Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution

Image result for howard goodall sgt pepper

Did you see Howard Goodall’s BBC programme about Sgt. Pepper? I thought it was a fine tribute, emphasising how fortunate we are for the existence of the Beatles.

Howard did his usual thing of analysing the finer points of the music and how it relates to classical and other forms, playing the piano and singing to illustrate his points. He showed that twelve of the tracks on Sgt. Pepper contain “modulations”, where the songs shift from one key to another – revealing very advanced compositional skills needless to say. But I don’t think that the Beatles ever really knew or cared that music is ‘supposed’ to be composed in one key and one time signature – they were just instinctive and brilliant. To me, it suggested that formal training might have stifled their creativity, in fact.

He supplemented his survey of the tracks with Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane which although not on the album, were the first tracks produced from the Sgt. Peppers recording sessions.

The technical stuff about studio trickery and how George Martin and his team worked around the limitations of four track tape was interesting (as always), and we listened in on some of the chat in the studio in-between takes.

Obviously, I checked out what versions of the album are available on Spotify, and found that there’s the 2009 remaster and, I think, the new 50th anniversary remixed version..! (Isn’t streaming great?)

Clearly the remixed version has moved some of the previous hard-panned left and right towards the middle, and the sound has more ‘body’ – but I am sure there is a lot more to it than that. The orchestral crescendos and final chord in A Day in the Life are particularly striking.

At the end of the day, however, I actually prefer a couple of more stripped back versions of tracks that appeared on the Beatles Anthology CDs from 1995. These, to me, sound even cleaner and fresher.

But what is this? Archimago has recently analysed some of the new remix and found that it has been processed into heavy clipping i.e. just like any typical modern recording that wants to sound ‘loud’. Archimago also shows that the 1987 CD version doesn’t have any such clipping in it; I won’t be throwing away my original Beatles CDs just yet…


6 thoughts on “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution

  1. I think the new remix being “processed into heavy clipping” is overstating it. Miles Showell said that he used “a little bit of gentle limiting for the digital version” while forgoing it for his vinyl cut (I haven’t encountered any clipping distortion):

    The differences are pretty subtle; with the DR8 CD measuring as DR10 on vinyl. Here’s a comparison between the CD version and the vinyl capture of one song:

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  2. Thanks for that info, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about it! The logic of using compression, clipping or “limiting” for the digital version but not the vinyl is completely the wrong way round: Digital has massive dynamic range, while vinyl has higher noise floor, and restrictions on bass, treble and left/right differences. And this is more than just a change of dynamic range – which is what a ‘DR’ value suggests. If they go into any sort of clipping, they are generating actual, horrible, gritty distortion and grunge.

    With digital they had the opportunity to *really* showcase the record, but it looks as though they have messed it up. Hopefully they have at least archived the digital transfers from the multitrack tapes in a non-clipped state so they can do it properly in 2042! (Or 2031, when it will be 64 years..?)


    1. Hey, I totally agree about digital being the medium to exhibit the benefits of dynamic range. Ideally we’d just unlimited files like the release of some Paul McCartney remasters (I think “Ram” and “Band On The Run” were released with an unlimited version). I was just pointing out that the limiting applied to the digital release of this album was quite judicious, especially considering the near ubiquitous crushing that is applied to most other contemporary releases.

      I really enjoy this remix. The few dB of limiting applied to the digital release compared to the vinyl is nowhere near enough to justify the latter format’s inherent flaws. There are unlimited versions of the original Pepper’s mix, to be sure, but I think the remix has plenty advantages over it — slight peak limiting notwithstanding.


      1. Paradoxically, the older I get, the more I am seeing things in absolutes – in audio at least. The best sound *is* when the system is completely ‘straight’.

        For me, the clipping can’t be called judicious, because I don’t think there should be any at all (beyond what was there in the multitracks). If the justification is that it is an artistic effect, then they would have put it on the vinyl too. Clearly they are sacrificing ultimate quality in order to meet some arbitrary expectation about the ‘loudness’ of a digital recording.

        It’s the principle of the thing! 🙂


        1. The standard explanation for why there is no “need” for limiting on vinyl is that the format requires you to listen in a controlled (i.e. quiet) environment. The digital version can go anywhere and will thus have to compete with ambient noise in the car, or when listening on crappy earbuds on your phone via streaming service, etc. And of course, it has to “compete” for loudness against other modern recordings.

          I came of musical age around the release of “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” by Oasis, which was a landmark “loud” album. So basically everything has been loud for me. When I come across a DR8 album, like this Pepper’s remix, I consider that to be dynamic! Again, the more I’ve come to care about how sound recordings are produced and reproduced, the more appreciation I’ve gained for truly dynamic recordings. But they are rare these days (Jack White’s recent solo albums and James Blake’s “The Colour In Anything” are notable exceptions). For a time, I thought vinyl is the solution to the loudness wars, but I became disillusioned:

          As for compression/limiting and artistic effect, the current state of loudness can create pressure on artists themselves to want their mixes crushed at the mastering stage. It’s like a feedback loop, or vicious cycle, where it artistic intent becomes difficult to nail down.

          To be clear, I want digital recordings with less limiting! We’re on the same page. I’m not an expert in film/broadcast TV standards for loudness, but perhaps a standard for music releases should be considered. Albums could be mastered to a target loudness, which could relieve some pressure on artists and engineers to allow them to leave peaks in tact. The same goes for loudness normalization on playback from streaming services. If Spotify is going to turn down a loud recording for you, thus creating lots of empty headroom, perhaps artists/engineers will be inclined to use that space.


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