A Hard Day's Mix

Within seconds of firing up Miramax's DVD release of the classic Beatles movie A Hard Day's Night, I knew that the Fab Four had been deep-sixed by the new set's producers. The image quality is excellent-the movie appears for the first time in a widescreen (1.66:1) video transfer-but the music is another story. As the packaging hype puts it, the new DVD has a "digitally restored soundtrack." It was therefore puzzling to hear a movie that was originally mono now come pouring out of the five main speakers and subwoofer of my multichannel reference system. And that was only the beginning. There's so much wrong with the sound of this DVD, it's hard to decide where to start. So let me just list some of its faults:• That blurb on the packaging is simply false, since "restored" implies that the sound quality is more authentic than that of previous video releases. But the original movie soundtrack was mono, with special mixdowns made specifically for the film from the four-track music master tapes. So any processing that results in a soundtrack with more than one channel is no restoration but a new synthesis, like the fake stereo reissues of mono originals in the early 1960s.
• The rechanneling itself is of poor quality sonically. Rechanneling is usually a dicey process (unlike remixing multiple tracks that already exist, which can be successful), but the result here is particularly egregious. The music has an amorphous, smeary front image, with synthetic reverberation coming from the surrounds at a level that changes from song to song. It's very much unlike-and in all respects inferior to-the 1997 DVD release of A Hard Day's Night on an MPI disc (which I predict will now become a valuable Beatles collectable on eBay). That DVD as well as the even earlier Criterion laserdisc both seem to have used true stereo mixdowns of the original four-track studio tapes.• Miramax's rechanneling process has also produced a "swirly" or "swimmy" coloration on all of the songs-it's especially noticeable on Ringo's cymbals-that sounds like codec data compression (as in MP3) at too low a bit rate. The MPI DVD is noticeably cleaner here, with no such colorations and a much less bass-heavy equalization. Meanwhile, take note: all of the video releases preserve what I presume are authentic pitch and speed variations of certain songs from what's found on the "soundtrack" CD (for example, "If I Fell" is a semitone flat). • You can't even "dumb down" your system to undo the Miramax damage, since folding the 5.1-channel soundtrack down to mono (which most surround processors won't even let you do) didn't clean up the cymbals in tests I did in our lab. Listening in stereo wasn't much better.• During the movie's song performances you get a two-channel front image-the center channel is unused! Consequently, you can hear the rechanneling fading in and out as the music starts and ends. For me this is the most disturbing aspect of the new DVD's soundtrack because, combined with the lack of a center channel during music passages, the vocal soloist changes from a "real" image in the center speaker during dialogue to a smeary "phantom" image during music. Even with a high-end home theater speaker system, this change is enormously distracting, especially if you're listening from anywhere but the prime position. In comparison, the MPI/Criterion transitions from dialogue in two-channel mono to music in two-channel stereo are far less intrusive, since not only are the number of speakers the same but so is the tonal quality of the consequent "phantom" center image. Miramax's shifting back and forth between one and five speakers draws attention to the soundtrack itself ("Listen to my new production values!") and violates the cinematic Prime Directive: Everything must serve the story, and the story alone.
Critics and the public have rejected the notion that classic black-and-white films like A Hard Day's Night need to be colorized for commercial success, at least for something as permanent as DVDs. Why shouldn't the soundtracks of mono movies be treated with similar respect? The same goes for other types of musical productions (operas, rock concerts) that are now appearing on DVD with many more channels than they originally had. I'd have gladly given up video bits in the extra features in order to devote that data to an additional mono or MPI-type true-stereo soundtrack. For all its surrealistic images and innovative camera work, A Hard Day's Night is a conventional movie, with characters (and what characters!) and a plot that builds to a cathartic final musical sequence. But Miramax's attention-grabbing 21st-century tampering with the soundtrack has turned this most musically joyous of 1960s films into a mere succession of music videos. The earlier DVD and laserdisc versions give you a much more coherent presentation of sound and image-in short, you get the movie. While the new DVD is a self-recommending purchase to any Beatles lover-I paid retail so I could have the widescreen image and the special features-when it comes to the rechanneling of this music, Miramax should have known better.