Monday, October 26, 2009

The Beatles Remasters: Choosing Favourites

In my last article I outlined the mastering history of The Beatles catalogue, culminating in the latest 2009 releases. Now I will recommend which of the versions (mono or stereo) you should buy to get the best impression of the music.

I should emphasise that George Martin and The Beatles preferred the mono versions up to and including Sgt. Pepper. They were explicit about this fact. The stereo mixes were made almost as an afterthought and sometimes contain different edits, takes and timings (due to tapes being played at slightly different speeds). I will not dwell on these differences here, as they have been long documented. (Though in a few cases they might jump out at me and require consideration.)

Now, on to a summary of the available versions of each album.

1. Please Please Me [1963]
2. With The Beatles [1963]

The first two Beatles albums were recorded on two-track tape, with vocals put on one channel and all the instruments on the other. This allowed the vocals to be balanced with the backing when making the mono master. Original UK vinyl releases were available in both mono and stereo. The stereo recordings had the vocals hard panned to one channel, being essentially direct copies of the master tape. These albums were released on the original 1987 CDs in mono. 2009 is the first time a stereo version has been made available on CD.

The decision is easy here. The mono versions are far superior as they avoid the completely artificial panned vocal track.

3. A Hard Day's Night [1964]
4. Beatles for Sale [1964]

From here on until The White Album The Beatles recorded onto four-track tape. Original UK vinyl releases were in both mono and stereo (with centred vocals). Released on the original 1987 CDs in mono. 2009 is the first time a stereo version has been made available on CD.

There's more dynamics in the stereo versions, due to the clarity of the new equalisation and bass boost. But the mono versions avoid the rather arbitrary panning of the instruments, which varies from tolerable to off-putting. I would have to come down on the side of mono. I think there's good reason these first four releases were originally in mono on CD.

5. Help! [1965]

Original UK vinyl releases in mono and stereo with centred vocals. This is one of two albums that were remastered in stereo by George Martin in 1987 for the initial CD release, primarily to clear up the sound and correct errors. 2009 is the first time the original 1965 stereo mix has been made available on CD (though, confusingly, it's on the mono CD). 2009 is also the first time the mono version has been released on CD.

Here the stereo version sounds like a veil has been pulled off the music, revealing it in new clarity. Some tracks benefit from this more than others with "Ticket To Ride" being quite incredible. Thanks to Martin's work in 1987 the panning of instruments is a lot more palatable. Stereo for this one.

6. Rubber Soul [1965]

Original releases in mono and stereo but with vocals in one channel. While there was no technical reason for this, George Martin was experimenting on this album with mono/stereo compatibility. Remastered for the 1987 CD release. 2009 is the first time the original 1965 stereo mix has been made available on CD (again, on the mono CD). 2009 is first time the mono version has been released on CD.

The remaster is again brighter and clearer but the mono version wins out in order to avoid the dreaded panned vocals. It is a terrible shame Martin did not mix this album the same way he did Help!, especially as many (not me) consider it the group's best work.

7. Revolver [1966]
Original UK vinyl releases in mono and stereo. 2009 is the first time the mono version has been made available available on CD.

This album has notable mix differences but overall the stereo mix is superior. Just listen to "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "She Said, She Said". They sound great! Stereo it is.

8. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [1967]

Original UK vinyl releases in mono and stereo. 2009 is the first time the mono version has been made available on CD.

Now this is unexpected, but I guess I should have listened to George Martin. Much lauded as a watermark in record production, Sgt. Pepper's takes full advantage of the four track recorder, sub-mixing, automatic double tracking and other techniques, some invented for The Beatles in the first place. So one would expect the stereo master to be preferred, but it's not that simple. With their tracks dispersed into two channels both "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" and "Good Morning, Good Morning" lose a good deal of their coherence. This is plainly apparent near the beginning of each track. The sound field simply falls apart.

In the stereo version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" some of the effects in the intro are missing -- more than just a small change to me. "Lovely Rita" is pitched higher and sounds just wrong. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" even has a noticeable vocal glitch at 1:32. I didn't get out my microscope or listen twenty times to hear these differences; they were plain on the first listen.

On the other hand "A Day in the Life" benefits from the stereo spacing that abstracts the vocals from the rest of the instrumentation; what is often undesirable works here, since the song is supposed to be trippy. Good use is made of stereo; for example the vocals shift channels and effects as the song progresses. If I had to guess I'd say they spent half the day mixing this one song for stereo and did the other dozen after their tea break.

And oh yes, both versions have the original locked groove track.

Conclusion: You need to hear both mixes. But many songs are as good or better in mono.

9. Magical Mystery Tour [1967]

Original UK vinyl releases in mono and stereo (though some tracks were only fake stereo). 2009 is the first time the mono version is available on CD.

Again, the mono versions are more coherent and work better as pure "songs". But the stereo versions let imagination fly on what was The Beatles most fantastical recordings; I would not want to be without these. Stereo wins.

10. The Beatles ("The White Album") [1968]

Partially recorded on four-track tape and partially on eight-track. Original UK vinyl releases in mono and stereo (but stereo only worldwide). 2009 is the first time the mono version is available on CD.

At this point I am happy sticking with the stereo versions. More time was being spent on them in the mix. I guess that this record was only released in mono to appeal to those listeners still stuck with mono pickups. Besides, "Helter Skelter" is truncated and less interesting in mono. Can you imagine this song without the false ending and Ringo's scream?

11. Yellow Submarine [1969]
Original vinyl release was stereo worldwide and also as a mono fold-down in the UK. Available only in stereo on CD.

There are only four new Beatles songs on this record ("Only A Northern Song", "All Together Now", "Hey Bulldog" and "It's All Too Much") and they were initially mixed only in stereo. True mono versions were later made for a possible EP release (including "Across the Universe"); these are available for completists on "Mono Masters".

12. Abbey Road [1969]
13. Let It Be [1970]
Recorded on eight-track tape. Originally mixed and released in stereo. No true mono versions exist so these albums are not included in the Mono Box.

14. Past Masters [1987] / Mono Masters [2009]
For the 2009 remasters the track sequence of Past Masters has been retained, with new stereo versions of some of the tracks originally released on CD in mono. All the singles that were originally mixed for mono (up to "Get Back") have been included on Mono Masters.

The mono version of the first disk is preferable for the same reasons as the earlier albums. All these songs were meant to be mono. On the second disk the stereo versions of songs like "We Can Work It Out" sound fab. But "Day Tripper", for example, is not much improved. The echo has been emphasised by the compression, changing the character of the song.

"Revolution" might be preferred either way. The stereo remaster has a significantly clearer and more open sound, but the mono version is more integrated and coherent. These are very different mixes! The later singles were recorded and mixed with only stereo in mind. I think a fan needs both disks.

In summary, I would buy these in mono:
1. Please Please Me [1963]
2. With The Beatles [1963]
3. A Hard Day's Night [1964]
4. Beatles for Sale [1964]
6. Rubber Soul [1965]
8. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [1967]
14. Mono Masters [2009]

And these in stereo:
5. Help! [1965]
7. Revolver [1966]
8. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [1967]
9. Magical Mystery Tour [1967]
10. The Beatles ("The White Album") [1968]
11. Yellow Submarine [1969]
12. Abbey Road [1969]
13. Let It Be [1970]
14. Past Masters (for disk 2 only)

Of course one can only buy the mono disks in the boxed set. At least for now. This makes it particularly difficult (read: expensive) to hear the albums at their "best". Even if one was happy with Help! and Revolver in mono, one would still have to purchase 7 CDs on top of the Mono Box. This is an intolerable situation, especially as the first time around the first four albums were issued separately in mono. Now 99% of listeners will be hearing The Beatles in an inferior version!

What would really be best is if the original multitrack tapes were remixed in order to provide palatable stereo versions, ones where instruments (especially vocals) are not hard panned. I have no idea why this was not done for the 2009 re-issue series. It cannot be out of some attempt to be "true" to the originals, since stereo was never original in the first place; it was a complete after-thought. Besides, much more radical remix albums that have already been issued (Yellow Submarine Songtrack, LOVE, Let It Be... Naked, Anthology tracks and so on).

This wouldn't even be that much work, considering that most of this transfer and processing is already being done, and in a much more extreme form, for the music to the Rock Band game. Simultaneously, 5.1 mixes could be prepared, opening up whole new possibilities both artistically and commercially. With these available alongside the mono versions everyone would be happy.

Do not be surprised if at some future juncture "new improved" stereo masters are once again issued. Record companies are not averse to making us buy an entire catalogue of music over and over again. In the meantime we can be satisfied with some of the best music ever recorded... even if the attempts to update it are not perfect.

In my next article I'll pick some of my favourite Beatles moments.

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1 comment:

robin said...

Updated the article to correct an omission. Albums recorded on eight-track are now indicated.

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