gain, and instead of the original rolloff around 50ish Hz, it's extended down to past 20 Hz (and look at the RMS (dark green) curve in the back - it's got to be down to 14-15Hz now!)  This is one of the more tasteful of the mixes bass-wise IMO, and although the extended range is welcome with today's playback systems, some of the bass notes notes just stick out of the mix, distracting the listener for everything else going on.

As many are raving about, I would be amiss not to mention the drums. As a drummer myself, I've always appreciated Ringo's tasteful playing and incredible timekeeping - and it's been brought out in full on the Remixes. All the subtleties and flourishes are clearly audible and delightful - but they can also be a bit on the harsh or even bombastic side at times (and there was a lot of drum emphasis in the 1987 release, but like the bass, nowhere near as present). At around the minute mark on A Day In The Life the toms are really pronounced, and in combination with the bass guitar (both panned hard right) it's an odd balance that tilts the mix in a strange way - I would find myself instinctively leaning my head to try and counteract the panning level. In the '87 release, the drums are more centered and have a perfect blend with the other instruments. If we go 47 seconds into Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Ringo's 4 tom hits before the first chorus are really hyped up, and you can either hear the original distortion from the mics, or additional saturation has been added for effect. If you listen to the 1987 version, the drums are panned hard left and again have a good balance with the mix. The 2017 Redux version are placed front and center and too just much 'in your face'. We all know that the beat is prominent in today's music, bit I feel that finding every little way to show off his playing is not needed in such quantity, and the original balancing would have been great with the improved sonic quality. Perhaps he was present at the mixing session making suggestions as well? Perhaps trying to 'One up' McCartney? We'll probably never know. The Reprise of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (even with the high PSR/PLR) and Lovely Rita are great examples of the improved clarity of the drums - until it starts fighting with the bass, and you just sigh and focus on the other parts...

Within You Without You and When I'm Sixty-Four are the standouts of the whole lot, btw. The new mixes give them a polish that the originals didn't have, and I can even tolerate the extra bass on Sixty-Four as it's well balanced with the clarinet. Kudos. A Day In The Life has a tendency to grate a bit during the middle and end orchestra swells, and that damned bass overwhelms yet again, but it's a still a great song and a great ride.

I am going to get on that soapbox one more time and say that if you were going to go through all the trouble to make this edition then why didn't you make it a showcase of not only cleaner sound, but current mixing and mastering techniques? Sgt. Pepper's is still held up as 'how to make a record' in songwriting, playing, production, and mixing. Giles and Co. could have commemorated the 50th Anniversary (and his father's legacy) by making this the 'new standard' by which mixing and mastering would be compared. To be absolutely clear, I'm not knocking their accomplishment - it's truly impressive and I'm looking forward to the remainder of the outtakes, behind the scenes info and 5.1 mixes. But I firmly believe they missed a real opportunity here.

Alright, that's enough of my ranting for this week. :)

All griping aside, this is a great remix (in the traditional 'actually mixed again' sense, not an 'add moar beetz n' boom' remix) and the bonus material is a great romp into additional takes, outtakes, and what could have been. I think I still prefer the original CD release (nostalgia perhaps) for most of the songs, but this is well worth the listen and also well worth adding to your collection just for the clarity of the mixes. As you give it multiple listens you begin to notice the elements that you never did before - kind of like that first time I heard it on CD as opposed to vinyl.

And so we come come to the closing Bullet Points:

  • Was this complete remixing necessary? No. The original stands quite happily on its own as a true classic work of art, and one that influenced a lot of pop and rock for the last half century. This Redux is for keeping that dream alive and exposing new generations to its magic.
  • But this is a Remix, right? Why wasn't it updated with moar Beetz and Dropz and Stuff? Not everything needs the 'EDM Treatment' kids. If you want to hear a bit more creativity from the Beatles catalog, check out Love. (That 'Within You Without You / Tomorrow Never Knows' mixup still gives me chills to this day)
  • Is it a great way to celebrate that anniversary? Hell yes. Giles and company did an great job at keeping the feel of his father's mastery and updated it for the next few generations to enjoy. Even with my complaints (and as always Your Mileage May Vary) it's a great listen.
  • Is Sgt, Pepper's still relevant today? Go here and scroll down to Number 1 (also see #3, 5, 10, and 14). It's part of our DNA as musicians and artists, and its influence is still being felt to this day. So yes it's still $#*^%@! relevant.

Enjoy the Redux for the Herculean effort of just compiling all of this material together for the 50th Anniversary and the cleanup involved with it. The older version(s) are still available if you want to step back in time, and like all things Digital you can create a Playlist of the new and the old and create your own 'perfect' version. I will.

In closing I will leave you with this quote from the title track: "they've been going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile..."

Happy 50th Sgt. Pepper. :)

Redux Redux

Spotify moves to -14 (!)