In the ever-evolving musical landscape, few names resonate as broadly as The Beatles. Decades after disbanding, their work still touches people of all generations - and now, we have one last new piece of music to enjoy. In this instalment of Reverse Engineering, we're looking at the recent release of the 'final song' from The Beatles: Now And Then.
I think I could hear the collective gasp from Beatle mega-fans around the world when news broke about ongoing work on an unreleased track by John Lennon. Shortly before his death in 1980, John recorded a handful of demos to cassette, and all of these - except for one, it later transpired - would end up being completed by the other three Beatles and released in 1995 on The Beatles Anthology. In 2022, the two remaining living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr decided to finally finish and release the odd one out, titled Now And Then.
Being a relatively new release, there’s not a whole lot of information on recording techniques or mix decisions, but that’s okay - we have ears. This might end up being a bit of an opinion piece... which is what music is about, isn’t it? It's subjective!
Let’s analyse the track chronologically. After Paul’s count-in, we hear a super-compressed piano chord. The sustain is extreme and it’s also very loud - perhaps a bit too much for my taste, I have to admit... a little less compression would allow for a more dynamic and natural sounding piano recording, which I feel could’ve leant itself to the mix a bit better. But what I do love is the acoustic guitar sitting nicely underneath the piano, which is credited to our dear friend, the late George Harrison. This guitar serves as the primary rhythmic instrument in the first verse, until the drums come in, and it's mixed quite brightly to emphasise the strumming and pick sounds, since the low-mids are already covered by the piano. And a little fun fact - if you listen very carefully, you can hear some snare drum that must have bled into the acoustic guitar mics back when they recorded George’s acoustic guitar in 1994!
The next instrument to enter is the unmistakable voice of Mr John Winston Ono Lennon, and it's just haunting. There's so much emotion, incredible pitch (albeit likely aided with software), and an unconventional, captivating melody. The vocals sit perfectly in the mix, cutting through enough without sounding jarring. Speaking as a Beatles fan… it’s pretty special!
Since the demo was recorded straight to cassette in John’s home nearly 50 years ago, a lot of work was required to clean up the recording and isolate the vocal from the piano. In 2021, to support the production of the Get Back documentary, a team led by director Peter Jackson created machine learning software nicknamed 'MAL' (if you know, you know) that could separate instruments in old recordings. The software was so effective that Jackson and Giles Martin (son of legendary Beatles producer George) used it in 2022 to remix the iconic 1966 album Revolver, by separating the multiple instruments that were merged together on the original 4-track tape recordings. In a 2023 interview with Virgin Radio UK, Giles Martin said the multitrack for the song Taxman had drums, bass, and guitars all printed together on the one track - but 'MAL' was able to separate each instrument so they could be treated independently. So, to create Now And Then, the game-changing software was once again brought in to separate the vocal and piano on John's demo. Truly astonishing work from all involved.
The next instrument to discuss is the drums. Straight off the bat, the drum part is VERY clearly Beatles, complete with those iconic Ringo snare/tom fills. The short documentary released with Now And Then suggests that the drums were recorded in Ringo's home studio, but it's unclear which mics were utilised. I believe I can see a Neumann KM84 on the hi-hat in the music video, but who knows if that’s actually what was used to record on the track.
As for the mix, I’m sitting on the fence. The drums sound fine and good... but do they sound like The Beatles? I don’t want to complain about the modernisation of mixing and recording, but I will say the sound is not what I would associate with Beatles drums. They’re big, fat, and… well, modern. I guess it has been over 50 years since The Beatles were recording together though, so we shouldn’t expect it to sound the way it did back then.
The Electric Guitar
It's a small part, but it's worth mentioning some incredibly tasteful George Harrison rhythm guitar playing in the second verse. Between John's lines at about 1:39, you can hear George out on the left side of the stereo field playing exactly what the song needs. I would’ve loved to hear this guitar a bit louder in the mix - I think it could almost have been treated as a lead part.
There's also a wistful slide guitar solo played by Paul McCartney after the second chorus. Paul describes the solo as a tribute to George, who of course isn’t around to play the part himself, and I think he did a great job. The guitar is soaked in reverb and is rather ominous sounding, which complements the overall mood of the track.
The Other Bits
Now And Then includes snippets of backing vocals taken from multiple other Beatles songs. At 2:58, you’ll notice backing vocals from Because, and scattered throughout the track are backing vocals from Here, There and Everywhere, and Eleanor Rigby. The arrangement is excellent, and it’s wholesome to hear the four boys' youthful voices in a new song half a century later.
As you listen, you’ll also notice a string section written and arranged by Paul McCartney, Giles Martin, and Ben Foster. This is one of the highlights of the track for me - it's a great homage to the string sections George Martin arranged for the band back in the 1960s. The strings are mixed wide and just present enough to draw your attention to them when the engineers want you to. From the evocative legato parts in the second verse to the aggressive staccato parts in the chorus, it really takes the track to another level. And another fun fact for you: the session string players were told the track was called Give And Take, to avoid leaks!
Finally… let's talk about loudness. Man, this song sounds loud, and it's almost exhausting to listen to at times! I've seen multiple sources claim that mastering engineers Oli Morgan and Miles Showell actually sent the track back to mixing engineer Mark "Spike" Stent because of the loudness. This might mean the finished product we hear is something of a compromise between mixing and mastering engineers - but even then, the official audio on YouTube peaks at -2.8db and hovers at around -9.5LUFS. So, even though I'm not the one chosen to mix and master Beatle records, I do have a lot of questions... but similar to the drum mix, I guess it is 2023 and we shouldn’t expect the dynamics we hear in the old Beatles recordings.
I could go on and on about this song and The Beatles in general. I did my best to refrain from letting my Beatle obsession show, but it’s likely I failed. To sum up, I think the Now And Then mix is fine in the context of modern music - my only gripe is that it just doesn’t quite sound like The Beatles as I know and love them. But, as I said earlier, music is subjective, so I'm in the middle of many people who love the mix and many others who don't. Whichever camp you're in, I hope this blog gave you some insight into the processes and decisions made in the making of the song.
Adios for now!