The jewel in the crown, Sgt Pepper is probably the single most coveted and collectable mono in the catalog. From the opening theme straight through to “A Day in the Life” and the crashing final chord from an assemblage of pianos there are an amazing amount of sonic differences worthy of note. A quick examples is the opener where–unlike the stereo LP–Paul’s lead vocal isn’t ghettoized in the left speaker, the band jailed in the right, and during “A Little Help From My Friends” no longer do you lose the timbre and tunefulness from Ringo’s snare–you can hear more impact along with its ringing decay. Plus the opening guitar lead of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is more bell-like and prominent, the vocals and vocal effects are more finely focused. The stereo mix in comparison is still grappling with placement issues, leaving disruptive holes in the soundspace. Ringo’s percussion work is more grandly featured In “Fixing A Hole”. “She’s Leaving Home” gives the listener more harp to follow, more of a sense of fingers plucking the strings . And speaking of harping on the issue of vocals–the mono vinyl reproduces low level background vocals like you’ve never heard them on the either the stereo or the remastered CDs-they are simply more articulate and smoother.
Other notes; “Within You, Without You”, it's no comparison. The stereo mix shuttles the tabla off to the right channel, George’s lead vocal is a bit wiry. Also the chorus of voices at the end are not nearly as energetic and pronounced as the mono version.
During “When I’m Sixty-Four” I found Paul’s vocal much warmer compared to the thinner, whiter impression off the stereo and mercifully no longer panned hard to the right either.
One of the biggest poke-in-the-eye differences arrives during the reprise to the Sgt Pepper theme. In a complete reversal the lack of vocal energy of the CD is replaced by a much more forward and aggressive lead and a more intense crowd-ambience. Plus Paul’s vocal riffing at the end is louder and more comprehensible rather than sounding like a fading ghost in the stereo.
And finally the orchestra rising slowly to crescendo during “A Day in the Life” is more textured and dynamically alive, almost alarming in its intensity than the more pacified stereo mix.
The White Album
The White Album was the last of The Beatles albums to be mixed to both stereo and mono. Stereo was clearly maturing and you can hear it in this collection. I’ve always found both versions equally valid but some of differences still make me waver in favor of the mono. A typical example would be “Cry Baby Cry” where Lennon’s vocal is placed a bit more forward, the track itself shedding the slightly shaded character of the CD. “Honey Pie” is expressed with a broader more open soundstage, a heightened midrange presence and a forward energy that has come be almost predictable with these LPs. “Stunning gradations of texture and timbre” is the only way I can suitably describe the heavier bloom of the drum fills and the high harmonies near the end of “Long Long Time”. And “Yer Blues” flat out rocks. The song is dynamically more explosive while the guitar solo is searing in its intensity. Also check out the silkier vocal doubling of the “slow version of “Revolution”.
“Mother Nature’s Son” had more bloom while “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” rumbled forth with more bass information both in terms of extension and resonant warmth. The CD’s may have tighter, and more controlled bass at times but too often these discs lack resonance and decay detail.
Continuing on, I found “Dear Prudence” more appealing with its top end and fuller warmer bass. “I Will “ possessed greater vocal intimacy and fuller more articulate bass voicing–that is, Paul literally singing the bass part. And if you haven’t heard the sped up mono version (the stereo is normal speed) of “Don’t Pass My By” you’ll have to admit that it has an air of Alvin and the Chipmunks about it.
If there’s one head-scratching moment about these reissues, it’s the question of why go to this trouble to use an all-analog chain for the mono set and not the earlier stereos? The analog obviously sounds better. So the question needs to be asked, did Apple and UMG miscalculate the LP market and with it the scrutiny that vinyl spinning audiophiles would bring to bear? Or was it just too costly to go the analog route twice? Hard to say.
As I carefully placed these LPs back in their sleeves it also occurred to me that The Beatles In Mono exemplify a terrific amount of engineering discipline. Track after track the musical canvas paints a vivid and complete sonic picture. There’s a vitality that runs through the center of each album that the stereos can’t quite match–to paraphrase John Lennon’s remark about “Revolution” the monos are heavier records. The stereo set on the other hand portray a far less consistent style, more erratic, a lot of musical “holes” dead center with a vocals still well off to the right or left (“A Day in the Life”, both actually). Stereo, as we know it today offers a larger toolbox of choices but you can still hear The Beatles team coming to terms with the format. But in the grander scheme of things this is really all tangential to the larger point of just how unbreakable The Beatles’ legacy is fifty years later. Mono or stereo (not to mention Love in multichannel), competing formats, pristine originals or crummy remasterings and crappy pressings–whether the tunes are played on a stellar system or an average rig, no matter. The music and musicianship shines through every time. And every time is a thrilling voyage of rediscovery.
The bottom line is that with few exceptions The Beatles in Mono is a sonic triumph. And considering that at $200, $300 or more a pop for an original mint Parlophone, The Beatles In Mono represents an almost impossibly great value. And thankfully the stars aligned just so or it might never have happened. Now we all can hear what was once reserved to a very exclusive club of collectors. And, as the Beatles, I'm sure would certainly agree, “ a splendid time is guaranteed for all”.