As TechRadar’s Audio & Music Editor, I listen to a lot of music while I’m testing headphones and speakers, but one album I always come back to is The Beatles’ Abbey Road.
It’s one of my all-time favorites, and no matter how many times I hear the bombastic drum fills in Something, or the lush nine-part vocal harmonies of Because, I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of The Beatles’ final studio album.
It’s not a niche choice. While early detractors bemoaned the album’s ‘artificial-sounding’ effects, Abbey Road has since received high rankings in several “best albums in history” polls by music critics and the public - and, even if you’re not familiar with the entire body of work, chances are you know the opening chords of Here Comes The Sun very well indeed.
Released in stereo in 1969, Abbey Road has been remastered multiple times, with producer Giles Martin releasing a Super Deluxe Edition in 2019 to coincide with the album’s 50th anniversary.
These new mixes were presented in stereo, 5.1, and Dolby Atmos - and although I usually stick on the stereo mix when I want to hear Abbey Road, it was high time that I experienced one of my favorite albums in virtual surround sound with Apple Music’s Spatial Audio feature. So, armed with a pair of AirPods Max, I made a coffee, carved out a comfortable spot on my sofa, and hit play. Here are some of the tracks that made the biggest impression.
I played Abbey Road’s opening track with the AirPods Max - and the effect of Spatial Audio is immediately obvious in the drums. The fills that straddle that iconic moody bass line seem to pan around my head, moving from left to right and back again.
The rest of the instrumentation feels naturally placed within Dolby Atmos’ virtual sphere, with the vocals situated right at the front. There’s lots of space in between the different frequencies and textures, giving the track a much more expansive feel than it has when played in stereo.
The placement of the drums in particular adds another dimension to the feel of the track, making it feel as though the fills are creeping around the rest of the band. As producer Giles Martin said in an interview with the Rolling Stone (opens in new tab), “the interesting thing about immersive audio is that there’s a center point to it”.
You certainly get this effect on Come Together, and it’s been mastered in such a way that the rest of the band give the drums a structural center point to snake around. Without this center point, it could sound messy. As Martin puts it, “if you have lots and lots of things all around you all the time, it can get slightly irritating and confusing”.
George Harrison’s Something is where his guitar really shines, and that comes across in the Dolby Atmos mix. As the rest of the instruments sit back, it feels as though the guitar lines burst through the soundstage and right to the front.
As the the bombastic, almost military-like drums herald the chorus, the vocals take that front position, flanked by sweeping strings and cascading organs.
My favorite part of this song is the final verse when the lyrics are sung in close vocal harmony; the dissonant lines sound heartachingly beautiful. There’s a reason why Something is considered one of the greatest love songs of all time, and if it doesn’t make your chest hurt, you might be dead inside*.
Because / Sun King
Because was one of the Abbey Road songs I was most excited to hear in Spatial Audio. It was recorded in three-part harmony by John, Paul, and George, and then overlaid three more times to create a nine-part mix.
The sense of space and directionality is clear as soon as the guitar joins the electric harpsichord arpeggios. The expansive feeling works beautifully with the haunting vocal parts, making it feel as though you’re sitting in a hall surrounded by a chamber choir. The track culminates in an uncomfortable unresolved chord that leaves you in suspense waiting for the start of You Never Give Me Your Money.
Sun King has a similar feel. Like Because, it features rich multi-tracked vocal harmonies that work with the other instruments to create complex polychords. With layer upon layer of tone and texture, this song could easily sound crowded, but the masterful production means Sun King feels open and expansive.
That effect is only heightened by the Dolby Atmos mix, which lets the rhythm section chug along lazily in the background as the vocals take center stage. I dare you not to sit back and close your eyes as you listen.
In the fourth track of Abbey Road’s medley, the mix feels much tighter and more enclosed, a bit like a live show. Rumbling drums, raucous guitar, and driving bass feel closely tied together in contrast to the more expansive parts of the album. Think Cavern Club as opposed to Shea Stadium (see the video below for an idea of how that sounded).
You can hear John shouting words of encouragement in a thick Scouse accent throughout the end of the track ("Fab! That's great! Real good, that. Real good..."), which culminates in him yelling "Oh look out! Here she…" before being cut off by the opening of She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.
The placement of that vocal makes it sound like John is really behind you trying to warn you.
Carry That Weight
The start of this track features all four Beatles singing in unison, which is pretty unusual - and it has all the heft you’d want from a song that’s supposedly about how each band member would always carry the weight of their past as part of the Beatles.
As the first bars of You Never Give Me Your Money are reprised, the huge orchestral arrangement sweeps in. It’s another gut-wrenching moment, with majestic brass and timpani accompanying Paul as he sings ‘I never give you my pillow / I only send you my invitation’’. Bass lines meander in and out, panning around the virtual Atmos sphere.
The orchestration and production on this track as it moves into The End is sublime, evoking the ironic imperatorial sound of the Sgt. Pepper days while acknowledging the end of The Beatles’ time together with over-the-top, sweeping emotion.
I’ve always liked Apple Music’s Spatial Audio feature, as Dolby Atmos can - when used with a light hand - imbue a new sense of space onto tracks you may already know.
Dolby Atmos mixes don’t work for every album, and can sometimes sound a bit artificial - but it works so, so well for Abbey Road. It’s an album that has so much dynamic contrast, and scales everything from a simple voice with guitar to huge orchestral numbers. Placing all those different elements in a virtual sphere opens the mix up - and for an album recorded in the late sixties, it sounds remarkably modern in its production.
In an interview with the Rolling Stone, Giles Martin explained why Abbey Road sounds so good in Atmos - and part of that is because we know how and where it was recorded: “What I and [engineer] Sam Okell tend to do, opposed to using digital effects, is we’ll place speakers back in Studio Two [the Abbey Road space where the Beatles originally recorded]. And we’ll re-record John’s voice in Studio Two, so what you’re hearing are the reflections of the room he’s singing in. It brings the vocal closer to you.”
With songs of this age, it isn’t easy to make them sound convincingly natural in Atmos. Tracks like Taxman, from The Beatles’ Revolver album, are a mess, speaking in terms of production. The guitar, bass, and drums are all on one track on the left hand side of the mix, with a shaker on the right - to put those individual instruments into a virtual sphere requires some technological wizardry whereby the different elements are isolated using source separation software. Doing that without degrading the quality of audio recording is tricky, to say the least.
I’m sure it won’t be too long before every Beatles album is remastered in Dolby Atmos. For now though, I’m very glad Abbey Road is one of many Spatial Audio works available to listen to on Apple Music. Now, where did I put those headphones…
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