Something which happened half a century ago recently reminded me, for a couple of distinct but very much related reasons, about the fundamental importance of using sound to express where you’re at and what you’re doing.
Because it’s 50 years, there or thereabouts, since The Cuddly Mop Tops released With The Beatles, their second album. The first one, Please Please Me, had made them British icons. By mid-1963 they were all over the place and everyone, from your wee sis’ to your gran, knew about them, if not perhaps all about their music. With The Beatles, released on November 22nd 1963, boosted them to the toppermost of the poppermost.
Enough of the re-trodden journo-babble already. Fact is, it’s a beautiful, pure, vibrant work that still shimmers half a century later. And, very recently, I rediscovered why.
The curious thing is that if you download the recent iTunes release, which is effectively a stereo re-mastered version of the original mix, it’s almost unlistenable, particularly if you’re listening to it through headphones. Essentially, the vocals are in the left-ear and the chunk-chunk of the instruments is in your right. You just can’t really appreciate it – disappointing, to say the least, particularly if you’re a bit of a Beatle Nut like me.
Put your headphones on and take a listen
You know “mono“? That’s the sound of everything mixed together, “in the middle” of the sound. It’s how you used to have to listen to records. When stereo sound came along, back in the fifties, it was very exciting because it seemed like the sound filled the room. Mono, gradually, got phased out and replaced by the stereo sound.
But not before The Beatles and other poptastic artists had had their way. The thing about popular music then was that people usually liked to listen to it, in all its trebular glory, on a transistor radio. Instead of surrounding you, the sound would hit you direct in the face, with John, say, in the lead and the rest behind him or just next to him. Separating it all and spreading it round the room was ok when you were listening on your stereo / music centre / hi-fi separates but not when you were getting it in one fabulous adrenaline rush out of the tranny at work or maybe in the car. That’s where the thrill was, after all. In any case, stereos were for rich old squares.
These days, of course, many of us listen on our wee mp3 headphones, a lot of us on our smartphones. So it’s back to the future as we demand instant gratification, music as and when we want it and at the front of our head, not coming in at each earhole.
But that’s not what the good boffins at EMI delivered. When they mixed With The Beatles for iTunes, they put it out as a stereo recording, vocals on the left and the rest of the right. They obviously hadn’t considered their audience properly.
I thought I simply had to do something about “With The Beatles”. So what I did was drag my iTunes track into my Digital Audio Workstation and slapped things called “stereo spread” and “direction mixer” on it. This not only moved the sound to the middle but I was also able to move John and Paul (and George and Ringo, when it was their turn) back to the front (they’d slipped off to the side of the re-mastered iTunes “original”).
Hear what I mean?
All of which reminded me.
- They didn’t half know how to make records in those days – no flies on the EMI boffs in 1963!
- John Lennon was gifted with the most fantastic pop vocal. Searing, exciting, it stopped us in our tracks, wherever we were and whatever we were doing.
- Sound can be ignored, for the most part, or can inspire, in the most amazing ways. If it’s ignored, that’s because its creators don’t really consider its impact or perhaps have misunderstood their primary audience, just like EMI did in 2009 when they mixed With The Beatles for the iTunes generation. If sound inspires, that’s because someone gives a damn and understands their audience.
Next time you’re putting together some media – a video promotion or a podcast – think about what it sounds like, how music or speech can motivate and stimulate. Churchill did it, JFK did it, Doctor King did it. So did John Lennon and The Beatles.
And you can too.
I acknowledge that EMI retains copyright in the original recordings from “With The Beatles”. The two reproductions here are to make a point about the overall value of sound.