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How Peter Jackson Broke Up the Beatles

And used AI to make Revolver better than ever.

Photo: Apple Corps Ltd
Photo: Apple Corps Ltd

Last week, the Beatles released a “super deluxe” boxed-set version of their 1966 album Revolver, which is filled with home demos, studio outtakes, and liner notes by Questlove, who compares “Taxman” to “Fuck Tha Police.” But the main attraction is a new remix of the album intended to make it sound more modern: The drums are crisper, the vocals are clearer, and the stereo images are more balanced, finally allowing “Yellow Submarine” and “Good Day Sunshine” to live in sonic peace on the same Spotify playlists as songs by Dua Lipa and Harry Styles.

This is the latest in a quasi-annual series of remixes by producer Giles Martin (son of original Beatles producer George Martin) that already included the band’s later albums, from 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to 1970’s Let It Be. But the new Revolver almost never happened. Just 15 months ago, Martin declared that the record — along with the rest of the Beatles’ pre-’67 catalogue — was un-remixable barring some drastic breakthrough in audio technology.

The problem was in its master tapes. Beginning with Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles recorded most of their instruments and vocals to separate tracks. So for Martin, boosting the volume of a guitar or organ from Abbey Road or “The White Album” was probably as simple as moving a fader. But on earlier albums, the band often combined a few sounds to the same track. The effect was to lock multiple voices or instruments in place together, leaving no easy way for future remixers to tweak just one by itself.

Non-audiophiles may ask: Who cares? The original Revolver sounded good enough to top lists of the greatest albums ever made. Did it really need the overhaul?

Arguably, yes. For all the Beatles’ genius, they never imagined a day when their music would mainly be played through earbuds. The stereo versions of their early albums were mixed for novelty, with extreme separation between sounds in the right and left speakers, sometimes to the point of lopsidedness. (The Beatles themselves preferred the mono mixes, which are harder to find these days.) “Taxman” was a notorious offender, with bass, drums, and rhythm guitar on one side, and for much of the song, just tambourine and cowbell on the other. It’s been reported to cause dizziness in headphone listeners. For 56 years, there was no way to separate those instruments and rearrange them across the stereo field.

But then Peter Jackson took up the case. A few years ago, the Lord of the Rings director was hired to sift through 60 hours of unused footage from the 1970 Beatles documentary Let It Be and cut it into his own movie — 2021’s Get Back. Large sections of that footage had been marked as unusable because the band’s conversations were drowned out on the mono audio tapes by the sound of their instruments: John, Paul, and George had deliberately hidden their sensitive discussions from the original doc crew by noodling on their guitars. Jackson asked the engineers at his production company, WingNut Films, to see what they could salvage, and so they developed their own machine-learning “de-mixing” software capable of splitting up interlocked sounds. It worked so well decoupling music from speech on the Let It Be audio tapes that Get Back, which had been planned as a two-hour film, grew into an eight-hour TV miniseries (a hit for Disney+ last fall and, by some estimations, the best rock documentary ever).

Martin wondered if Jackson’s software could also be used to isolate the sounds on the Beatles’ early studio albums. Could it ever! And so now we have a remixed Revolver, a “Taxman” that won’t make anybody sick, and, presumably, boxed-set remixes of the band’s other six albums on the way for the 2023-2028 holiday seasons. At last, the most valuable music catalogue in history will be AirPod compliant.

“There’s no one who’s getting audio even close as to what Peter Jackson’s guys can do,” Martin recently told Rolling Stone. “It’s like you giving me a cake, and then me going back to you about an hour later with flour, eggs, sugar, and all the ingredients to that cake, that all haven’t got any cake mix left on them.”

Unbaked cake — i.e., the high-resolution separation of overlapping sounds — has long been one of audio’s holy grails. In concept, it seems a little like magic, the aural equivalent of when a cop on a TV show asks a computer to “enhance” a blurry surveillance photo. In some cases, there is some AI-powered magic involved; if part of a sound is completely buried by others on a mono recording, there’s no way to recover it in its original form since it was never there in the first place. “But the newer neural nets can guess what an instrument would’ve sounded like and then synthesize something that sounds natural and consistent with the mix,” says Alexey Lukin, principal DSP engineer of the industry-standard audio-repair tool iZotope RX (which Jackson’s team also used on Get Back).

Given Martin’s own recent doubts about other de-mixing software, I wondered how Jackson had managed such superior results and whether there might have been some trickery involved. (Maybe he’d just hired a cover band to recreate the band’s raw tracks?) But Lukin tells me Jackson’s system probably works as advertised — at least on the Beatles. “I do think Giles’s quote” — that no one else can touch Jackson’s team — “is an overstatement,” he says. “The research in the field is driven by big and small organizations from the industry, and the state-of-the-art level of quality is slowly improving over time. Jackson’s team is likely more successful with sounds of the Beatles than others due to access to extra data. But I don’t think they’re even on the list of contenders for generic music de-mixing.” (Martin and Jackson declined to comment for this piece.)

Machine-learning de-mixing systems get smarter by studying fully mixed songs and comparing them to their isolated vocal and instrument tracks. “High-quality results usually only become possible after about a million examples,” Lukin says. The problem is, record labels tend to keep their master tapes well guarded, so good isolated tracks can be difficult to come by. Therefore, most de-mixing systems have to rely on stems and mixes from the public domain, of which there aren’t many, or music generated by other AI systems just for training purposes. But Jackson’s system, Lukin speculates, might’ve also had the benefit of the Beatles’ own isolated tracks. Essentially, Jackson would’ve been able to teach his software what John, Paul, George, and Ringo each sounded like so it could break them up.

Squeezing money out of the Beatles’ intellectual property may seem like the easiest job in the world. And yet for over a decade, film directors have made it look hard. In 2009, the band partnered with Robert Zemeckis on a motion-capture CGI remake of their 1968 animated movie Yellow Submarine, but the project was scrapped, thanks in part to the creepiness of Zemeckis’s test footage. In 2016, Ron Howard cobbled newly unearthed concert video into the documentary Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, a conspicuously groupie-free, Me Too-proof reimagining of Beatlemania with talking-head commentary from Malcolm Gladwell.

But in Jackson, the band may have found their perfect creative partner, a storyteller with the technical chops to hide his own seamwork. They reportedly chose him to make Get Back on the basis of his 2018 World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, for which he used AI to repair and colorize 100-year-old silent film from the Western Front, and contemporary voice actors to give it a soundtrack. A couple critics fretted over the extent to which the footage had been tampered with — it even played some theaters in 3-D — but most historians were just dazzled by how cool it looked.

Jackson’s assignment with Get Back wasn’t to tamper but to recontextualize. The original Let It Be movie — which observed the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions for what would be their last album — was 80 minutes long and legendarily bleak, edited by filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg to include every frustrated yawn and dirty look. (Lindsay-Hogg supposedly cut it that way as a post-factum explainer for the band’s breakup, which was announced a month before the film’s release in spring 1970.) None of the Beatles come off well, but none worse than Paul, who bickers with George over a guitar riff and drags the group through a death-march rehearsal of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a song they all clearly hate. Consequently, Let It Be had become a hot potato, the rare Beatles product not to be reissued across every possible physical and digital media format. But Jackson’s longer and more winding edit of the same material — made possible, of course, through the magic of de-mixed audio — tells a happier story of the Beatles’ final days. The added runtime turns mountains back into molehills, buffering those tense moments with lighter ones in which the band mostly appears to enjoy each other’s company.

Jackson did take some creative license, though. Beatles historian Dan Rivkin has spent the past ten years listening to 97 hours of bootleg audio from the Let It Be sessions and documenting it on the blog They May Be Parted. He says Get Back is largely faithful to the reality of the raw tapes but identifies a couple of moments he says verge on misrepresentation. In one of Get Back’s most discussed scenes, George temporarily quits the group, prompting John and Paul to disappear to the recording studio’s cafeteria for what we’re told is a “private conversation.” No cameras were present, so the four-minute discussion, which was captured by hidden microphone, plays out in audio and onscreen captions. “So where’s George?” asks Paul, solemnly. “Well, he doesn’t want to be here,” says a glum John, who compares their mistreatment of the guitarist to a “festering wound … and we didn’t give him any bandages.” In the unedited audio, though, that conversation is longer (29 minutes), less of a bummer, and not exactly private; John and Paul are joined by Ringo, Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman, and Beatles roadie Mal Evans, all of whom frequently interject. “It smells like George is here,” jokes Ringo at one point.

In another heartrending Get Back scene, which takes place a couple days later, George and John are both no-shows, so Paul sighs and says, “And then there were two” as he and Ringo fight back tears. But on the bootleg audio, Ringo answers Paul’s sigh by comparing the pair of them to Simon & Garfunkel, drawing big laughs from Eastman and Lindsay-Hogg. (The tears were presumably transplanted from another moment.)

The biggest winner of Get Back is Paul, who in Jackson’s telling looks less like the villain undermining the band and more like the heroic leader desperately keeping it together. While the others show up to the studio late, aloof, or not at all, he arrives on time, writes the best songs, gently defuses intragroup conflicts, and even calls out sexist Beatles fans from the future for blaming their split on Yoko Ono (“It’s going to be such an incredible, comical thing in 50 years time — ‘They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp’”).

For decades, retrospective analysis of the Beatles favored John, especially after his death when he became not just the band’s founder, leader, and sole genius but something like a saint, too. Any attempts by Paul to bend that narrative — pointing out that he’d contributed the melody of “In My Life,” or flipping the writing credit for “Yesterday” on his live albums to “McCartney/Lennon” instead of the usual “Lennon/McCartney” — were blasted by critics as tantamount to grave robbery. But now there’s an eight-hour docuseries that argues Paul’s case better and less humbly than he ever could himself.

Of course, cynics might also notice how well Jackson’s Paul-centric reboot of the Beatles franchise serves the band’s business interests in 2022. Gen-Xers and older millennials may have identified best with John, a rock-and-roll antihero and Cobain-esque martyr. But Paul — the earnest, type A poptimist who can never be canceled because he’s never done anything wrong — is hard to beat as an ambassador to Gen Z.

Thanks to Jackson and his tech, the Beatles’ legacy is in better shape than ever. The band’s sad ending has been rewritten and now Rubber Soul, Help!, and Please Please Me can be de- and then remixed to fit all current and future audio standards. And why stop there? Jackson says he and the group have another secret project in the works (“It’s not really a documentary … and that’s all I can really say”), and he even de-mixed some of John’s vocals from “I’ve Got a Feeling” so Paul could “duet” with him on his recent tour. Now that the Beatles can take themselves apart, they can put themselves back together any way they want.

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How Peter Jackson Broke Up the Beatles