Star Wars: The Ultimate Soundtrack Collection (Sony, 2016)
By Mikko Ojala
In slew of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens there is once again considerable buzz over all things Star Wars and Sony Music Masterworks decided the honour the occasion with a special release of the Prequel and Original Trilogy soundtrack albums on the 8th of January, repackaged under the rather grandiose title Star Wars: The Ultimate Soundtrack Collection. While the previous re-releases were done on CD and in digital realm, this time the scores are released in three formats, on CD, vinyl and as a digital download and with varying contents. The CD incarnation of this collection features the 2 disc releases for the original trilogy that have existed for nearly 20 years now and combine them with the regular soundtrack albums of the Prequel trilogy and some bonus material (the CD version e.g. comes with a DVD of John Williams and Harrison Ford interviews etc.). The LP and and the digital presentations uniquely contain the actual original soundtrack albums from the time of each film’s release. The albums for the older trilogy are recreated from the best original soundtrack masters unearthed from the archives for this release and it is these first three soundtrack albums on which my review will focus as the Prequels sound largely unchanged on this set. And while I lack a turntable myself, I had the pleasure of taking a listen to the remastered programmes of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in digital form.
What could be said about the music itself that hasn’t already been said before? The thrills and romance of Star Wars come to a great degree from the masterful scores of John Williams that compliment and lead the action spectacularly. The rousing emotional Romantic orchestral idiom of the music breathes life to Lucas’s space operas with a grand architecture of melodically memorable leitmotifs where the drama, the sweep and the rhythms of the films are captured by the symphonic forces of the London Symphony Orchestra under John Williams’s baton to perfection. In short these are just about as classic as film scores get.
Perhaps the most important aspect of these new releases is the sound quality, which I am happy to say, is pretty terrific. The overall sound of the soundtrack mixes feels now more robust and full-bodied compared to the previous 2-disc set presentations from RCA Victor (re-released later by Sony) as the new versions offer warmer dynamics with much less hiss. The slight downside is that they do in places sacrifice a bit of clarity in favour of a wetter mix but happily it is closer to the feel of the 1993 produced Star Wars Trilogy – The Original Soundtrack Anthology, which was the first release to provide expanded versions of the music from all three films and which similarly took as its basis the soundtrack albums compiled by John Williams.
The effects of the remastered mix are both subtle and very audible even to a layman making comparisons. There is additional warmth to Princess Leia’s Theme that was in some parts absent from the previous double CD mix of the RCA and Sony albums. On The Empire Strikes Back album e.g. Yoda’s Theme is a real joy to hear with those sonorously warm celli that give the piece a special emotional resonance while I feel the Imperial March also benefits from the wetter mix that brings out the power of the whole ensemble while still articulating the required fine instrumental detail of Williams’s great orchestrations.
This new mix also brings out some layers of the music in a different way than before and highlights some of the aforementioned orchestrational touches, which is akin rediscovering some of your favourite Star Wars musical moments all over again. Good examples are the pieces like The Emperor from Return of the Jedi and The Magic Tree from The Empire Strikes Back, where you can now hear additional details that were near inaudible or alternatively balanced in the mix of the Sony double CD sets. The Last Battle from Star Wars is another fine example of how both the broad orchestral gestures and single instrumental parts can be clearly heard and how the mix allows the thrilling music to shine even better in parts than on the previous releases, especially considering the age of these recordings.
And what about the album programmes themselves? It is nothing new that film composers rearrange their music for the soundtrack album. These sets present the music from the scores in the way John Williams originally intended it to be heard away from the film with musical programme of maximum contrasting musical colours and dynamics just like any other album to create an aurally interesting whole. The composer was allowed to present generous 70 minute+ double LP programmes for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, while Return of the Jedi is the runt of the litter content-wise, released on single LP in 1983, during the era when shift from LP to CD market was happening and thus containing only 45 minutes of music. For seasoned fans, who love these scores from start to finish and know them by heart, to hear the original album programmes when the complete scores have been available for so long is an interesting experience as they do not conform to the story arc of the movies but rather forge an independent experience of their own. I know some fans will surely prefer these presentations of the music as a more succinct way of experiencing the classic scores and it has to be said that the original soundtrack albums for the first two films really sum up their respective scores rather admirably and include majority of their highlights and make for rather engaging listening experiences (how could they not with this music?!) even if the editing choices might surprise (or completely thrown off) those used to the expanded programmes of the RCA/Sony sets. And if the first two scores boast with ample musical presentation the Return of the Jedi unfortunately just barely scratches the surface of the colourful nearly two and a half hour score and contains a hefty amount of concert suites, leaving out a lion’s share of musical highlights, which is a shame as this score contains some of Williams’s finest pages.
Whether this new digital soundtrack collection is a must for you depends largely on whether you own a turntable or not and how well supplied your household already is with the music of Star Wars and how much of an audiophile you are. If you own many of the previous versions of this music, this new presentation will not be a necessary purchase. Undoubtedly for the audiophiles the sound quality of these new remastered albums, especially for the original trilogy, is the main attraction as it truly is in many places an improvement over the RCA Victor and Sony double CD sets. On the whole The Empire Strikes Back seems to benefit most of the new mix with the remastered Star Wars and Return of the Jedi a bit behind it. There are a couple of old analogue edits found on the albums that might unfavourably catch the ear of those used to the modern sleek digital editing but on the whole such things are not too distracting on the original album programmes and add to the old fashioned charm of these discs. The presentation of the music itself does not offer musically anything new as such (naturally they contain less music than the complete double CD incarnations of these scores) but rather give you the chance to experience the music of Star Wars trilogy in the same form as it was originally released back in 1977, 1980 and 1983 (and the Prequel scores in 1999, 2002 and 2005). And it is undeniably a wonderful ride. So as far as the Star Wars: The Ultimate Soundtrack Collection in its digital form goes, I think it caters well to both the casual fans of these films and their wonderful music and to the more audiophile John Williams collectors and Star Wars enthusiasts who wish to take another aurally improved listen to these beloved classics.
Star Wars: The Ultimate Soundtrack Collection – List of contents:
- Star Wars: The Ultimate Vinyl Collection (11-Vinyl Box Set)
The Phantom Menace – Original 1999 soundtrack album reissued on 2LP
Attack of the Clones – Original 2002 soundtrack album reissued on 2LP
Revenge of the Sith – Original 2005 soundtrack album reissued on 2LP
Star Wars – Original 1977 2LP soundtrack album reissued on 2LP
The Empire Strikes Back – Original 1980 2LP soundtrack album reissued on 2LP
Return of the Jedi – Original 1983 1LP soundtrack album reissued on 1LP
— Each of the six film soundtracks in deluxe gatefold sleeves faithfully replicating the original artwork.
Audio was transferred from the original LP masters using the highest resolution (up to 192kHz/24bit) and pressed with heavy 180gram vinyl. The six soundtrack set (on 11 LPs) is presented in a black, soft-touch laminated slipcase with an embossed, hot silver foil Star Wars logo and includes a digital download card for one complete box set (all six soundtracks). – Amazon.com pre-order.
- Star Wars: The Ultimate Soundtrack Edition (10 CDs + 1 DVD)
The Phantom Menace – Original 1999 soundtrack album reissued on 1CD
Attack of the Clones – Original 2002 soundtrack album reissued on 1CD
Revenge of the Sith – Original 2005 soundtrack album reissued on 1CD
Star Wars – 1997 2CD Expanded Edition reissued on 2CD
The Empire Strikes Back – 1997 2CD Expanded Edition reissued on 2CD
Return of the Jedi – 1997 2CD Expanded Edition reissued on 2CD
Bonus CD featuring audio interviews with Harrison Ford and John Williams
Star Wars: A Musical Journey – Re-release of the 2005 DVD highlighting select musical themes alongside key sequences from the films.
— Released in mini-album jackets. Including a fold-out poster and three collectable stickers.
- Star Wars: The Ultimate Digital Collection – Same contents as The Ultimate Vinyl Collection, available for the first time as high-definition downloads (The original 2LP album of The Empire Strikes Back will be available digitally for the first time ever).