Music Reviews

posted: August 27, 2009

Beatles’ box in stereo and mono… Stereo and mono box sets

EMI/Capitol CD
Beatles’ box in stereo and mono…

Please Please Me: The Beatles Remasters

TONEAudio Exclusive by: Bob Gendron

The cost of owning a good-sounding Beatles record just got significantly cheaper. Arriving 22 years after the band’s catalog was originally issued on compact disc, Capitol’s long-awaited remasters of the Fab Four’s 12 studio albums, Magical Mystery Tour, and the Past Masters collections—as well as the label’s limited-edition Beatles in Mono box set, comprising 10 studio records in their original mono mixes plus the Past Masters set—sound, as a whole, uniformly fantastic. It’s clear that the team of engineers responsible for the four-year project ensured that the world’s most important and famous pop catalog finally received the care it’s always deserved no matter what mix is heard. While hardcore fans will want both the mono and stereo editions, the general populace is almost guaranteed to be content with the widely available stereo versions. Not that everyone will be happy. All accomplishments aside, it’s a foregone conclusion that no matter what the results indicate, certain parties will complain, criticize, and nitpick. Those curmudgeonly detractors and obsessive freaks are better off waiting for the second coming of Christ; rumor is that the payoff will be a lot better.

For the majority of listeners, however, any temptation to spend hundreds of dollars on rare vinyl pressings should erode as they become acclimated to what often resembles hearing familiar records for the very first time. Such are the near-miraculous improvements in the key areas of information retrieval, hidden details, palpable physicality, expanded midrange, transient presence, and frequency response. As expected, the mono and stereo editions have their share of positives and negatives. Yet the benefits of the mono mixes reign supreme through Revolver, no surprise given that original producer George Martin intended for the Beatles’ records to be enjoyed in mono. With Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the tide begins to turn, yet efforts like The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) remain toss-ups for myriad reasons.

There will be little debate surrounding what box set received the superior packaging. Collecting a total of 13 discs in a plain and compact white box, The Beatles in Mono presents each album in replica mini-LP jackets that feature faithful reproductions of the original artwork, labels, and inserts. Protective plastic sleeves shroud the discs, and a re-sealable plastic cover slips over the glossy mini-vinyl CD holders. A booklet containing rare photos and copious notes by Kevin Howlett rounds out the rather economical and practical bundle. By contrast, The Beatles In Stereo set is housed in a shoebox-sized box that opens up to reveal two stacks of digipak CDs. (Unlike their mono counterparts, the stereo discs are available individually.) Enthusiasts should note that the discs slide in and out of the digipaks without any extra padding or protection. Still, the classy packages conform to the original vinyl artwork and contain archival photos, recording notes, and historical notes—but lack inserts and faithful gatefold replication. Each disc also comes embedded with a QuickTime mini-documentary about the respective album. Curiously, the set lacks an accompanying booklet. Not that it matters much.

What does matter, of course, is the sound. And it’s largely excellent, improving in accordance with time, parallel to advances in recording technology and the band’s groundbreaking studio techniques. As previously mentioned, every Beatles album through The White Album was mixed with the purpose of being heard in mono. Capitol’s remasters mark the initial occasion of Please Please Me, With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, and Beatles for Sale being available on disc in a stereo mix; the converse is true for Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and The Beatles. Finally, the mono editions of Help! and Rubber Soul also include the original stereo mix, which makes comparison listening that much easier.

Without diminishing the value and impact of the stereo editions, which blow away their 1987 digital predecessors in every imaginable facet, the mono discs are where it’s at for experiencing the Beatles in the most “authentic” manner. (Officially, no compression or de-noising was used on the mono mixes; a sum total of less than five minutes of de-noising graces the stereo editions.) Specifically, the group’s early records tend to sound unnatural in stereo, as the hard panning seems forced and artificial—which, in actuality, it is. In mono, the Beatles’ music thrives from ultra-dynamic front-to-back layering that, intentionally or not, often gives the impression of a stereo mix. The changes wrought by the remasters are dramatic.

Please Please Me is distinguished by a previously vacant fullness, richness, and enormity. There’s discernible air and echo around the swooping vocals on “Misery,” and resolute imaging on “I Saw Her Standing There”—quite a thrill. And the bottom end—quite possibly the single-biggest enhancement on all of the remasters—registers with a forceful thump rather than a dull, empty thud. No longer an undefined aural morass, “Twist and Shout” explodes with a clean yet musical clarity, the singing more distinctive and immediate, the instruments possessing true timbres and resonant clatter. And who ever notices the expressive “Yeah!” at the end of the take?

Similarly, the mono With the Beatles unfolds with ear-bending vibrancy and liveliness. The rolling vocal harmonizing on “All My Loving” astounds. Across-the-board upgrades in airiness, dimensionality, depth, size, and Paul McCartney’s vastly underrated bass lines are detectable on every song. And whether it’s the now-noticeable presence of the piano or the wonderfully rattling chords on “Money,” or discernible rhythmic rumble on “Hold Me Tight,” the record has received a startling facelift that even Hollywood’s most expensive plastic surgeon wouldn’t be able to configure. With the band long faulted for being too sweet, the mono remasters open up space for the argument that the Beatles possessed an edge—if not a slight mean streak (witness the 3-D imaging of “No Reply” off Beatles for Sale).

Vocal precision, smoothness, and extension become even more pronounced on Help! and Rubber Soul. Ditto for the realistic bottom end, long absent on most Beatles recordings. McCartney’s bass and Ringo Starr’s percussion ride side-by-side, and smart albeit illuminating shades and accents—the tambourine on “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the twangy pitch of the guitar strings on “Ticket to Ride,” the breathlessness of Lennon’s singing on “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” the natural fade-out on “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” Lennon’s sucking of air through his teeth on “Girl,” the barbershop-quartet swoons during “Michelle”—emerge with breathtaking clarity. Enmeshed with the song as a whole, Starr’s Hammond organ playing on “I’m Looking Through You” now comes across as an integral part of the arrangement.

Revolver marks the point at which the mono-versus-stereo debates begin to get interesting. Admittedly, the backward tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows” sound cooler in stereo. In addition, stereo is how most listeners are accustomed to hearing music; for some, mono seems bare. Yet all that’s sacrificed with the latter versus stereo is a larger soundstage, a perceived sense of “hugeness,” and the security of familiarity; mono mixes exhibit an organic presence, naturalness, purity, and outright musicality that render moot any tradeoff. The horns on “Got to Get You Into My Life” have never emitted such boldness or pizzazz; the transparency of the chords during “Here, There and Everywhere” and movement of the bounding piano in “Good Day Sunshine” are utterly staggering. Pure genius.

For kicks, comparing the 1987 digital issue of Sgt. Pepper’s to the new remasters lends perspective to just how awful the former are, and how amazing Capitol’s 2009 entries sound. Whereas the previous edition of the landmark record comes across as tinny, lifeless, shrill, flat, and canned—to the extent where listeners are forced to mentally fill in parts they think (and know) should be present—both versions of the revised Sgt. Pepper’s present the album as an entirely new adventure filled with immense detail, holographic soundstages, authentic studio dimensions, and shocking instrumental and textural surfaces that heretofore have been missing in action. Tracks such as “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” seemingly float on an ethereal bed of studio effects, with tremendous top-to-bottom frequency extension revealing trippy surprises such as bells, wood blocks, congas, and various other percussive trinkets that possess a reach-out-and-touch presence.
Sgt. Pepper’s signifies the first instance where stereo gains an upper hand. Compared to the stereo pressing, the mono edition features less impact, punch, and dynamics. In some ways, it’s almost underwhelming when heard against its technologically advanced mate. Ironically, the results seem to argue on behalf of the use of judicious compression—meaning that the strategy can indeed be positive when used for intended dynamic purposes and not taken to loudness extremes as it so often is in modern recordings. And that’s exactly what Sgt. Peppers—and the Beatles records that follow—now resemble; the remasters make them sound like contemporary state-of-the-art albums that are recorded properly and brim with mind-blowing features that never grow tiresome.

mono box web

And yet, the mono version of Sgt. Pepper’s trumps the stereo in several regards. In stereo, “She’s Leaving” runs slower and lower in pitch; the laughter in “Within You Without You” is quieter at the end; McCartney’s scatting is hardly audible on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”; the psychedelic phrasing on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” isn’t as clear. Such discrepancies owe to the time lapses that occurred between the mono and stereo mixes as well as the full (or partial) participation of the band and George Martin, both of which favored mono. Such discrepancies are why owning both the mono and stereo mixes of Revolver, Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, and The Beatles borders on mandatory.

Accordingly, the stereo version of The White Album boasts life-size images and discerningly more pronounced frequency extension than its mono counterpart. The immersive experience gives birth to underexposed intricacies (the single snare drum strike that parallels the “shot” in “Rocky Raccoon”), defined footprints (McCartney’s bass purrs and growls), and completely new sounds (“Revolution 1” has what seems to be a horn—who knew?). Differences still abound. The mono version of “Helter Skelter” is shorter, sped up, and without Starr’s renowned “blisters on my fingers” comment. The aircraft effects during “Back in the U.S.S.R.” vary, and there are fewer grunts in “Piggies.” Due such distinctions—and no clear-cut winner between the two versions, although stereo does seem to have the edge—both versions are considered “authentic.”
Again, listeners get to be the bench judge, and most likely, won’t be able to come down on one side or another, which is another benefit of the series.

No painstaking decisions involve Abbey Road or Let It Be, as only stereo versions exist. Each album unfolds like never before—particularly Abbey Road. Thicker tracks such as “She’s So Heavy” come on as indestructible walls of sound replete with phenomenal low-end weight, superb definition, vivid dynamics, and unlimited ceilings and floors. Starr’s drumming on “The End” is absorbing and titanic; it sounds so good, it’s almost difficult to believe this is the Beatles, which, unless one had unlimited funds for collectable LPs, have never sounded great. Depending on one’s perspective, such a conclusion is the ultimate sign that the folks at Capitol and Abbey Road Studios not only succeeded but surpassed most expectations. For if the Beatles remasters signify the last great hurrah of the compact disc, at least the format is going out in style.

–Bob Gendron