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  • Writer's pictureNeil Rajala

EC BUYERS GUIDE - 2023 Red + Blue = ?

There was a time when these two Beatles compilations were all your LP collection needed, if you weren’t a completist or obsessive. A lot of friends and family didn’t have the disposable income or storage space for the size collection I was building, so to cover their fab four essentials, the Red (1962-1966) and Blue (1967-1970) double LPs were a must. If you paid a visit to somebody’s home and they pulled out either or both for a little taste of the Beatles, that was 100% fine, the same way Hot Rocks always satisfied a craving for the Stones. I owned several other Beatles albums but still played the Red and the Blue comps to death. They were, and are, a perfect selection of songs. To this day, I’m just as likely to pull out one or the other or both when I want a fix, and in my head the sequence of songs is so locked in that, when I’m Beatle-ing, I tend to anticipate the next song as the one on Red or Blue maybe more often than the next song on the original albums. They’re the colorful stone tablets of Beatles music, for casual or rabid fans.

It was BIG news among the faithful when remixed, remastered, and expanded versions of both sets were announced for November of this year. The new versions would be 3 LPs each, rather than 2. More Beatles, more better, right? Most of the tracks on the 1962-1966 collection would be completely remixed by Giles Martin, using Peter Jackson’s AI-supported software to separate the individual instrument and voice tracks on the original tapes. A natural soundstage was gonna replace the folded down mono, arbitrary split-channel fake stereo, of the original albums, a process already proven to work marvelously on the Revolver reissue. The tracks on the 1967-1970 would be presented in the cleaned up, punchy stereo mixes Giles had already created for the later album's deluxe reissues of the last few years. Plus more songs. They were going to be a delightful holiday treat for Beatlemaniacs everywhere. But there were some odd choices made with these releases, real head-scratching stuff. I was on board originally to add both of them, either selling off or adding to my originals, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen now that the all-new Red and Blue are in the world. Let’s take a closer look at ‘em, shall we? I'll talk about the CDs a bit, but mostly the vinyl because that's what I was geared up for.

Packaging – The set is expanded from 2LPs to 3, as I mentioned, but the gatefold is the same. Instead of redesigning the jacket to be a tri-fold, with a separate pocket for each record, you get one in its own space and the other two stuffed together in the other slot. When all three records are in there, the gatefold doesn't fully close. Did Apple/Capitol really feel the need to cheap out on this part? Was the cost of new jackets a deal-breaker? They could have produced tri-folds with more photos and/or liner notes than the originals. Beatle fanatics would have salivated even more profusely.

Vinyl - No issues here. By all accounts, the records are pressed on heavy, high-quality black and colored (red and blue, of course) vinyl, with little to no surface noise. They were made at QRP in the U.S. and Optimal in Europe, two of the world’s finest record pressing plants. Job well done.

Songs – The big draw for collectors, fans, and owners of the original versions was, of course, the additional LP of songs not included on previous versions of the Red and the Blue. George gets a fairer shake this time around. It could be (and was) argued that his songs were woefully underrepresented on the originals. You get more George on both volumes. Some of the band’s fan-favorite early cover versions, like “Twist and Shout” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” are included this time out, as well. Curiously, the new additions weren’t added chronologically to the song lineup. The originals followed release date order and told a compelling story of the band’s creative daring and growth. On both of the new releases, the additional songs are lumped together on a third LP that doesn’t even get its own home in the jacket. (The CD is different, we'll get to that in a sec.) Giles Martin and Co. were using state-of-the-art AI sound mixing technology to make the songs sound better, but they couldn't be bothered to correctly re-sequence the results? They really didn't want to make a tri-fold jacket, did they?.

The ”new” Beatles single, “Now and Then” gets a spot in the lineup, kicking off LP #3 of 1967-1970. Which begs the question – why aren’t the other two post-Lennon Beatles singles, “Real Love” and Free as a Bird,” included? My guess is that Apple/Columbia wanted to get both “Now and Then” and the new versions of Red and Blue to market before the end of 2023, the 50th anniversary of the original 2LP releases. Going through the Giles/Jackson de-mixing and reassembling process would have likely delayed everything until next year.

Sound – I'm not going down the deep, deep rabbit hole of Giles Martin's remixes, or Peter Jackson's groundbreaking "de-mixing" AI technology. I’d like everybody reading this to stay awake until the end. If you have a few days, you can dive into all that at your leisure elsewhere. To put it simply, the new technology allows Giles and his team to separate the individual instrument and vocal tracks from the original mono and fake stereo mixes we all came to know and love on the originals, and create new mixes with a more natural soundscape. Ringo’s not isolated in one speaker while John or Paul’s vocal is locked into the other, for example. The original Abbey Road studio recording tapes were used for both new volumes, meaning, in theory, full analog warmth and presence on vinyl, with no compressed digital step (except…well, we’ll get to that.) Reports on the sound quality, and my streaming experience, are mostly glowing.

I’m already in the camp in favor of Giles’ messing with the beloved original recordings, so this was probably the biggest draw of the new Red and Blue for me. The fake-stereo created in the early- to mid-60s by EMI’s engineers from the mono mixes, without the group’s involvement, remains the biggest flashpoint for fans arguing in 2023. Some, like me, really enjoy the new possibilities. Giles’ recent version of Revolver, for example, is a breathtaking and revelatory listen in my book. On the other side, a lot of long-time, graybeard fans have expended a lot of energy proclaiming loudly that the original wonky stereo mixes are what they grew up listening to and loving, they are the Beatles' canon, and nobody should ever change them. The debate is a personal one, and I go with what my ears like, so the resulting sonic changes on Red and Blue are, to me, the most enticing part of the reissues.

Pricing – No bargains to be found here, but not outrageously above current market value either, with one anomaly. 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 are sold either as individual sets, your choice of black vinyl or colored to match the covers, or in a slipcase with both volumes, again in black or colored versions. A quick rundown, using the suggested list prices* from the official Beatles website:

The Red or Blue individual black vinyl sets - $75.98 each

The Red or Blue individual colored vinyl sets - $79.98 each

The Red and Blue 6LP slipcase, black vinyl - $149.98

The Red and Blue 6LP slipcase, colored vinyl - $174.98

The Red or Blue individual 2CD sets - $29.98 each

The Red and Blue 4CD slipcase - $59.98

The mathematically astute among you may have noticed the wtf? entry. If you add up the individual prices of the black vinyl 3LP sets, buying them together in the 6LP slipcase actually saves you a couple bucks. Buy the colored vinyl versions together, though, and there’s about a $15 premium for the box. Another inexplicable Apple/Capitol decision - it's the same damn box.

*If you’re an obsessive Beatles completist, getting all of the versions of the new releases will set you back a mere $756.82. I did the math so you don't have to.

CD version - The double CD versions are their own animal completely. The covers, for one thing, are laminated and glossy in a way fans have complained the vinyl covers aren't. Unlike the vinyl sets, the song sequencing on both volumes is in full chronological order, what most fans were wanting. And, of course, the CDs are much easier on the wallet. So why not settle for the CD versions, assuming you still have a player? Because Apple/Capitol doesn't care about you outdated, un-hip digital customers, they know vinyl is the contemporary cash cow. I watched a couple of sound analyses of the finished products online and what fans are getting on CD is much different, which is to say much worse. The lack of dynamic range and the piling on of limiting compression on the CD tracks harks back to the regrettable days of the CD “loudness wars” of the 1990s and 2000s, when volume won out over sound quality. I thought we had all come to agree in later years that those wars were a bad thing, what with the consumer ear bleeding and all. Is it somehow cheaper to produce CDs that way, I wonder? If not, why would Apple/Capitol make that mastering choice? Another mystery.

The Bottom Line - I'm happy to listen to high quality streams of the new versions of 1962-1966 and 1967-1970. My Qobuz account doesn't use the new CD masters, I'm sure their customers would've grabbed pitchforks and torches if they had. I'll be keeping my much loved, much played original sets. The new versions are a lot of cash to cough up just for the curious or completist. A little more thoughtful consideration from Apple/Capitol, a little more intention to create the definitive Beatles story, and they might have had this on-the-fence fan reaching deep into his wallet. As presented, I'll let 'em be.

How about you, fellow Beatles fan? Have you, or are you planning to, pick up one or both of them? If you are, tell me why. If you're not, tell me why.

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1 Comment

Dec 06, 2023

I bought the originals when they came out and played them to death until my physiology discovered the Stones. I sold them and later tried to get blue and red vinyl versions when that first became a thing about thirty years back. Eventually I found a couple pristine original pressings and was amazed at how good they sounded on modern equipment. Boom, done, I was all set with the Red & Blue collections. This new version does nothing to change my mind even with the AI rejiggering which is indeed tasteful and enlightening and makes the songs sound almost too good. And that maudlin dirge of a "new song" is so gimmicky it cheapens the entire project. Though comprehensive I…

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