Nearly a quarter-century after the Beatles and digital technology came together at the dawn of the CD era, the Fab Four's entire recorded legacy is getting a major sonic overhaul that is widely considered long overdue. All of the group's studio recordings will be reissued Sept. 9 in remastered versions and are expected to generate renewed excitement about the Beatles' blue-chip catalog and pump millions of dollars into a beleaguered music industry.
The upgraded editions come long after many other classic rock groups' recordings have been updated two and three times since CDs were introduced in 1983. All of the music will be released on CDs -- with plans for digital distribution still being worked on -- on the same day "The Beatles: Rock Band" edition of the popular video game series premieres, bringing the group and its music in front of new listeners in a dramatic new form.
"It has been a long time coming," said Martin Lewis, a Beatles scholar who was U.S. marketing strategist for the 1994 "Live at the BBC" album and the three volumes of the "Anthology" series that followed. "The Beatles are the only artists that can get away with having such a long delay in remastering their catalog.
"But however frustrated fans may be for the 22-year wait since their music first appeared on CD, they're not going to be disappointed in the results," said Lewis, who is not directly involved in this project but who has heard some of the recordings at EMI Music's Abbey Road Studios in London, where the remastering project has been underway for four years.
All 12 studio albums will be reissued in their original U.K. configurations, with original album artwork and liner notes, as well as new essays, detailed historical notes, rare photos, previously unreleased studio chat among the band members and other extras. Apple Corps, the record company the Beatles established in their final years together, and EMI Music, which owns their recordings, announced the release Tuesday.
Those recordings have continued to sell strongly and attract new generations of fans long after the quartet disbanded in 1970. Since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking retail sales in 1991, more than 57 million Beatles albums have sold in the U.S. In 2008, 1.4 million copies were sold, according to SoundScan.
But EMI and Apple have taken criticism for taking so long in getting the remasters out, especially when the health of the CD format is in question.
"There will be cynics who will point quite accurately to the vanishing CD marketplace," Lewis said. "There's no doubt it will not do as spectacularly well as had they reissued them in 2001 in the wake of the '1' [hits compilation] album, which has sold 31 million copies worldwide and 8 million in the U.S. But any cynics who say the Beatles have missed the boat will be wrong. This will sell exceedingly well and will be a huge boost to the recorded music industry.
"And if the CD is going to die," he said, "the Beatles are going to give it a superb wake."
In addition to taking advantage of technological advances in sound reproduction, the CDs will be embedded with a short documentary film about the making of each album "for a limited period," the statement said, without detailing what quantity or time period that entails. The CDs will be available individually or as part of a new boxed set including extras; no price details were given.
Several of the group's earliest recordings have never been issued in stereo on CD, and the new versions will represent the debut of the full catalog in stereo. "Magical Mystery Tour," which was issued in England as an extended play disc with six songs, then expanded into a full album for its U.S. release, will also be included in the full album configuration, as it appeared when the original CDs came out in 1987.
A second boxed set, "The Beatles in Mono," will bring together the monaural mixes of the albums. All Beatles albums before 1969's "Abbey Road" were intended by the group and longtime producer George Martin to be heard in mono.
"Hopefully this will bring to the attention of Beatles fans just how important those mono mixes are," said Chris Carter, host of the long-running "Breakfast With the Beatles" weekly radio show, now on KLOS-FM and Sirius/XM. "The mono mixes of those LPs is the way the Beatles themselves intended you to hear those albums. The stereo mixes were usually done as an afterthought by second engineers without any Beatles present.
"Without getting too technical, for the Beatle fan who has listened to the stereo albums for the last 30 or 40 years, the mono mixes actually have noticeably different bits musically."
In recent years, surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as well as others within the Beatles camp have said there were no plans for remastering the music. The secrecy is consistent with the privacy with which all matters relating to the Beatles are guarded within Apple and EMI. However, McCartney has said that he expects the band's music to become available digitally this year. The Beatles catalog is considered the most significant body of music still not available for downloading.
In addition, Capitol Records, the Beatles' U.S. record label, recently has been expanding its series of vintage albums reissued on vinyl, and many within the Beatles community expect the group's remastered albums also will appear in that configuration as well. A spokesman for the group said Tuesday that no one from the band or the record label would be available to comment beyond the information in the news release.
Even though the recordings are not being completely remixed the way the "Love" soundtrack from the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas was, consumers should expect a significant improvement in sound quality from the remastering process, historian Lewis said.
"If people are listening to their music through iPods or cellphones, they may not hear much difference," Lewis said. "But on something as sonically superb as what the Beatles and George Martin created, it needs a physical carrier equal to that, and the [sound] files you can get on a CD are of a quality you can't get on MP3.
"This music was recorded with what we could think of today as Neanderthal caveman conditions. But the actual recording work done by the Beatles and their two main engineers, Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick, is absolutely remarkable. . . .
"The Beatles catalog is the Rolls-Royce of contemporary music, and every indication is that they've spared no expense," Lewis said. "We can be disappointed or bemoan the fact that it's taken 22 years, but from what we're hearing, it appears they have done it right."