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Review: Beatles Mono and Stereo Remasters Box Sets

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SO, HOW DO THEY SOUND?
THE HOWS AND WHYS OF THE 2009 REMASTERED MONO AND STEREO BEATLES CATALOG

James N. Perlman

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Introduction

On September 9, 2009, EMI/Capitol released the entire Beatles catalog, both stereo and mono, in a remastered CD format. The primary purpose of this essay is to discuss the remasters largely in terms of their sound. Listening occurred on what would be considered an audiophile system with Quad 988's and a Rel sub-bass as the speaker system. The conclusion I reach, after listening to both the mono and stereo remasters, is that, overall, the mono remasters are the better, truer, releases, not only in terms of content, but as also in terms of pleasure, and trueness, of the listening experience. [The mono mixes were the ones the Beatles and George Martin worked toward through The Beatles (The White Album).]

Universal Observations About the Sound of All of the Remasters

Before I address the primary subject of this article I want to address the first question many people ask when it comes to these remasters: Why remasters instead of remixes and remasters, as has been done with other catalogs from other musicians and groups from this era? When we think about the process of getting Beatles material into commerce, it seem pretty logical that remasters are probably the way it had to be in order to get these albums out. Sometimes we forget that in order for this enterprise, or most any Beatles enterprise, to get off the ground Paul, Ringo, Yoko and the Harrison estate have to come to an agreement. It is one thing to start a new project, like Love, and do a remix. It is quite another thing to start down the path of a remix of the core, legendary, catalog. A deal breaker could be just as simple as someone complaining that in a proposed remix someone else had been mixed louder than in the originals. That would end the discussion. For this reason, we will always be "stuck" with remasterings, or re-issues on advanced formats, rather than any form of remix. It is also the reason why EMI really didn't involve any of the Beatles in this project. Instead, when the project was finished, EMI presented the finished products to the Paul, Ringo, Yoko and Olivia Harrison and they were simply asked for a thumbs up or down. (Stereophile, October, 2009, Vol. 32, No. 10, p. 117)

Once it is realized a remix just couldn't be in the cards (thereby really improving the sound, as we heard in Love and Let It Be Naked), the remastering team was confronted with the original master tapes. Now, another problem crops up: the quality of the sound of the original recordings. Most people understand that from a technical perspective, at best, these were only OK recordings for the time. No one claims these were great recordings [save perhaps for Abbey Road and possibly The Beatles (The White Album)]. The reasons the bulk of the catalog can't be considered "great" recordings are because of the technical limitations at Abbey Road Studios I discuss later in the individual review of the album A Hard Day's Night. The reality of the matter is the Beatles mono recordings do not even compare favorably with earlier American mono recordings, such as Buddy Holly or, going back even further, Little Willie John. Similarly, overall, British stereo recordings from this era tend to lag behind American stereo recordings. Consequently, the remastering team was confronted with two very significant inhibitors in terms of making these re-issues sound great: 1) they couldn't re-mix the albums and 2) the actual sonic quality of the source material. The aforementioned Stereophile article also provides additional technical information regarding the remastering process that is pertinent to my conclusions about how these remasters sound:

  1. Tape Recorder used: Studer 80.
  2. Compression/limiting: Yes on the Stereos but "gingerly" according to Allen Rouse. Specifically, according to Rouse, the average level of the mixes was raised 3-4 dB "to make better use of the CD's dynamic window." Stereophile, November, 2009, Vol. 32, No. 11, p. 3. Limiting was not performed on the monos. When asked why limiting was used on the stereo remasters, Rouse replied: "When everybody stops limiting, then I guess that's probably the best thing that can happen, but everybody wants theirs louder... Everybody had phasing; it was a fashion, and then eventually people grow up and work out how far and how much you should use these things." Rouse stated they did not want to compromise the dynamics. But, as the graphic below seem to indicate, dynamics were affected.
  3. Pro Tools: Yes at 24 bits/192 via Prism A/D converter.
  4. NoNOISE Yes but only for a total of 5 of 525 minutes. Read more about Sonic Solutions NoNOISE (PDF).

Point No. 2 from the Stereophile article provides a launching point for one reason I find the mono remasters more satisfying than the stereo remasters.

If one takes a very simply oscilloscope, found in any commercially available CD burning software, it is clear very little was done to the mono remasters, just as Rouse stated. Here is a graphic of the song "A Hard Day's Night" taken from the 1987 mono re-issue:

Waveform-1.png

Now let's look at the same track from the 2009 mono re-issue:

Waveform-2.png

There is slightly less headroom in the 2009 remaster, and the track starts with a tad more gain. But, if anything, the 2009 mono actually shows a bit more definition in the dynamics without any clipping. On paper, this appears to be a good thing and a good job.

Regrettably the same cannot be said for the stereo remasters. As written above, compression/limiting was used on the stereo remasters. Compression changes the sound and wave form. It can make things sound uniformly, or more uniformly, loud. It can make a recording fatiguing and/or harsh. Dynamics at the peak of sound are almost always affected. Read more about compression...; Read more about the "loudness war"...

Again, the use of a simple oscilloscope reveals how this manifest itself in the 2009 stereo remasters. First, here's a graphic of "A Day In The Life" from the 1987 CD:

Waveform-3.png

Now here's a graphic of the same song from the 2009 remaster:

Waveform-4.png

Now look very closely at the graphs. In a few spots you can actually see where the tops of the volume are cut off by the compression in the 2009 stereo. One place is at the end of the song before the final piano chord. Notice how on the top channel the piano chord is as loud as the preceding orchestration as it reached its peak. Yet, in the 1987 graphic, you can see how the end of the orchestration is actually louder than the piano chord. Any question of regarding the relative actual loudness of the orchestration versus the piano chord is resolved by looking at the graphic of the 2009 mono:

Waveform-5.png

Our ears can play tricks on us. Oscilloscope, not so much. Let's be clear about this: perhaps the most important moment in the entire Beatles catalog has been altered.

Another place is about 1/2 of the way into the song on the top channel. A third revealing part of the two graphics is near the beginning, after the crowd noise from "Pepper's Reprise" dies down. Look at the relative bloom in sound, on both channels, when the 2009 graphic is compared with the 1987 graphic. While this bloom is most apparent at the beginning of the song, it continues on throughout. This bloom is separate from the fact the song starts out with slightly greater initial gain in the 2009 remaster. A further example of this bloom can be found by comparing the decay of the piano chord in the 1987 and 2009 graphics. Again, notice the bloom in the 2009 remaster. A final revealing portion is the funky "Answer me never" found at the end of the LP. All these artifacts are functions of the compression applied to the stereo remasters.

Hence, there should be no mistake about this, the stereo remasters have changed the music. One can argue whether this results in a better sound, but most would argue it doesn't. What cannot be contended is that this is the "same" music from the standpoint of dynamics of the recordings. These graphics, and you can find many, many other examples in the 2009 remasters if you look, explains to me why, overall, I find the stereo remasters lacking. I can hear the artifacts that are prevalent in a compressed recording. This affects the "musicality" of the recording. And, at the end of the day, what counts most to me is the "musicality" of the recording.

All this provides objective evidence for the conclusion the stereo remasters are lacking. But there is an addition reason the monos, overall, sound better. This reason flows from the actual recording process. It has been said, many times: the Beatles and George Martin spent most of the time working on the mono mixes. While emphasis has been placed on the notion the monos are the definitive mixes in terms of content, and in a purist sense they are, there is another, less obvious reason, the monos sound more musical. This reason has to do with the actual recording process. Remember, each track recorded (track used in the context of this and the following paragraph means track on a tape, not the full song; as in track on an album), that was later used in both the mono and stereo mixes, was designed to fit in with the overall sound of the mono mix of each song. Thus, at the end of the mix of the monos what exists is the full musical puzzle; with all the pieces in their proper place relative to the other. This results in the intended musical puzzle fully assembled.

When George Martin went to do the stereo mixes, he took many of the individual tracks, pieces of the puzzle, that were designed to fit into the final full mono puzzle, and separated them from the whole. Consequently, while, in almost every instance, these separate pieces of the puzzle sound clearer and more distinct in the stereo mixes (and this has its advantages when one actually wants to examine individual piece of the puzzle; say a Paul bass line or a John's harmony), many times the individual pieces of the puzzle sound out of context or thin or harsh, etc. in the stereo mix. This may not have sounded so wrong to many of us, particularly to those of us living in the United States, as all we really knew were the stereo mixes. But now, as many of us are hearing this complete catalog of music in the mono format for the first time, we can now actually hear the full musical puzzle as it was intended, with all the pieces of the musical puzzle properly assembled. For this reason, it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise that many are coming to the same conclusion: the monos, overall, sound more musical and, overall, provide the more satisfying listening experience. The reason for this is simple, the monos sound more musical because the intent behind each track was that it be used to assemble a mono mix, not a stereo mix. Sure, the vast majority of these same individual tracks were later used for the stereo mixes. And sure, they will sound individually clearer (Because they are, in varying degrees, separated from the sound as a whole.). But this doesn't change the controlling point, that from a production perspective, a musicality perspective, it obviously makes a world of difference that these tracks were recorded to fit in a mono mix not a stereo mix.

While there are many songs from which to choose to illustrate this point, let's examine one song, "Can't Buy Me Love," brought to my attention by Steve Brauner and K. Giorlando. In the '09 mono Ringo's drums drive the song. Ringo's drums give the song its energy. The volume is right up there with Paul's lead vocal. However, when you go to both the '09 stereo mix and a mid-70's vinyl stereo mix, where Ringo's drums come out of one speaker, they are muted and, consequently, there is a loss of energy to both of these stereo mixes. I think it is fair to conclude that when it came to the stereo mixes, George Martin, for production/sonic reasons, had to dial back the drums when he put them on one side of the mix. Still, the musicality and, arguably, the pleasure of the song is compromised by what Martin, no doubt, had to do in order to create a stereo mix. Obviously, there are any number of songs in this catalog where the same sort of analysis could be made.

All this said, I acknowledge that musicality is only part of the calculus, albeit a very large part. Clarity, tonality, dynamics, the ability to hear separate sounds, all play a role in creating the full listening experience. Thus, as will become evident in the individual reviews that follow, the heightened clarity of a stereo mix can overtake the mono mix, when the musicality is not compromised, or not, overall, compromised significantly (A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale) or when the material cries out for stereo and the stereo mixes musicality isn't significantly harmed (Magical Mystery Tour) as opposed to when the musicality is significantly harmed by the nature of the stereo mix (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). There are even instances where the compression applied provides a benefit. This is most prominent in the pre-Rubber Soul stereo remasters where the compression adds a bit of needed body to the tracks. This compression is somewhat similar to what Capitol did with the early releases here in the United States when Capitol enhanced the tracks with reverb and the like.

Still, in the end, I cannot come to the conclusion the stereo remasters are the definitive/best available stereo renderings. Instead, my recommendation is that people interested in the best stereo experience should stick with, or go to, either early EMI pressings or the Mobile Fidelity pressings. There are also some early 21st Century Japanese pressings, released at the same time as Let It Be Naked, which sound quite nice and quiet. As for the mono remasters, as I only have one Beatles mono on vinyl, Sgt. Pepper's, in a Japanese mid-1980's pressing, the only thing I can say is the two sound very, very, similar. As Pepper's seems to be the most challenging recording in the Beatles's catalog, this augers well for a conclusion the entire remastered mono project will compare favorably with mono vinyl pressings. Now that my general impressions of the sound quality of the stereo and mono remasters is complete, attention can be placed on the individual albums.

The Individual Albums

Please Please Me

The sound on the mono is just amazing. You can really hear the fullness of the echo as John sings Anna. The vocals just soar. Ringo was just so good, even at this early stage and so was Paul. They supported and framed the songs so perfectly. While the mono is the winner, the stereo has things to recommend. There is a bit more clarity, but this comes at the expense of fullness. If one is not bothered by the left right separation found in this, and With The Beatles, the stereos provide a complementary listening experience. With The Beatles: As with Please Please Me, the mono sounds so, so, nice. The stereo is perhaps not quite as good PPM, but the same overall comments above about the stereo PPM apply.

A Hard Day's Night

Because of the way HDN was initially rolled out here in the states, soundtrack not the EMI version, I think HDN is a bit of an overlooked album by the group. The album seems better and more enjoyable in stereo as you do get the clarity, without some of the negative sonic artifacts I find troubling on Pepper's, etc. I think the reason is that they now had four tracks so George Martin could do proper stereo mixes and still have a mostly fresh first-generation sound. Remember, there were only two track available for Please Please Me. However, when they got to Rubber Soul and Revolver, four tracks weren't enough, which required, in some instances, numerous dubs of the four tracks to another four track tape, merging the four tracks to one track, thereby opening up three new tracks. While this degraded the sound somewhat it also made it difficult to back-track and do the after-thought stereo mixes, which is why we have the atrocious "stereo" of Rubber Soul and Revolver. Consequently, the reason the monos of these albums provide the better listening experience has mostly to do with technical limitations. While the mixes on A Hard Day's Night are stereo mixes, they carry George Martin's idiosyncratic, but really right, decision to put the vocals in the center, the rhythm section to the left and the other instruments to the right. I always have loved how Martin took care to isolate the brilliant work of Ringo and Paul so many times instead of just following the convention of placing the drums in the center. This is why one of Martin's memoirs is entitled: All You Need Is Ears.

All this said, if you really want to hear HDN in stereo, and it isn't too expensive, try to find an early EMI vinyl pressing (anything from the mid-'70's back.). But for the vast majority of listeners, the remastered HDN and Beatles For Sale too, will provide immense pleasure.

Beatles For Sale

Comments, preference and reasons for preference similar to A Hard Day's Night.

Help

Thank God we have three different versions to compare to make life ever so easy. First, mono is the definitive mix, that's a plus. As a minus, while it sounds richer, it is also a bit cluttered compared with the stereo mixes. As for the stereo mixes, the remaster of George Martin's '87 remix does show some limiting in this new incarnation. A bit a hard to dial in the right volume. Sounds fuller, but that's the limiting. I am not sure I care for this version too much. As for the `65 stereo version, that comes on the same disc as the mono version, as this album is somewhat acoustic, the absence of the limiting that was done to the new stereo remix/remaster is a plus. The delicacy is there in "I Need You." Overall, the "old" stereo is prettier than the "new" stereo. One can argue over whether the "new" stereo or the ""old" stereo is better, I come down on the side of the "old" stereo, I like pretty. But as you get both the mono and the "old" stereo on the single mono disc, the cheapskate in me screams if you had a pistol to your head and only had to purchase one version of Help, it would be the "mono" disc.

Rubber Soul

Mono over stereo, if for no other reason than the left/right channel mix that plagued Please, Please Me, With The Beatles and is most egregious in Revolver.

Revolver

There is a section of "I Want To Tell You" where Ringo is so muscular and explosive in the mono that is missing in stereo and this is before we get to the issue of the left/right "stereo" of the stereo mix. Plus, there is just this overall richness of sound to the mono that is missing in the stereo. That said, it is a bit cooler to hear "Tomorrow Never Knows" in stereo. But, overall, mono, particularly considering there are parts of Revolver in stereo that sound a bit harsh.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

The things you have heard are correct about the mono mix, the clarity and control over the notes, instruments and vocals are all there. Overall, it just sounds better, fuller and richer than the stereo 2009 CD, plus it is what the boys intended. Oddly, the thing that was most breathtaking was "She's Leaving Home;" just a full, gorgeous, sound. In stereo, it just sounds relatively wrong; thin compared with the mono. That said, because "Day In The Life" is such a mind-f the stereo is the definitive version of this song.

As I live in Chicago, and have access to one of the country's remaining great stereo stores, that also boast three incredibly knowledgeable owners and an original Sgt. Pepper's British stereo pressing, following posting this review I went over there to compare the original vinyl with the two new CD re-issues. We listened to the reference system, Naim Audio electronic and Quad speakers. There was total agreement on what we heard. First, Pepper's mono CD had better tonal balance than Pepper's stereo CD. Pepper's stereo CD had better clarity than the mono, but this was defeated by the harshness of the sound (more on harshness shortly). Thus, overall, between the two CD's we preferred the mono CD. All that said, the original stereo British vinyl pressing crushed both. It had both tonal correctness, coloration and stereo effect.

Now as to the harshness issue, please be mindful that I have listened to these discs on two audiophile systems. Something like harshness is likely to be more prevalent the higher up you get in the stereo food chain. Thus, someone who doesn't have an audiophile system may not experience the harshness at all, but it is really there. This may render some of the stereo CDs more listenable for these people than they were for me, at least when it comes to Pepper's.

Magical Mystery Tour

While Pepper's sounded better in Mono, MMT sounds better in stereo, and remember good vinyl will be better in stereo.

The Beatles (The White Album)

Both versions have their merits, you need both. If you can only go for one, it's the stereo. But remember, good vinyl will be better in stereo.

Abbey Road

The defining moment of these re-issues, and why it took four years, may be found on AR's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Because they couldn't take the tape hiss out without compromising the sound, they didn't. But when it came to John's final "yeah" which was over saturated and clipped previously, they were able to take the clipping out, and for the first time, you can hear all of John's vocal. With all that said, remember, good vinyl will be better, and the flat-out best sounding CD is the unauthorized Japanese issue available from 1983-1985 (Sony CP35-3016) which is quite pricey due to its unavailability and high-quality. For more information on this issue see these two helpful links: MopTop.org Review on Ebay

Let It Be

For this title I decided to compare three versions of LIB, an original 1970 EMI vinyl, this remastered CD and LIB Naked. Following this comparison, it turns out that LIB is one of the more interesting remaster releases. First, LIB Naked has it all. It is true to the original vision of the Beatles for this music. It has clarity, correct dynamics and musicality. One of the places you can hear this best is in the title track and the differences between the Martin and Spector mixes. Martin got the church-like nature of the song. Consequently, you get more organ and the choir-boy harmonies of John and George, which Spector dubbed over with horns, strings and over the top solos by George. And I'm with Sir Paul concerning the damage done by Phil to "The Long And Winding Road." As for the 1970 LIB vinyl, it has its problems from a sonic standpoint, particularly as it is a Phil Spector production. This brings us to this remastered CD. It trumps the 1970 standard vinyl in clarity but not LIB Naked. The real surprise is that the compression added to this remaster actually makes this a more Phil Spectoresque production than the original. And, surprisingly, I like it, at least compared with the 1970 vinyl. Still, Naked is what you want.

Past Masters (Mono and Stereo)

As these are songs from the entire range of recording techniques used in the years of the Beatles's career, for the most part, the general advantages and disadvantages of the mono and stereo recordings discussed above apply. The one thing to add is that the mono tracks from Yellow Submarine are wonderful; another reason, if another reason is actually needed, to purchase the mono box set. In fact, the Mono Past Masters would have been the knock-out winner between the two if they had added a stereo "Let It Be" and "The Ballad Of John and Yoko." After all, the "stereo" Past Masters is actually a mixture of stereo and mono.

Conclusion

Somewhere along the line, during the weeks following the release of these remasters, I started to draw an analogy between these remasters and the Sistine Chapel. Like the Sistine Chapel, we have works of great, timeless, art. And, like the Sistine Chapel, necessary restoration work has been done to a work of art. When it comes to the mono remasters, the work done by Allen Rouse, and his team, was largely akin to removing all the soot and dirt that had accumulated on top of Michelangelo's masterworks, thereby restoring the original work to much of its initial beauty. This is the true goal of a restoration, preservation, project. But when it comes to the stereo remasters, what Rouse's team did was exactly what later "artists" did to the Sistine Chapel: They colored over it to, in part, make it more fashionable for the time in an "attempt to enliven the appearance of the work." Rouse admits this in the Stereophile article mentioned above. But I contend altering a masterwork to align it with fashion, or to enliven it, is something that should never be done when the goal is to preserve timeless art for history. Eventually, as was the case with the Sistine Chapel, the layers added to the 2009 stereo remasters will be removed. We'll get the stereo mixes in a more natural state. Will this reveal the inherent faults in the stereo mixes? Sure. But these inherent faults cannot be changed. I think the true purpose, or value, of the stereo mixes is, primarily, to have a stereo mix to complement the mono mix. Mixes that, many times, will reveal more detail than the monos and provide a different perspective to this wonderful music. Having the stereo mixes in their original state is what is required for this role and for history.


© Copyright James N. Perlman. 2009 All rights reserved.

James N. Perlman

Read Jim's Amazon.com review of the Beatles Remastered Box Sets

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