‘Abbey Road’ Is Music in Surround Done Right
When I heard John Lennon’s voice knifing out of the center speaker toward my armchair, I knew the 50th anniversary remix of the Beatles’ Abbey Road (affiliate link) was something special. From the very first track I could tell this was music in surround done right.
Let’s start by noting that this latest re-release of the final Beatles studio album is not just a remaster but a remix. The CD releases of 1986 and 2009 were remasters — they started with the original mix approved by the band members and producer George Martin, then tweaked it to accommodate new technology and changing tastes. This 50th anniversary release is a true remix. Starting with the original eight-track tapes, producer Giles Martin and engineer Sam Okell have rebalanced the individual vocal and instrumental parts. This is not your father’s Abbey Road.
I was 12 years old in 1969 when Abbey Road hit record stores. That was a vulnerable age when my developing brain suddenly had a heightened ability to soak up new music. My two elder sisters were both Beatlemaniacs, so the music was playing in our home and bonding to my soul. It was a stellar year for a budding Anglophile rock fan, bringing Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones, Tommy by The Who, Arthur by The Kinks, In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, and the first two albums by Led Zeppelin.
Since then I’ve bought three copies of the U.S. Capitol LP and I agree with experts who call them inferior. I was never happy with the first-generation CD from 1986, which always struck me as grainy and strident. A U.K. Parlophone LP from the mid-’70s had superior tone color — notwithstanding the surface noise inflicted by the original owner, who was not as fastidious about record cleaning and handling as I am. With this 50th anniversary re-release I do believe I’ve gotten as close to the heart of this music as I’m going to get.
The 50th anniversary edition comes in various forms including single LP, triple LP, picture disc, single CD, and double CD releases. I went for what Amazon bills as the Super Deluxe Anniversary Edition (labeled just Anniversary Edition on the box spine). It contains three CDs and a Blu-ray disc. The three CDs include one disc for the new remix and two more discs of amusing and illuminating session outtakes. But the heart of the set is the Blu-ray disc which includes a high-resolution version of the stereo remix and two surround mixes — which, notably, mark the album’s debut in surround.
The four discs are pocketed into a beautifully printed hardcover book that fits into a heavy LP-shaped slipcase (though my edition did not include actual LPs). The book features among other things an introduction by Sir Paul McCartney, loads of new-to-me photos by the late Linda McCartney and others, and track-by-track recording details by Beatles scholar Kevin Howlett.
It was fun to read about the studio lore while listening to the music. I found out that bass parts I’ve always assumed to have been played by Paul McCartney on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Oh! Darling,” “Golden Slumbers,” and “Carry that Weight” were actually played by George Harrison. Who would have guessed that George would be such a superbly melodic and agile bass player? A photo shows him actually holding a Fender bass. Paul, ostensibly the bassist, adds guitar and keys to several songs.
At this point less technical readers may diverge from more knowledgable ones and I really don’t want to lose either of you. My fellow techies will be unfazed when I say the Blu-ray disc soundtrack options include a stereo mix at 24/96 resolution, 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio, and Dolby Atmos. For the sake of those whose eyes glaze over in the face of such details, the stereo mix is in a format that exceeds the resolution of standard CDs, so it has the potential to sound better if done right. Alternatives include a version designed for surround systems with five speakers and a bass-making subwoofer, plus another version designed for systems with at least five floor speakers, as many as four height speakers, and subwoofer.
My 5.2.4-channel system included a nine-channel Denon AVR-X7200W receiver, five identical Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v4 speakers, two HSU Research VTF-2 MK5 subwoofers, and four Klipsch RP-140 Atmos-enabled speakers. In other words, five floor speakers, two bass makers, and four speakers bouncing height information off the ceiling. This is the same system I used to review surround speakers and receivers toward the end of my 17 years with Home Theater and Sound & Vision magazines — though the subwoofers are a new addition.
I was especially eager to hear what the subs would do for Ringo Starr’s famous drum solo in “The End.” Spoiler: They did not disappoint. I tuned the system to keep the bass tight and unexaggerated while taking advantage of the additional bass extension. When the remix fattened the bass, it sounded fat. When the remix called for leaner bass, it was lean. There was also timbral subtlety in the bass. I love my reference system better than ever.
I listened to no more than one mix per day to let myself approach each one with fresh ears. Though I had eagerly awaited the surround mixes, I started with the stereo mix, because that’s how I’ve heard this music all my life. I went on to the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix, where most of the revelations were concentrated, and finished with the height-capable Dolby Atmos mix.
By the time my Super Deluxe Anniversary Edition arrived in the mail I had been eagerly reading other people’s reviews. I agree with the general consensus that the stereo remix is punchier, with stronger drums and bass, and that it alters the album’s balance between pop and rock, moving the needle more toward rock. Some parts that were bunched together as the original engineers “bounced” elements from one analog track to another — to fit more than eight tracks onto an eight-track recorder — are separated and relocated in the stereo spectrum.
More than one reviewer has mentioned that the remix lends itself to “listening into” the album — that is, listening more analytically. Perhaps this says more about the reviewers than about the product reviewed. Old codgers who have lived with this music for a half-century can’t help listening to a brave new remix analytically. But I suspect a younger listener hearing Abbey Road for the first time would just think these guys can rock!
That brings us to the surround mixes. Music mixed in surround sound has had a fraught history. It has had to endure endless sniping from two-channel purists who think it sacrilege to expand stereo mixes to 5.1 channels, the basic configuration of surround sound (three speakers in front, two in back, plus a subwoofer track to beef up the bass). Worse, it has been undermined from within by mixers who refuse to use the front center channel for key elements like lead vocals.
The center channel is absolutely crucial to a successful surround mix, whether for movies or music. In movies it anchors nearly all dialogue. That would suggest it should also anchor lead vocals in music mixes — but producers and engineers have failed to take the hint. Far too many surround-for-music mixes are ruined by their underuse (or non-use) of the center channel. The powers that be assume all home systems have inferior horizontal center speakers which are not adequately timbre-matched to the front left and right speakers.
What they fail to understand is that some of those horizontal centers actually do match the timbre of the left and right speakers reasonably well — as someone who reviewed surround speaker systems for decades, I am in a good position to verify that. A timbral mismatch is not fatal as long as it’s minor. Horizontal centers are prone to “lobing” — uneven response from the sum and cancellation of the dual woofers — but smart speaker designers overcome this by adding an additional driver to cover midrange or by tweaking the crossover to be a little different for each woofer.
Those who botch surround mixes fail to serve more knowledgable listeners, like me, whose center speakers are identical to our left/right speakers. If you set up your system according to best practices, you get punished for doing the right thing. The result is that an alarming percentage of what are billed as 5.1-channel music mixes are actually glorified quad (the ill-fated four-channel LP format from the 1970s).
That brings us back to those first few seconds of “Come Together,” John Lennon’s sinister crypto-funker. I had never heard his lead vocal so clearly and the reason soon became apparent — I had never before heard it coming out of the center speaker. There are some stereo-to-surround adaptation modes built into a/v receivers (Dolby Pro Logic II and Dolby Surround) that create a fake center channel. But that’s cheating. There is nothing so direct as a human voice actually mixed into the center channel. When you’re listening in stereo, if your head moves out of the sweet spot, the lead vocal wobbles out of the center position. When you’re listening in well-mixed surround, your side-to-side head movements don’t alter the position of the lead vocal — it stays centered. John’s vocal flew out of the center speaker like a dagger aimed at my throat.
With each successive song, my joy grew. Every lead vocal on every song was mixed into the center, except for some doubletracked or chorus vocals, which spread into the other front channels or, even better, into all four corners of the soundfield (as in “You Never Give Me Your Money”). This thrillingly heightened the contrast between lead and backing vocals. Basic rhythm tracks usually stayed up front, though some embellishments migrated to the surrounds (the rear speakers). The latter included certain guitar hooks, Billy Preston’s organ, and the bubble effects in “Octopus’s Garden.” (A photo shows Ringo holding the glass of water and straw he used to blow the bubbles.)
Some elements got unique treatments. The harsh rush of synthesized wind that ended “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was in all five channels but concentrated in the center. In “Because,” the heavenly choral piece, the electric harpsichord in the front left channel was joined by a unison guitar part in the surround right channel (as opposed to the front right channel in the stereo mix). It was not unbalanced, but it was a different kind of balance, one suitable for the surround medium. In “Her Majesty,” Paul’s album-closing whimsy, the voice and acoustic guitar began at surround right, then panned to front right, center, front left, and surround left. In the stereo version this had been a simple right-to-left pan.
I saved the Dolby Atmos mix for last — in anticipation and, truth to tell, trepidation. I had expected it to add height-channel “air” to the basic 5.1-channel mix and nothing more— but it confounded my expectation by employing the height speakers in varied, unexpected, but always logical ways. In “Come Together,” the height speakers combined with the floor speakers to give the lead vocal a slight lift. In “Oh! Darling,” the lead vocal stayed rooted in the floor speakers, but the chorus vocals in the rear were stronger in the height speakers than in the floor speakers.
In “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” with the lead vocal shadowed by a unison guitar part, the guitar hovered in the front height speakers while the vocal stayed on the floor in the center speaker. The synthesized wind was panned throughout the three-dimensional surround bubble, but the pans were subtle, not abrupt. Rather than jerk the wind around the bubble, the Atmos mix let it undulate menacingly before the final crescendo and cutoff, which remains a shocker in any version of the album.
The Atmos mix is not a world part from either the 5.1-channel mix or from the stereo mixes, new and old. While it makes choices that were not possible in two-channel, it also retains many of the original mix’s stereo placement choices, including the righthand placement of drums in much of the side-two medley (as I persist in thinking of it). The height channels could easily have been overused in, say, the lush chorus of “Because,” or the meaty drum solo of “The End.” Instead they operate in the most subtle manner.
“Her Majesty” ends the album and caps its rebirth in Atmos. The vocal still pans from surround right to front right to center to front left to surround left. The acoustic guitar part follows the same horseshoe-shaped panning — but only in the height channels.
As fine as this four-disc anniversary edition is, a few important items are missing from the Blu-ray disc. It includes the new stereo mix and the two surround mixes — but nothing to represent the original stereo mix. No 1986 stereo CD master, no 2009 stereo CD/download master, no flat transfer of the original mix tape, no needle-drop transfer of a first-generation British LP. Producer Giles Martin should take a closer look at the King Crimson box sets released by DGM and Panegyric, which include one or more of these original elements. It would have been great to have the old and new mixes on one disc for comparison. And there’s a lot of digital real estate on a Blu-ray disc.
A few other tics: The Blu-ray disc defaults to start playing the PCM stereo track. If you want to play the DTS or Atmos surround tracks, you have to pause the music, switch to the desired version, and reverse to restart. This is annoying and unnecessary. I was also a little alarmed when ripping the CDs to a lossless format for use on other devices. The rips of some tracks slowed down my desktop PC’s disc drive so much I feared it would stop altogether. Some Amazon reader reviews relate similar experiences.
Even so, I relish this BD/3CD set for its bold and effective aesthetic choices. My old ears are hearing this beloved album in a new way.