Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Beatles Box Set, The Beatles In Mono, 2009

This one has been a long time in the making. I decided that I should review the newly mastered Beatles catalog and evaluate them for myself. I’ve been listening to the new Beatles remasters in both stereo and mono, and comparing to earlier CDs as well as vinyl copies. This has been happening on and off since late November, and I’m now ready to draw some conclusions. Well, sort of conclusions, anyway.

For those of you who don’t appreciate the weird permutations that are the Beatles catalog, a brief review. In the 1960s the original Beatles LPs and singles were released in the UK by Parlophone. The same music in different packaging configurations was released in the US by Capitol (VeeJay released the first Beatles singles and LP in the US, but Capitol got the distribution deal rather quickly, and reissued all of the VeeJay material later). The Beatles LPs in the US and the UK were quite different all the way until Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the first LP to be released with the exact same songs and running order in the US and UK. In 1987 when the Beatles catalog was at last released on CD, the UK LPs were released on CD worldwide. Also in 1987, the two-CD Past Masters sets were established, which collected singles and EP tracks that never made it to a UK LP. Many of the Past Masters tracks had been LP tracks in the US. Since 1987 the entire “official” catalog consisted of 16 CDs, the 13 original UK LPs (with the White Album on 2 CDs), and the 2 Past Masters CDs. Since 1987, quite a bit of “new” and recycled material has been released, including the three 2-CD Anthology sets of outtakes, demos and alternates, the Live At The BBC 2-CD set, and the recent (2004) release of the Capitol Albums Vol. 1 and 2, two 4-CD sets that present the pre-Sgt. Pepper material as it was packaged in the US, with each LP in both stereo and mono versions.

And now for the 2009 CDs. All of the original material from the 1987 CDs that was included in the 1987 Box Set is here in the new Box Set, in newly remastered stereo using the original master tapes as a guide. There are mini-documentaries on each disc that tell about the recordings and include Sir George Martin’s own personal recollections. There are nice sleeves and both original liner notes and newly written recording notes, again with Sir Martin’s input. Just to confuse things, there is also a Beatles In Mono box set that collects all of the LPs that were originally mixed for mono (you don’t get Abbey Road or Let It Be, which were only ever mixed in stereo). You get mono mixes of Sgt. Pepper and the White Album that you’ve probably never heard. Finally, in 1987 George Martin remastered Rubber Soul and Help! because he didn’t like the original 1965 job. The 1987 mixes are presented on the stereo box, but the mono box includes both the mono mixes and the original 1965 stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul.

All of this material has been painstakingly restored. The original master tapes were cleaned up and transferred to a high resolution digital format, and then the digital copies were remixed to enhance their sound, correct any mixing and tape errors made in the original mixes, clean up any noise (there was plenty), and finally the high-resolution digital files were taken down to the Red Book standard CD 16 bit, 44 kHz file format. What, no SACD? No Blue Ray Audio or DVD-A? No. But there is a limited edition USB format that delivers all the box set goodies as well as all the music in 24 bit FLAC files. So if you’re using a computer as a music source and can handle higher resolution audio files, the USB version would be the best sound possible right now. I have not heard the USB version, so I can’t tell you how good it is.

So what sounds best? Should you replace the box set of 1987 CDs? Should you buy the mono or the stereo box? Should you even care at all? These are the questions we hope to answer.

I purchased the new Beatles In Mono box set. I bought it because I was interested in hearing the mono versions of the later records, and because the mono versions of the earlier records always sounded better to me than the stereo versions. Also, I own stereo versions of just about everything on vinyl. I have good condition vinyl copies of Let It Be and Abbey Road, so I didn’t need those. I borrowed my friend’s copy of the new Beatles stereo box set, and I’ve listened to every version I have on hand of each record, including vinyl and several of the 1987 CDs that I own or borrowed from the library.

As far as the first four LPs go, I listened to the Stereo Box, Mono Box, Japanese Mono Vinyl (these are the Japanese vinyl versions that Michael Fremmer hates because they are mastered from digital files, but they are probably hi-res PCM files because they sound better than the 87 CDs for sure), and various original and reissued American vinyl versions. Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night and Beatles For Sale all sound better to me in their mono incarnations. The mono mixes are more dynamic, and seem to have slightly better bass than the new stereo versions. The new stereo versions are very, very good. The detail is excellent, the noise floor is dead quiet, and they are super-clean. For these records, either the new mono box set or the Japanese mono vinyl copies sounded equally excellent, followed closely by the new stereo versions. In all cases, the American Capitol vinyl copies I had on hand sounded worse than every other version, and like the 87 CDs, sounded dry and thin in comparison to these newly remastered versions in either stereo or mono. The big thing about the mono mixes is that they sound “right”. The Beatles were recording to two-track and four-track tape, and the stereo mixes often have voices on one side and instruments on the other. The mono mixes are more natural sounding, and remind you of the way these songs sounded in cars and on jukeboxes.

The middle period is a bit of a mixed bag, but generally I preferred the new stereo versions of Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. I had the 87 CDs to compare, and the new CDs sound significantly better. Again the 87 CDs sound dry and thin and lifeless while the new CDs are quieter, more dynamic, cleaner and reveal small details in the mix better than the 87 CDs. The bass is up in the mix more than any previous versions, but don’t expect to be wowed by this. The new CDs have more bass, but it’s a very minor effect. Listening to In My Life from Rubber Soul, the new stereo mix really focuses Ringo’s snare drum pops and cymbals, while the new mono mix has less attack on the snare, but more prominent background vocals. An older American Apple label vinyl version has the new stereo’s nice attack on the snare, but the background vocals were harder to separate from each other in the mix. Eleanor Rigby from Revolver was interesting. The new mono mix is really great, and the strings are beautiful. The new stereo mix is cleaner, and again the strings are gorgeous. The 87 CD was harsh and dry in comparison, but an old American Capitol vinyl version had the best bass of the bunch on the cellos, and it also had a nice warm sound that was different, and just as good as the new stereo CD. Of course, this would have been George Martin’s original stereo mix, and the new CD uses his 87 remix. It’s confusing.

This brings us to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Compared to the 87CDs, the new stereo version is cleaner, more dynamic, more revealing. The difference is not night and day, but it is real. The new stereo and mono versions are different, and both sound great. It’s fun to hear the mono mix of Sgt. Pepper, but it’s not as big of a deal as you might think. The stereo is what you grew up with, and it sounds excellent, just like you remembered, but better. The only vinyl version I own right now is a Japanese digital mastered LP, and it sound great too, but the new stereo CDs are the detail retrieval winners.

Magical Mystery Tour benefits from being in stereo. The mono version is interesting, but the stereo separation is an important factor in all the effects that are used on this recording. My original American vinyl version was bettered by the new stereo CD, also.

For The Beatles (aka The White Album) I listened to the 87 CDs, an American reissued “red label” Capitol LP, and the new stereo and mono versions. In this case, my personal favorite turned out to be the vinyl version. Warmer, more organic, a little forward sounding, and great bass. But there were more details in the new stereo version, and it’s clean. The 87 CDs were dry, flat, and one-dimensional. The new mono mix was fun to hear, and really changes a few of the songs on this record for the better. This one is by far the most interesting to hear in mono, even though the stereo mix is the more familiar.

Let It Be sounds great in the new stereo version compared to an original American Apple label vinyl version, and the new version of Abbey Road in stereo bested two very different vinyl versions, with my original American Apple pressing coming real close.
Some of the singles on the Past Masters CDs sound much better in mono, including Long Tall Sally, Slow Down, Day Tripper and Revolution. The mono mixes just sound “right” in a way that again harkens back to the car radio of the sixties.

Conclusions. If you own a good stereo system that lets you hear the difference between well made CDs and crappy CDs, and you listen to your current Beatles CDs with any regularity, then you need to buy new copies. The new stereo box set is excellent. The CD booklets are good, the packaging is good, the mini-documentaries are just OK and mostly a waste of time, but for some less knowledgeable fans, they may add to the experience some.

Am I sorry I bought the Beatles In Mono box set instead of the stereo version? No. I like the mono versions of the first four LPs. They just sound better in mono. I also own vinyl copies of the entire catalog, and they sound almost as good as the new CDs, and consistently better than the old 1987 CDs. The packaging isn’t as nice with the Mono box. You don’t get the individual CD booklets, or the videos, but the booklet that comes with the set is OK.

If you are moving from CD playback to downloading high resolution computer stored music files and using a computer as a legitimate high-end music source component, then the USB stick with 24 bit FLAC files is the best you can do right now, and I’ll bet they sound great. I’d be concerned that an even higher resolution digital format might become available soon, and the USB version is expensive.

If you listen to an iPod mainly or a small one-box type system tucked under the kitchen counter, your 1987 mastered CDs will be fine. Of course, if you’re that person, you wouldn’t possibly have read all the way to here.

The Beatles are back. Again.

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