For my final project in Advanced Audio Production at NYU, I created a 5.1 surround remix of the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun.” You can download it here. If you don’t have surround playback, you can listen to the stereo version:
I was motivated to create a surround remix of a Beatles song by hearing the Beatles Love album in class.
I chose “Here Comes The Sun” because I have the multitracks, and because I heard potential to find new musical ideas within it. Remixing an existing recording is always an enjoyable undertaking, but the process takes on new levels of challenge and reward when the source material is so well-known and widely revered. Much as I enjoy Beatles Love, I feel that it didn’t take enough liberties with the original tracks. I wanted to depart further from the original mix and structure of “Here Comes The Sun.”
The remix is a well-studied musical phenomenon. However, there has been very little study of the aesthetic qualities of surround sound in music. Most of the extant writing is technical in nature. For surround aesthetics, I drew mainly on our class discussions, and on studies of surround sound in film.
Why mix in surround? Owsinski lists some of the aesthetic arguments. There’s the obvious fact that the added spatial dimension creates another avenue for conveying musical information. There are more subtle factors as well. Surround gives enhanced sonic clarity, since the spatial separation of voices lets the brain distinguish between them more clearly. Also, there’s more of a feeling of spaciousness without introducing artificial reverb and its accompanying diffusion.
All of these technical advantages aside, Kerins believes that surround obtains its power from a much more primal source, our memory of being in utero:
[H]umans begin life in the sonic environment of the womb, where they can hear but do not see [and] hearing is literally a result of movements in the air around us, giving sound a physical presence implying both nearness and contemporaneousness that image does not have. Both lines of reasoning suggest that ‘surround sound,’ which places more speakers around the auditorium (more physical presence) to envelop listeners with sound (as if in a womb), should enhance sound’s inherently intimate nature and promote immersion.
All mixes aim to maximize immersion; working in surround gives an automatic advantage.
Concert Realism, Hyperrealism and Surrealism
There are three major approaches one can take to music production. Concert realism strives to recreate the experience of the concert hall with the greatest fidelity. Hyperrealism is an attempt to go beyond reality, to create greater instrumental presence or richer sound than was actually present, while still conveying a realistic feeling. And surrealism dispenses with the real world entirely, creating a soundscape that could not physically exist outside of the recording. The Tonmeister tradition values concert realism, as do most jazz and showtune recordings. Rock and pop music from the Beatles onwards usually favors hyperrealism. Sometimes the hyperrealism is superficially similar to concert realism, with EQ, compression and the like used subtly to enhance a mostly “realistic” sound. For example, Neil Young’s Harvest and Harvest Moon albums are meticulously mixed to give the impression of a straightforward document of the band playing in an intimate setting. The Beatles became famous for their blend of overt hyperrealism and even more overt surrealism, using sounds that were conspicuously altered, distorted and otherwise unphysical. Their approach has become the de facto pop standard.
“Here Comes The Sun” is comparatively straightforward as late-period Beatles recordings go. Nevertheless, it has its hyperrealist and surrealist touches. The acoustic guitar is the dominant sonic element, giving the song a pastoral quality. However, the Moog synth creates a competing science-fictional feel, especially since it has a different tone every time it appears. The strings are close-miked and compressed, in keeping with the Beatles’ usual practice, making them sound almost like a Mellotron. And the entire track is vari-speeded slightly fast. Pollack observes that “[t]he vocal parts sound as if all sung by George on overdub, with backing vocal parts used here primarily for their ‘bold font’ highlighting effect.” While Paul McCartney sings the high harmony parts, he blends into Harrison’s tone to the point of disappearing.
Surround sound can be used for realism, hyperrealism and surrealism. For realist productions, the performers will generally be in the front speakers, with reverb and reflections in the rear speakers. These environmental sounds are generally captured live via the same microphone setup that records the performance. Alternatively, the mix might place the listener in the center of the band or orchestra, though this is more of a hyperrealist approach. Surround creates unprecedented opportunities for wild surrealism, though this potential remains largely unexplored outside of a few experimental recordings.
For my own surround mix, I opted for a mixture of hyperreal and surreal elements. I hewed to tradition in placing the vocals and other foreground sounds in the front, and more atmospheric sounds in the rear. However, I also added surrealist touches, for example, randomizing the panning of the handclaps so they roam freely around the sound image.
Little has been written about the aesthetics of surround sound in music, due to the format’s comparative rarity. However, surround sound is ubiquitous in movie theaters and increasingly common in home theaters as well. Film theorists have begun in earnest to examine the capacity of surround to convey artistic meaning. While their insights into the interplay of sound and image necessarily have limited application to music, there is enough overlap to merit some discussion. It is no accident that filmmakers first seriously embraced multitrack sound in the context of musical films like Woodstock and Tommy. Kerins explains that these films aimed to create “a sort of participation, a communication between the audience shown in the film and the audience in the movie theater. The space of the film, no longer confined to the screen, in a way became the entire auditorium, via the loudspeakers that broadcast crowd noises as well as everything else.” It is also no accident that Disney’s Fantasia was a pioneering surround experiment. These films all aimed to create an otherworldly, transporting experience, rather than a “realistic” one.
In conventional narrative film, the surround speakers rarely draw attention to themselves. Dialog, foleys and music largely play from the front channels, with atmosphere in the side and rear. The only time that narrative film puts foreground sound into the surrounds is to overwhelm the audience with more sonic information than they can follow, to create intensity, surprise or anxiety. As Kerins puts it:
[T]he surround channels are particularly well suited to representing danger precisely because they portray the unseen… While a theoretically limitless number of sounds can be used in the creation of a soundtrack, perception has much stricter limits. Psychoacoustic research shows that humans can only pay attention to a limited number of sounds at once; re-recording mixers know this and hence shape their soundtracks to focus audience attention on only two (or at most three) perceived aural objects at a time… [Surround sound’s] discrete channels make it possible for audiences to hear more sounds at once; the limitations described above beg the question of how useful that capability is if those audiences can only process a small fraction of the sounds they are hearing. Occasionally, filmmakers may want a mix to include more sounds than an audience can process, since this strategy creates particular emotions… Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2003) at one point mixes a child’s voice into all five channels simultaneously so that it cannot be associated with a single location. In this scene, the lead character is recalling something her son had said to her, and it is his voice that plays all around the auditorium. The effect is to add an ethereal, voice-in-the-head effect that not only fits the eerie tone of the horror film but also helps code this bit of dialogue as ‘not-really-there,’ especially in contrast to the tightly localized, front center channel-mixed voice of the mother that immediately follows.
Of course, anxiety is not the only emotion that surround sound can evoke. It can also create a feeling of interiority, of being inside a character’s head, the sonic equivalent of the POV shot. When we hear in surround, we hear as the character does, with sounds coming from all directions, not just the front. This feeling of interiority is a very valuable one for music; what is a recording for, if not to put the listener inside the head of the performer or composer?
The Exit Sign Effect
Filmmakers are generally reluctant to put too much foreground information in the surrounds for fear of the “exit sign effect” — by drawing our attention away from the screen and toward the viewing environment, surround sound can pull us out of the movie. As Kerins observes: “Historically, technologies intended to ‘put the audience in the movie’ have often had precisely the opposite effect. 3-D is an excellent example: the polarized or two-color glasses needed to create 3-D images constantly remind viewers that they are only spectators in a theater.” Music has no exit sign effect — consciousness of the visual environment does not distract meaningfully from the experience. We are already accustomed to filtering out visual distractions when we want to pay attention to the music; we simply have to close our eyes.
Music as Dreaming
Benzon conjectures that music, at its best, is a kind of waking dream. In peak musical experiences, whether playing or listening, people often report that they “stop thinking.” Benzon observes that you don’t actually stop your brain activity in these situations. Quite the opposite is true; music-making or listening requires your brain to fire on all cylinders. So what is stopping? Benzon identifies it as your internal narrator, the module of your brain that creates your social self-consciousness. This module also gives you the ability to create explicit narrative memories and to imagine the future. This narrator module is not a specific anatomical region of the brain; rather, it is an emergent process resulting from the interaction of many brain regions.
During peak musical experiences, you stop thinking about the past, the future, and your own motivations and intentions. You simply exist in the moment, fully absorbed by your bodily sensations. This is probably the same mental state that most animals inhabit all of the time, and it’s the one you experience in dreams. Sagan hypothesizes that dreams are the lizard-like parts of our brains exploring and making sense of the neocortex. As for the sense of floating and flying that music can evoke, Benzon notes that you frequently experience these feelings in dreams, a further hint that dreaming and music are related. It’s possible that the brain activities producing your social self are connected to the ones maintaining your sense of bodily orientation and location. When you suspend one, you suspend the other. Surround sound can make the dreamlike qualities of music all the more vivid and intense. Rather than attending to a particular location in space, the listener is immersed in the internal space of the music.
I aimed to create a “dream” version of “Here Comes The Sun.” The song already occupies two different realities, the pastoral one implied by the acoustic guitar and simple lyrics, and the surreal one implied by the synthesizers. I wanted to bring the surreal aspect more to the forefront, by making the synths more prominent, by removing guitar and by adding vocoder and delay.
Why Remix the Beatles?
Rock fans revere their favorite albums as sacred texts. Beatles albums are particularly prone to this kind of iconic worship. Electronic and hip-hop musicians view their favorite recordings quite differently. We dig the crates searching for raw material for further creative work. We regard sampling, remixing and mashing up tracks to be the sincerest form of homage. There is no better way to get inside a recording than to remix it. The process of considering alternative mixing, editing and effects decisions forces you to engage in the active and analytic listening called for by Moylan. My own understanding of and admiration for the Beatles has deepened profoundly since I began to actively engage their material as a source of my own music.
Remixing the later Beatles albums feels particularly appropriate because they are more like electronic music than straightforward rock. The advances in recording technology that gave the late Beatles albums so much of their imaginative sweep also contributed to their feeling of alienation. In the early years, the band recorded by getting together in a room and playing live to single-track tape. By the end, however Paul McCartney could use multitracking to play every instrument on “Back In The USSR” and “Birthday”, as if he was Prince recording “When Doves Cry.” Many of the later Beatles songs can hardly exist outside of the recording medium. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a pure studio concoction built around tape loops, essentially an analog techno song. The ending of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is more like Aphex Twin than Chuck Berry. And the Beatles were enthusiastic early adopters of the Moog synthesizer and the Mellotron.
Given how electronic and futuristic their sound was, it is a shame that the Beatles have never allowed anyone to sample them. Fortunately for would-be remixers, Beatles multitracks can be found circulating on the internet. For now, remixing these stems mostly happens beneath the radar. We can hope that the band’s heirs will eventually release the multitracks into the public domain, and let a thousand remixes bloom.
The Beatles Love
The Beatles Love album is the only remix/mashup project sanctioned by the band. Intriguing though it is, Love merely whets my appetite for alternative Beatles. Giles and George Martin took a largely conservative approach to their mixes by the standards of the electronic dance music community. While there a few genuine mashups and dramatic reworkings on Love, for the most part it consists of the intact originals with some samples of other songs sprinkled into intros and endings.
Jordan shares both my excitement and frustration. Here, he describes the album’s opening sound collage, rich with inspiration.
[A]n upwelling of sound slowly builds to a peak (in fact, it is the final, fading piano chord from ‘A Day in the Life’ played backwards), only to be abruptly cut off by the opening anticipatory chord from ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. That is immediately followed by Ringo Starr’s drum solo from ‘The End’, here looped to become a new rhythm track for ‘Get Back’ with the orchestral ladder from ‘Day in the Life’ showing up in the background, along with crowd noise, making the whole enterprise into a sort of meta-commentary on the fame of the original group.
In a perfect world, this collage would be the starting point for a delirious swirl of new associations and connections between the familiar songs. Sadly, aside from a few other daring combinations and reworkings, most of the album hews closely to the originals. In his Allmusic Guide review, Erlewine observes:
There’s only one cut that has the thrilling unpredictability of a genuine mash-up and that’s a cut that blends together “Drive My Car,” “The Word” and “What You’re Doing,” punctuated with horns from “Savoy Truffle”; a chorus from one song flows into the verse from another, as keyboards and percussion from all three, plus more, come together to make something that’s giddy, inventive and fresh.
[T]he craft behind LOVE is impeccable: it flows as elegantly as the second side of Abbey Road, which is an achievement of no small measure. But there lies the rub: even if LOVE elicits a certain admiration for how Giles and George have crafted their mash-ups, it elicits a greater admiration for the original productions and arrangements, which display far more imagination and audacity than the mixes here.
This is a harsh criticism. Perhaps the Martins are too close to the source material to be able to depart from it. I do not have the audacity to suggest that my own remixing of “Here Comes The Sun” improves at all on the original. But I did aim to depart far enough from the original to entire into meaningful dialog with it.
Even where the remixing is too limited or uninspired, the surround mixing is undeniably and uniformly excellent. Hard-panning instruments into the surrounds plays to the Beatles’ strengths. The spatial separation only flatters the band’s performances, and the carefully crafted sonic qualities of the recordings. By contrast, the Doors surround mix we listened to in class inadvertently laid the band members under the equivalent of harsh operating room lights, and the view was not pretty. The Doors need to be heard as a cohesive unit or not at all. The Beatles, on the other hand, reward close attention to their isolated tracks. The Martins are free to replace the awkward hard panning in the original stereo mixes with thoughtful placement in the surround field, playing up the Beatles’ immersive dreamlike quality.
The Grey Album
A few intrepid electronic music producers have braved the Beatles’ litigious wrath. The most ambitious and irreverent Beatles reworking is Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Beginning with the acapella tracks from The Black Album by Jay-Z (made widely available by the artist himself), Danger Mouse created new instrumental backings for each song using nothing but samples from the White Album. The result was an internet sensation. Naturally, EMI served Danger Mouse with a cease and desist letter, but this set off a wave of anti-copyright activism across the web that turned Danger Mouse into a bona fide celebrity.
For myself, the Grey Album was an invaluable gateway into Jay-Z’s work. While I had been aware of his work from the radio, I found him off-putting and did not give him much attention. I was drawn into the Grey Album by a lifelong love for the White Album. I was eager to hear the reworked versions of the familiar songs, and was particularly delighted by Danger Mouse’s frequent use of oddities and obscurities — the harpsichord in “Piggies,” the ending to “Cry Baby Cry,” the acoustic guitar from “Mother Nature’s Son.” Jay-Z’s vocals were incidental to my interest at first. But through repeated listening, his emceeing began to grow on me, and eventually I became hooked. Because of his pro-remixing attitude, Jay-Z can also be heard on top of instrumentals sampled from artists as diverse as Radiohead, Brian Eno and Philip Glass.
My remix approach
Much as I admire the Grey Album, I thought it would be more interesting to limit myself solely to sounds found in the original multitrack of “Here Comes The Sun.” I did bring in some new effects from Ableton Live. These include a vocoder to create additional vocal harmony; compression to bring particular sounds to the forefront of the mix; and various forms of delay for greater psychedelic flavor.
The original song
Here is a diagram of the multitrack version of “Here Comes The Sun” that was my starting point. Verses are blue, choruses are green, instrumental breaks are orange, the bridge is purple, and the outtro is yellow.
From top to bottom, the tracks are as follows:
- Drums, including a very staccato guitar or synth sound doubling some of the drum fills.
- Bass, very isolated, probably recorded direct.
- Acoustic guitar, probably the guide track for the rest of the recording.
- Strings and synth – I am not sure whether these were combined on the original multitracks, but they were on the version I have.
- Vocals, both lead and backing. As with the strings/synth track, these may have been separated on the original multitracks, but were combined on the one I used.
Verse one is instrumental. The first four bars are guitar only, with the strings and synth entering on bar five. The vocals enter on chorus one. On verse two, the bass and drums enter. The second chorus has a short additional interlude on the end. On verse three, the vocal melody is doubled in the synth. The surreal qualities of the track become fully apparent during the bridge. The synth enters on the second pass through the bridge figure, and has a noticeably different tone on each subsequent pass. The handclaps enter on the second to last pass. The bridge ends on a four bar build leading back into the final verse. With all due respect to George Harrison, I have always felt that this passage is a bit of an anticlimax. The song ends with verse four, chorus four, chorus five, a tag consisting of the second half of the chorus, and the ending, a single pass through the bridge form on guitar only.
My remixed arrangement
I added three sections: a long intro, an interlude between chorus one and verse two, and an extended ending to the bridge.
My intro was built from the repeated bridge figure (“Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.”) I adding a track on each pass: vocals and strings, then synth, then handclaps, then drums. I replaced the four-bar bridge ending with a six-bar loop of the vocal phrase “here it comes” over drums only. Using the vocoder, I reharmonized these vocals into a more dramatic chord progression.
I left verse one more or less intact, aside from some effects added to the guitar and the sampled handclaps looped throughout. I used the same approach on chorus one. I doubled the length of verse two, preceding the vocals with an instrumental section. I felt that the song would benefit from a more aggressive and attention-grabbing sound to the strings, so I highlighted them in the mix and stuttered them rhythmically over the bass and drums. I kept the stuttered strings under the vocals in verse two for greater rhythmic interest and groove.
Under the second chorus, I thickened the vocal harmony with the vocoder. I continued the vocoder into verse three and chorus three. The bridge I left mostly intact, aside from added handclaps and more prominent placement of the synth in the mix. But I once again replaced the final four bars with something musically more active: a sixteen bar spacey breakdown, using Ableton’s Fade To Grey effect on the master channel (filtering out the high and low frequencies and adding long ping-pong delay.) On top of the repeated four-bar guitar figure, I looped a three-bar sample of “sun, sun, sun, here it comes.”
I then gave verse four the feeling of emerging from the clouds, just the vocals, drums and handclaps, with the bass entering halfway through. At chorus four, I had the synth re-enter, with the guitar coming in on the turnaround. I had the strings re-enter for chorus five and the tag. I replaced the ending guitar figure with a final repetition of “sun, sun, sun, here it comes” at half speed, combined with multiple layers of the final cymbal crash, also at half speed. The Fade To Grey effect extends the ending, making it boil off into space.
I performed all of this editing from the multitracks using Ableton Live, which has an easier workflow for remixing than Pro Tools, as well as DJ-specific effects. Once the remix was completed in stereo, I output the stems to Pro Tools. Using the Dolan Studio control room, I fine-tuned the mix, added some limiter and additional delay, and performed the surround panning using the S360 Surround Imager plugin.
My concept for surround imaging was informed by ideas from film sound mixing. I panned the “dialog,” the dry vocals, front and just left of center. I also placed the bass front and center. I treated the drums as the other foundational element, and spread them 270 degrees across the sound field, centered in the front. I centered the more dreamlike vocoded vocal the other side of center from the dry vocal, but spread much more widely, to act as more of an enveloping, dreamlike effect rather than a single source. I spread the dry guitar wide across the left from front to rear, with the wet guitar panned similarly on the right. I decided to treat the combined string/synth track as atmosphere, panned entirely to the rear. The dry strings were located in the right rear for a “realistic” feeling, while the wet strings were spread across the rear, again for dreamlike immersion.
In order to isolate and loop the handclaps, I had to EQ them severely and quantize them on the grid. This made them sound conspicuously artificial-sounding. I decided to push their science-fictional flavor as far as possible, and set them to roam around the surround field at random. Ableton’s Beat Repeat effect, heard on the wet guitar track, also has a randomized aspect. I am attracted to the notion that each time the mix is played or bounced, the claps and guitar will come out differently.
Track listing with effects and panning
Acoustic guitar dry
- Effects: none
- Panning: front left to rear left
Acoustic guitar wet (duplicated from acoustic guitar dry)
- Effects: sixteenth note Beat Repeat, compression, dotted quarter note delay
- Panning: front right to rear right
- Effects: compression, reverb
- Panning: from rear/center left through rear/center right
- Isolated from the bridge, looped throughout the song
- Effects: Extreme highpass to remove other instruments, saturator, quarter note delay
- Panning: randomized
- Effects: multiband compression
- Panning: center
Misc long delay
- Used for the drum fill at 0:18 and the cymbal crash at the ending
- Effects: dotted eighth note delay
- Panning: across front
- Effects: none
- Panning: right rear
Strings delay (duplicated from strings dry)
- Effects: extreme compression, saturated “tape” delay
- Panning: across rear
- Effects: none
- Panning: front left/center
Vox vocode (duplicated from vox dry)
- Effects: vocoder modulated with a harsh-sounding overtone-rich synth; quarter note delay
- Panning: spread widely, aimed at right of center
The extended bridge and ending use the Ableton “fade to grey” effect on the master channel, combining extreme highpass and lowpass filters with ping-pong delay.
Benzon, William. Beethoven’s Anvil: Music In Mind And Culture.
Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. “Cirque du Soleil / The Beatles — LOVE.”
Jordan, Mark. “The Beatles ‘Love’ — a DVD-Audio Review.”
Kerins, Mark. Beyond Dolby.
Moylan, Brian. The Art of Recording: Understanding and Crafting the Mix.
Owsinski, Bobby. Mixing Engineer’s Handbook.