I’m working on a new project which, unless UK copyright law radically changes, will only be available if you pop round my house 🙂
In 1960s the predominant form of music recording was in mono. Indeed, The Beatles weren’t involved in many of their stereo mixes.
If you listen to some of those early tracks, you’ll get an idea of how stereo worked back in the day. For example, here’s the right speaker from “I Wanna Be Your Man”…
…and here’s just the left speaker…
While there’s a little bit of mixing going on – the vocals are almost entirely constrained to one side. If we take a look at the waveform, we can get an idea how how diverse the stereo track is.
Here’s the left of “Get Back”
…and the right…
Slightly better mixing – although you’ll note that the lead guitar is exclusively on the left. The effect is almost as though you are standing on stage with The Fab Four and have them playing all around you. Almost…
What would it have been like if 5.1 surround sound was available back then?
(As an aside, some of their later solo work was released in Quad format.)
If you have a surround-sound system, it is likely that it will try to “upmix” a stereo recording. That is, use digital jiggery-pokery to play the sound in all the speakers. But that’s an imperfect substitute. Sounds get muddled together and the whole thing sounds a bit shabby.
Due to the limited nature of The Beatles’ recording technology it’s hard to get pristine, discrete tracks of Beatles sessions. That is, a file which only contains the bass guitar part, or a track with just the vocals.
Until, that is, The Beatles Rock Band video game!
For the game, engineers went back to the original master tapes and separated each element of the recording. Rock Band has a simple premise – play along with the track – if you miss a note, it doesn’t make any noise. So the game needs individual guitar, drums, bass, vocals, etc.
On some songs, it’s clear that these are pure extractions from the original tape.
Here, for example, is just the bass-line from “Get Back”:
On others, it appears that the engineers have done the best that they have with limited mono and stereo recordings. Have a listen to this “solo” drum track, again taken from “I Wanna Be Your Man”:
It’s fairly obvious that the track has been digitally recovered and cleaned. It’s muddy with artefacts and just sounds like a synthetic extraction.
Tomorrow Always Knows
So, this is what I’m doing. Taking those multitracks and assembling an album which attempts to recreate The Beatles’ stereo sound in surround. Ringo behind you, Paul’s bass on your right, John singing off-centre, and a George solo shining in the corner.
I’m not an audio engineer – I’m not trying to create a beautiful modern album with perfectly mixed levels and a blended sound. I’m also trying, as far as possible, to stay away from fancy audio tricks and sweeping sound effects.
I want you to feel like you have been magically transported inside Abbey Road and have the Fab Four surrounding you.
Here’s a snippet from “Get Back” in 5.0 OGG format. You need to listen to it on a surround sound system in order to get the full effect.
As you can see from the waveform, all the tracks are fairly discrete, which makes it simply a matter of deciding which channel to place them in.
Take a listen to this “Dear Prudence” sample on a 5.1 system. You’ll hopefully notice that some of the music is deliberately placed in the virtual “rear” speaker – that is, it should appear to come from directly behind you (assuming your speakers are properly calibrated).
Well – that’s my summer project. You’ll find some similar works done by much more talented remixers floating around the web. But if you ever want to hear my take on the classics, you’ll either have to pay me a visit or wait for copyright laws to regain a sense of perspective.