Phil Gallo | LiveDaily

The Beatles Remastered: “The Beatles” in Mono

The Beatles made people care about music. Nearly 40 years since their breakup, perhaps they’ll get a new generation of listeners to care about sound.

There’s not a more apparent beneficiary from the remastering than Paul McCartney’s bass playing. After 22 years of being lost in a mess of clumsy distortion on the initial Beatles CDs, his inventive work on the four-string Hofner has been restored to its proper glory in this first thorough remastering of The Beatles catalog.

The effect of hearing Paul’s bass lines as rounded and distinctive musical thoughts shine brightest on “You Won’t See Me” from “Rubber Soul” and the entire stereo version of “Magical Mystery Tour.” When it comes to hearing The Beatles in a way we have not heard for some time, all ears should turn toward the White Album. Compared with the vinyl and the initial 1987 CD release, it boasts most significant improvements and its mono mix is perhaps the biggest treat in this series; “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” on first listen, is the most affected song in the entire collection.

For all but the stereo versions of “Help!” and “Rubber Soul,” the engineers worked from the original analog tapes. “Help!” and “Rubber Soul” were remastered from a new stereo mix from the stereo digital master tapes of 1986; in both cases, the stereo element is more pronounced and sonic depth has been restored.
There’s no denying improvements abound throughout the 12 albums and the two-CD collection “Past Masters.” In general, the new versions have rounded out the brittleness that plagued albums such as “Rubber Soul,” improved the sonic definition on the later works (“Sgt. Pepper,” “Abbey Road”), and reminded us of how pronounced the stereo separation was–vocals on one side, everything else on the other–on the earliest records (“For Sale,” “With the Beatles,” “A Hard Day’s Night”).

And by offering all of the albums in mono in a single box vs. individually in stereo, EMI even goes so far as to bait longtime fans: Do you want to re-purchase your collection or do you want to acquire the Beatles music the way John, Paul, George and Ringo approved it after the initial mixes were made?

Kevin Howlett’s liner notes in the “Mono Box” drive home the point that the Fab Four were most concerned with the mono mixes, even on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and that stereo mixes were handled weeks or months later, and in many cases involved different takes. Howlett dissects the difference between stereo and mono versions, noting that “Sgt. Pepper” and the white album have the greatest number of variations, concluding the mono version is the “authentic” one. No word on how The Beatles themselves feel about it. (For the record, “The Beatles,” the White Album’s formal title, was only issued in stereo in the US and in stereo and mono in the UK.)

For anyone looking at the two complete collections, it’s a no-brainer of a situation. The mono versions of the first four albums deliver the music more naturally and with steadier force, plus the mono sleeves duplicate the original LPs and feature truer reproductions of the album art. Bizarrely, the stereo versions have some grainy artwork, which they make up for by including extra photos in the booklets that also include essays on the initial recording sessions and later mixing activities. The White Album stands out as the finest art project, too.

Mono is the way to go here, but do not expect as big a surprise as the ones yielded when The Rolling Stones’ 1960s catalog was remastered. On those early Stones records, sounds that had been pushed through loudspeakers as thuds on vinyl and earlier CDs suddenly had definition: That sound that was most likely a bass drum was actually a half-note on Bill Wyman’s bass, a hit on the tom-tom and a tambourine.

The Beatles collections, like the freshened up Bob Dylan SACDs, have their musicality enhanced. The music seemingly expands as the rumba elements become more pronounced on George Harrison’s “I Need You” from “Help!,” the way Harrison’s sitar on “Norwegian Wood” moves forward and back in the mix on “Rubber Soul,” the airiness in the guitar solo on “Come Together” from “Abbey Road,” and the brightness of the acoustic guitar and pitchy group vocals on “”Two of Us” from “Let It Be.” On all but the more experimental tracks, the music feels live and in the moment, a snapshot of the band working together quickly and smartly.

Having spent more than a week comparing the current versions with the 1987 CDs and vinyl pressings from the late ’60s and early 1970s in several settings–car, computer and listening room–a new hope arises: That Capitol will go the 180-gram-vinyl route whenever they are allowed to put the albums on iTunes and other digital services.

As digital files, the songs load on iTunes at more than double the size of the older CDs. Loaded as AAC files, the older “Come Together,” for example, went in at 4 megabytes, while the new version is 9.3 mb.

In the case of “Abbey Road,” a ripped version restores shape to the sounds and a distinctiveness to the notes being played. In the computer and the car, “Magical Mystery Tour” failed to recapture the expansiveness of the vinyl and, until it was played on a stereo, sounded no different than the earlier CD.
Some songs, no matter where they are played, sound unchanged. There is no less hissing at the start of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and the flutes still distort at the song’s conclusion. The “Let it Be” album not only sounds haphazard; the performers sound absolutely drained of any energy.

“Past Masters” has an interesting predicament. On the two CDs with 33 tracks released as A and B sides of singles, there is a noticeable difference between the new release and the ’87 version. Going back a step further to the collection Apple released in 1970–“The Beatles Again” according to the label; “Hey Jude” according to the spine–it is remarkably noticeable how much information the CD does not process. “Paperback Writer,” “Rain” and “Lady Madonna,” songs recorded when The Beatles were experimenting with everything from song structure to microphone placement and tape looping, are key pieces of evidence pointing to the superiority of vinyl. At 33-1/3 everything meshes better, notes and instruments are clearer, the subtleties in volume and vocals more easily deciphered. Funny how technology makes us long for the good old days. Vinyl and mono–who knew?

Phil Gallo | LiveDaily.com

8 September 2009