Featuring remixes, rarities, hi-res digital audio and more, Paul Rigby reviews the Super Deluxe box set version of Sgt Pepper and compares it with previous stereo and mono editions
The original Sgt Pepper album was a final culmination and refining of a musical revolution. And make no mistake about it, The Beatles were responsible for a complete and wide-ranging revolution in music in terms of creation and production. After this LP, the rest of the world looked on and saw what was possible. It seems understandable, therefore, that Sgt Pepper should be the subject of a lavish, CD/Digital-based box set.
The album itself is mixed by Giles Martin and Sam Okell in stereo and 5.1 surround audio (not remastered, you understand, actually remixed) from the original four-track master tapes and expanded with early takes from the studio sessions, including no fewer than 34 previously unreleased recordings. You’ll find a mono version of the album here too plus a 24bit/96kHz version of the album, 4K standard promotional films for Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane and A Day In The Life plus The Making of Sgt Pepper, a restored, documentary film (broadcast in 1992).
Also included are posters and a 144-page hardcover book packed with new interviews and rare images
The entire box is contained in a lenticular 3D collage slip cover.
So how does it sound? I grabbed the original stereo album from this box set and compared it with the version found in the 2009 stereo CD box set. I chose With a Little Help From My Friends. The remix centralised the vocals far more than the 2009 version giving Starr a more important and controlling role in the song. The addition of further reverb increased the perceived soundstage too. Much was made of McCartney’s new found bass lines in the 2009 version but, after the novelty had worn a tad, I found that bass guitar over-bearing. The remix corrected this, retained the bass but eased it into the mix as a partner to the rest of the instruments. The same could be said for the tambourine which took on festive bell proportions at times in the 2009 version. Here, the balance was much improved.
I then moved to a complex piece, George Harrison’s Within You Without You and it appeared that Martin and Okell had benefitted from improved studio kit here because there was a real improvement in terms of noise on this track. Despite a measure of compression being evident, it was far less harsh in presentation while being open and spacious in terms of the midrange. Harrison’s vocal was a great improvement, being softer but also more direct and persuasive in his tone.
I then turned to the mono CD version of Sgt Pepper and selected Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds and its unique psychedelic mono mix from the recently released In Mono set with – unlike its Stereo sister – reduced inherent compression.
Again, the new edition was the winner here. Not only were the mids smoother and more accessible to the ear but the vocal moved away from the backing instruments a touch which helped the emotive delivery.
As for those instruments? The rather hollow sound of the drums on the earlier edition had now gone to be replaced by a more complex and intricately organic rendition. Finally, the enhanced clarity of the psychedelic swirling effects increased the ‘out there’ atmosphere of the arrangement.
Finally, When I’m 64 is a beautifully delicate arrangement. If you listen careful, there’s lots going on with heaps of subtle instrumental interjections and moments to draw the ear.
The new box set’s track was a little odd because, at the standard volume I used throughout the test, the music was too full on. Bass was a forced and balance was out of kilter. I had to knock the gain down two clicks to return the box set version to an acceptable volume which made me question the levels on this track. Once reduced in gain, though, the new version revealed how the subtle aspects of the song were eased towards the ear: cymbals, the rather shy piano and even the bit at the end where McCartney is clearly smiling as he’s singing, all were now more recognisable.
This is a magnificent set but possibly not for the reasons that were initially envisaged. The book is great, the posters a nice addition, the bonus studio session work lovely to have and the videos and surround sound a useful addition. For me, though, what stands out here are the original albums in stereo and mono. Why? Because they offer you the best versions of this album currently available on the market. They provide sensible and logical mixes. Finally, Sgt Pepper sounds ‘right’. Both of the new versions blow the official box set versions away. Simple as that.
Which means? Martin and Okell have – yes have – to work on a completely new set of Beatles remasters based on these new mixes at some point in the future. I’m sorry but having heard the possibilities in this box set, it has to happen. I would strongly suggest to Apple that they push out 24bit/96kHz versions of all of the albums with CD versions of the same in the same presentation box, if necessary.
Then – I know there will be howls of protests at this – both men need to look at vinyl for the same reasons. I know, I know, the “What…again?” brigade will protest but I, for one, am in the yearning process, already. After hearing this box set, you will be too.
To learn more, click www.thebeatlesonline.co.uk
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Reid Geisenhof21st December 2018 at 3:38 pm
What’s a curmudgeon to do? For a lot of years I held the original mono mixes of the catalog to be the final word. The sacred canon, blessings bestowed upon us by the very gods themselves and not to be f*cked with, thank you very much. The thought of a 5.1 mix would have been too wicked to even entertain. But the work Martin has done on both Sgt Pepper and the white album has completely changed my (tiresome, probably) opinion on the subjects.
The thought of Tomorrow Never Knows in 5.1 has me school-girl giddy!
Paul Rigby21st December 2018 at 5:26 pm
Ahh Reid…I share your pain and your unsettled demeanour. I retain my secret love which is the album in mono on vinyl (played by a quality mono cart). On CD though? When I look at my once beloved Mono CD box set I’m sure I can see an almost ghostly label, floating close to the cover which says, ‘Obsolete’. Upon which I slump into my chair.
Dermot22nd December 2018 at 12:32 pm
As long as there’s engineers around like Miles and Sam then the Beatles will never just disappear into the etherland of downloads and whatever strange format pops up in the future. I know one thing though and it pains me to say it, the Beatles will definitely outlive the vinyl format 😱
Anyway Paul thank you for entertaining us this past year. We really do appreciate your efforts. In the meantime this just a heartfelt message to yourself, your patient wife and family at this Christmas time. Sincerely hope it’s a happy one to auger in the New Year with renewed hope and continuing good health. Roll on 2019!
Paul Rigby22nd December 2018 at 8:26 pm
That’s very kind of you, Dermot. Thanks for taking the time to write. I hope you have a lovely Christmas and a peaceful New Year. And yes, she’s a one in a million 🙂
cybernaut12th January 2019 at 4:16 pm
Nice review !
Happy New year !
Paul Rigby12th January 2019 at 5:41 pm
Thank you – and a Happy New Year to you too 🙂