The Beatles’ music is so well known and so well disseminated across pop culture that the only way to find something new in it is to warp and remix what we already have in increasingly bizarre and surreal ways. Danger Mouse saw the untapped potential of the band’s classic songs by mashing them up with Jay-Z’s hardest verses on The Grey Album, while fans have long assembled their own alternate futures of what The Beatles would have sounded like had they stayed together past their 1970 breakup, cobbling together cuts from the members’ initial solo albums into what might have a 13th Beatles studio album.
The band themselves even got in on the reimagining of their music through the Cirque du Soleil show Love. Through longtime producer George Martin and his son Giles, The Beatles’ entire career of recorded music was remixed, re-edited, flipped on its head, and mashed up in fascinating medleys to create one long and engrossing listening experience. Everyone is looking for fresh angles on the world’s most famous rock band, including the band themselves.
But you don’t have to throw together ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ in a mashup to find something transcendent and new. All you have to do is look and listen a little bit closer to what is already there. One of the best ways to do this is through isolated tracks, which have now become readily available in high-quality form thanks to The Beatles: Rock Band. During the production of that video game, Giles Martin laboriously split up individual instrumental parts for a large amount of The Beatles’ catalogue in order for players to respond to each vocal note, guitar strum, bass pluck, and drum hit.
Martin’s process wasn’t just impressive, but also largely unprecedented. Most of The Beatles’ music was recorded on four-track tapes, meaning that every sound that was recorded on each song had to fit onto just four tracks of tape. The splitting up of combined instrumental parts, sound effects, and different overdubs required a precise handling of audio files that were 50 years old and were made with the understanding that they would be impossible to separate once they were put on the same track. Martin and the team at Harmonix wound up doing the impossible, bringing a new level of clarity and insight into even the most obscure notes of The Beatles’ music.
Take, for instance, the downloadable content that Harmonix continued to release after the initial game’s release. Full album play-alongs of Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Abbey Road were made available, and for the latter, that meant getting to play along to the entire 16-minute medley that closes out the LP. Thanks to the work done by Martin and his team, all of the vocals for every song beginning with ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ through ‘Her Majesty’ were collected into one long isolated vocal track.
The medley very well may be the crowning vocal achievement for the group. The signature three-part harmonies between John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison are at their most lush and serene here, effortlessly blending into each other with incredible precision. When Ringo Starr joins in on ‘Carry That Weight’, there is perhaps no better testament to the band’s chemistry than those incredible vocal overdubs.
The isolated tracks reveal some previously-unknown delights that even the biggest of Beatlemaniacs couldn’t have heard in the original mix of the album. That includes the snaps that helped keep all three singers on the beat, McCartney’s ad-libbing along to Harrison’s lead guitar lines in ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, the heavy compression and wild improvisations on ‘Polythene Pam’, and the harmonies that bubble under the very beginning of ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’.
The tracks aren’t true-blue isolated vocals: because the separation process involved separating tracks based on their frequencies, certain instruments that occupied that same sonic range as the vocals bleed through on occasion. Other times, instruments that were simply recorded using the same microphone set up, including the piano on ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’, the acoustic guitar on ‘Her Majesty’, and various percussion elements heard throughout the medley, remain on the vocal tracks. Rather than disrupt, however, these additional elements help keep you rooted in the song without getting too spacey with just a capella vocals.
Check out the Abbey Road medley with just isolated vocals down below.