The Beatles Get Back to Mono

The Beatles Get Back to Mono

In his article “The Beatles Remastered” that appeared back in Issue 198, Neil Gader reviewed the stereo and mono remixes that had recently come out on compact disc. Comparing that batch to an earlier CD project, Neil stated, “The newfound energy, detail, and transparency these remasters embody are a quantum leap from 1987. And for the legions of younger listeners without the benefit of the best Beatles vinyl these discs will be nothing short of a revelation.” Elsewhere Neil addressed mono specifically: “As for the mono recordings, they are so good they may unwittingly revive a cult.” Shortly before that article was written Neil had attended a pre-launch conference at Capitol records, and he ended his article by wondering about future reincarnations of the Beatles’ legacy: “Apple Records is keenly aware of surging turntable sales but do they see this as an opportunity for one last royal 180-gram box set? And if so, would EMI go to the trouble of cutting vinyl from the original masters or just use the newly archived 24-bit/192kHz files? Regarding vinyl, the Apple exec paused as if to ponder the possibilities. ‘It’s not a matter of if, only a matter of when,’ he replied. As for whether the analog masters will once more be pressed into service, the answer is out there, somewhere.”

The mono version of the project that was getting tossed around has now arrived. Cut from the original mastertapes, The Beatles Get Back to Mono revisits all the UK albums that appeared on mono along with one US release (Magical Mystery Tour) and a three-LP set primarily devoted to singles. The 180- gram lacquer-cut LPs can be purchased individually or as a limited edition 14-LP box set that includes a hardbound book with essays and a history of the mastering process.

This project has already prompted a great deal of discussion even though, at the time of this writing, few of us have heard a single cut. Many people are asking whether they need another copy of music they already own in at least one form. TAS will soon weigh in on whether the latest Beatles remastering project is everything we hope it could be. In the interim I thought I would check in with Sean Magee, the engineer who presided over The Beatles Get Back to Mono vinyl project.

Magee is no stranger to the legendary Abbey Road studios, his work there beginning in 1995. He was part of the Beatles remastering team that won a Grammy Award in 2011 for Best Historical Album, and he also cut the Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set. Magee has also worked on Pink Floyd, John Lennon, PIL, and U2 projects. His lacquer and Direct Metal Mastering experience includes recent reissues by Michael Rabin, Johanna Martzy, Georgie Fame, Duke Ellington, and Nina Simone. During a recent phone conversation Magee made it clear that he thinks that, as far as the Fab Four are concerned, mono is the gold standard.

“It’s been a quirk in history that with Beatles records stereo versions became the norm,” Sean said. “The mono ones are really what they paid a great amount of attention to. In those days pretty much everyone listened to everything in mono. The engineers spent a lot of time on mono, and the stereos were just an afterthought. There’s a lot more attention to detail on the monos. They’re both good, but I think you’ll find the mono mixes are far more focused and considered.”

I asked Magee if he had any preconceptions prior to the project that were wiped away by listening to the mastertapes. “They sounded much better than I thought they would,” he said. “Most of my life I’ve been listening to stereo, and I’ve been expecting stereo to sound nice and wide, and considering mono to be a narrow beam of sound coming out at you, sounding small and congested.

What blew me away was how open and three-dimensional it all sounds.”

Along with mastering supervisor Steve Berkowitz, Magee spent weeks comparing the masters with first vinyl pressings of the albums from the 1960s. When asked how the originals differed from the reissues, Magee said, “The biggest difference would be volume. I haven’t made any attempt whatsoever to cut these as loud as the original records. There didn’t seem to be any point in doing that because they weren’t going to be in anybody’s pile of records to try and compete. It was more to cut them cleaner, because if you cut a nice loud record you’re probably going to get problems with sibilance and distortion, and you might even get problems with the needle. You’re not going to be blown away by how loud these records are,” he concluded, “which is a good thing: God gave us the volume knob to turn to the right.”

The equipment for the project involved a combination of old and new technology. “The TG console was designed in about 1972,” he said. “My lathe was a very modern one, from 1980, a VMS80. The tape machine, I’m not sure of the vintage of that, but it’s a Studer A80 with a brand new mono head. It was an all-analog operation.

“You’re going to get more detail in these releases,” he added, “because the reproducing equipment we have—the tape machine, the cutting lathe—is able to reveal more.”

When asked which remastered platter sounded most different from the original vinyl, Sean had no trouble answering.

“Definitely The White Album,” he said. “We applied some EQ and then decided it may have been a little more extreme than we would have normally done, but it’s made a heck of a difference. It still has the same vibe; it just doesn’t sound as dark. We were looking at the cutting notes and we couldn’t see any reason why that should be. So we did a few tweaks and lifted out quite a bit of detail.”

The 3-LP Mono Masters helps fill in gaps from throughout the Beatles’ career, starting with the original single version of “Love Me Do” and ending with the “Let It Be” B-side, “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).” Notably featured on Mono Masters are some less- played early cuts, including “Thank You Girl,” “I Call Your Name,” “Slow Down,” “Matchbox,” “Bad Boy,” and “Yes It Is.” Also included are “Rain,” “Paperback Writer,” “Revolution” “Lady Madonna,” and “Don’t Let Me Down” from the American Hey Jude. The version of “Across the Universe” is from 1969’s No One’s Gonna Change Our World compilation instead of Let It Be. When asked which Mono Masters cut sounded best, Sean said, “One that leaps off the record at you is the single version of ‘Revolution.’ Everything went to 11. It’s a fantastic mix. It just growls at you.” He also explained why the release contained three discs instead of two. “We split it across three discs because there are a few more tracks on there than there are on the stereo Past Masters. It would be a shame to try to cut 30-minute sides.”

After talking to Sean Magee I thought about how different the vinyl experience of listening to the Beatles is for Americans—and in ways that make The Beatles Get Back to Mono seem, potentially at least, even sweeter. Clearly when it came to vinyl the US was relegated to a distant second in every way. The UK versions were more aligned with the Beatles’ wishes when it came to song sequence and selection. During the 1960s UK pressings were far superior to the American ones, and reverb was added to US copies because Capitol assumed that was what the public wanted. What this suggests is that, unless they managed to scrounge up some UK pressings, American vinyl lovers have even more to gain by procuring these mono pressings—that is, if they sound as good as Sean Magee believes they do. I’m eager to read the reviews and hear them myself. Meanwhile here’s a list of the albums included on The Beatles Get Back to Mono:

  • Please Please Me
  • With The Beatles
  • A Hard Day’s Night
  • Beatles For Sale
  • Help!
  • Rubber Soul
  • Revolver
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band · Magical Mystery Tour
  • The Beatles (2-LP)
  • Mono Masters (3-LP)