Finally in surround after 50 years, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is getting better all the time

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“Our goal for mixing Sgt. Pepper in surround was to be as immersive as possible.”

Believe it or not, the most important date in popular music history is Sunday, June 1, 1947. That’s the exact date Paul McCartney refers to in the title track of The Beatles’ seminal 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when he sings its opening line: “It was twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.” Always literally and figuratively ahead of their time, those four lads from Liverpool were — and still are.

It was in fact 50 years ago yesterday that Sgt. Pepper was released to much worthy worldwide fanfare on June 1, 1967, instantly turning the record album format into an artform that still holds merit to this day, even in our current track-driven, download-oriented music culture.

Truth is, Sgt. Pepper had immediate and lasting impact on both sides of the Pond. “I can’t overemphasize its significance,” Little Steven Van Zandt, a key member of The E Street Band and the founder of the Underground Garage radio format and channel on SiriusXM satellite radio, said to Digital Trends. “It is the most significant moment in music history, as far as I’m concerned. It’s one of the most fascinating moments in all of culture, and certainly Western culture, in my lifetime.”

One of the major offshoots of this golden anniversary milestone has been the release of the Sgt. Pepper Super Deluxe Edition box set, which contains new mixes done by producer Giles Martin and mix engineer Sam Okell in both stereo and 5.1 surround sound at 96kHz/24-bit. The collection also includes many aurally intriguing early takes from the album’s studio sessions, including 34 previously unreleased recordings.

It’s long been acknowledged that the original stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper was considered to be an “afterthought” since the band intended the album to be listened to in mono — even though many U.S.-born listeners have an affinity for said stereo mix because it’s what they grew up with. But if anyone is qualified enough to even dare update music from The Fab Four at all, it would be the aforementioned Giles Martin, the son of the late Sir George Martin, The Beatles’ prescient producer who passed away last year at age 90.

Giles has been behind the boards for a number of Beatles-centric projects in recent years, having helmed mixes for the Cirque de Soleil production of LOVE in Las Vegas, Ron Howard’s award-winning Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years documentary, and the band’s chart-topping 1 collection, to name but a few.

Sgt. Pepper doesn’t deserve to have a “safe” mix.

“I did train under him from the age of 14,” Giles, who’s now 47, told Digital Trends, about learning the production ropes firsthand from his well-respected father. “And it’s been really humbling to hear how people trust what I’m doing, but I’m probably the one person in the world who feels uncomfortable doing it. I’m always concerned about people thinking, ‘Who the hell does this guy think he is?’ But I’m not doing it because I think it’s a great job opportunity. It’s more of a legacy thing.”

Digital Trends sat down exclusively with Giles Martin in New York to discuss the ins and outs of the 5.1 Sgt. Pepper mix, his surprise favorite in-surround track, and what may be in store for future Beatles-in-surround releases. For now, though, we can unequivocally say that Sgt. Pepper in 5.1 is the true sonic apex of the act you’ve known for all these years.

Digital Trends: What was the starting point for the 5.1 mix of Sgt. Pepper? Was there something that made you go, “OK, now we’ve got it”?

Giles Martin: Well, we didn’t have a huge amount of choice. But it wasn’t like there was a rule we had to abide by, like, “We have to have the drums either on the left- or right-hand side.” Take Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise), for instance. That one has drums, guitar, and organ all on one track. And then there’s a track with thrumming bass, one with percussion, and one with vocals, and that’s the 4-track right there. That’s it. If you want the drums over here, you can’t put the bass on the right-hand side and the vocals on the left, so you have to ADT [automatic double track] stuff.

You start off with mixing the easy ones, like Getting Better. And it’s a great one to start with, because the guitars, the pianos, and the other keys are all separate tracks.

The brief guitar solo on Getting Better has a lot more muscularity to it now. I’d never really heard it that prominent before.

Yeah, and it’s double-tracked. And for the Dolby Atmos mix we did for when the album was played in theaters, we have it left and right, then it shoots toward you in mono, and then it moves outward. That’s the kind of fun you can do with it.

We do that if we have the tools to play with. As I said, it’s not like there’s any set rule for how we do the 5.1. I did have certain quirks where I’d say to Sam, if something’s too discrete, you wouldn’t put the lead guitar from Sgt. Pepper in the rear. That would just be too much.

I call that the Lucky Man effect. When the original surround mix of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Lucky Man came out on DVD-Audio back in 2000, Keith Emerson’s Moog synthesizer solo was furiously going back and forth in the rear channels, and that sounded very wrong to me.

I had been working in Studio One [at Abbey Road] when someone came in who had been working on What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, and I heard the guitar behind me. My reaction to that particular track was, with that particular record, you want to be right next to the band onstage.

Right — you want to feel like you’re in the middle of the experience. I do think what you did with A Day in the Life is one of my favorite surround pieces I’ve heard to date.

“You want that final E chord crescendo on A Day in the Life to go right through your skull.”

Thank you. On A Day in the Life, it’s also playing with perspective as well. There are four takes of the strings on four separate tracks, and we put those in separate speakers and have them moving and coming together, and so the final bounce of those four I put in the center channel. When we first had them in two discrete channels at the end, it wasn’t as intense. You want that final E chord crescendo to go right through your skull. It’s all about feel. 

Another point here is you’re also mixing this material for a younger generation who maybe think of Sgt. Pepper more like, “Oh, that’s my parents’ music.” Do you feel the new stereo mix will open up a door for that newer, vinyl-listening generation?

Well, I hope so! And the vinyl actually sounds great too. We had it cut a few times. It was mastered by Miles [Showell] at Abbey Road, who does the half-speed cutting. We did the master cut before we did the vinyl cut, but after he’d done it, we still felt it was a touch too bright. He EQ’ed a few things, but I was still unhappy with it. We actually wound up changing the limiter he was using. I know, I’m a real pain. (both chuckle)

No comment. You’ve told me before you felt LOVE was one of the best surround mixes out there. Do you feel the Sgt. Pepper surround mix is in the same league, or are they two different things in two different lanes?

I think they’re in two different lanes, because Sgt. Pepper is an album. But I pushed Sgt. Pepper to be as much like LOVE as possible. LOVE was designed to be a surround project, and making it a stereo mix was very difficult for me.

It is actually pretty difficult to listen to LOVE in stereo once you hear it in surround, especially if you’ve been to the show at The Mirage in Las Vegas.

Yeah, and I really wasn’t even into making a record of it, or a CD. I wasn’t into that. After we did the mix for the show, I realize we had to, but that was never part of my thought process.

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Working on Sgt. Pepper, I did realize we may have been too safe with the surround on the 1 collection for various reasons, and Sgt. Pepper doesn’t deserve that. We threw everything at Sgt. Pepper for 5.1 as we possibly could, knowing that our goal was doing something that immerses people. You can listen to it and you can go, “I’m in this album.” That’s what you want to do. But whether we did do that, it’s not for me to say.

Oh, I’ll say it. Is there one favorite surround moment for you on Sgt. Pepper?

There is — and it’s funny you should ask that, because it’s not what you would think it would be. It’s the breakdown section in Getting Better. That section has tambouras coming out at you. The tamboura [a lute that supplies a droning sound, not unlike what is heard in Indian music] in the stereo mix is in one speaker. Sam ADTed it, so we now have them swirling around to where it’s like a brain freeze. Suddenly, it goes from this cool pop song into this [makes whirring noise], and then the bass comes, which was never there. I’m sure that’s what they wanted. It’s a small thing — but that, for me, is the kind of detail that shows why we do it.

You played these mixes personally for Paul McCartney. Did he have anything to say about the surround mix? I know he, Ringo, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison all had to sign off on it.

He was just really happy about it. There’s an element of trust there. But he was more interested in the stereo, and the vinyl.

The great thing about doing the surround mixes second was I realized we were going to push the stereo as far as we could, but not have it be cheesy. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds is a good example of that — we’re literally following Paul’s hand across the musical spectrum where the keyboard is all around you, without being corny.

And then there are other things like the drum fill in With a Little Help From My Friends, where we chopped it up so it’s slightly fragmented left and right. And that means you can hear Ringo’s hands playing, even though it’s on one track. Does that make sense?

It does, because many of us have seen the clips of The Beatles live on Ed Sullivan, the Eight Days a Week documentary, and The Beatles Anthology, among other things, and your surround mix gives us an even better way of visualizing what they looked like doing what they did in the studio for Sgt. Pepper. Last question: What’s next for The Beatles in 5.1, or are you not allowed to say?

I can’t say, because I honestly don’t know what the next thing is. But I can say there will be more 5.1 stuff. I would do the entire catalog in 5.1 if I could, but, well, it’s not up to me. It’ll be up to whether the people want it.

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