[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]
Back in September 2019, I was invited to London to hear the new 50th-anniversary edition of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album. The listening session took place at Abbey Road itself, inside the hallowed Studio 2 where this album (and so many others) were created.
Technically, it was the best-recorded album of The Beatles’ career as the studio had upgraded from its original 3- and 4-track machines using 1/4-inch tape used for everything up to the White Album. The band and producer George Martin could now avail themselves of the latest 8-track recorders using much wider tape, which resulted in much better audio. Abbey Road is also my favourite Beatles album, a record so familiar — I literally grew up listening to it — that I know every tiny nuance in those recordings.
What I heard astonishing.
Giles Martin, George’s son, had been entrusted with enhancing a 1969 recording with 21st-century technology with the input of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. If I had to draw an analogy, it’s as if a hitherto imperceptible haze has been removed from a window. The new view was clearer, sharper, and more vibrant. The vocals were more realistic, the steel guitar strings brighter, and Ringo’s drums thunkier. I swear you can hear Paul’s fingerprints slide along the windings of the strings on his bass. I love this version of the record.
However, that feeling is not universal. There are those who believe that classic recordings should be left alone. Not only were they just fine the way they were, but altering their sonic properties is altering history itself. There was considerable kvetching about the refurbished editions of other Beatles records, especially Sgt. Pepper. Changing the sound of such a classic album changes the way you perceive it, the way you remember it, the memories the music conjures, and even the emotions associated with the music. Music industry commentator Bob Lefsetz has been very vocal about his displeasure.
It’s no longer the important record you remember. It’s now artificial, a facsimile of what made it great in the first place, enhanced in the same way food is with a dash of MSG. Why would you mess with perfection?
Meanwhile, even Apple is sending some mixed messages. Eddy Cue says this (via Audio Media International):
“Apple Music boss Eddy Cue says most people can’t tell the difference between compressed and lossless audio but he believes that spatial audio is ‘a game-changer’.
“In a recent interview with Billboard, Cue, who is Apple’s Senior VP of Internet Software and Services, admitted that: ‘If you take a 100 people and you take a stereo song in lossless and you take a song that’s been in Apple Music that’s compressed, I don’t know if it’s 99 or 98 can’t tell the difference. For the difference of lossless, our ears aren’t that good.’
“He went on to say that to say that only audiophiles with ‘incredible ears’ can really tell the difference, but that this requires ‘very, very high-quality stereo equipment.'”
I disagree. What Eddy seems to be doing is tamping down expectations for those people who are expecting angels to start singing. No, you won’t notice it if you use crappy or boomy headphones/earbuds. But any kind of better audio will be noticable.