The Beatles in Mono

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The Beatles in Mono

The Beatles in Mono, the 14-LP box set of the band’s UK albums, was released on September 9 and completes a journey begun in 2009, the year that the fully remastered Beatles catalog was offered in the compact disc format in both stereo and mono presentation boxes. The refreshed, compressed, and in some instances equalized CD collection, which was derived from high-resolution digital masters, took aim at the broader market but proved to be a tantalizing teaser for audiophiles wondering if Apple/UMG were considering an LP reissue. As it happened, 2012 saw the LP release of the complete UK set of The Beatles stereo albums in 180-gram vinyl.

However, controversy ensued, as it often does in audiophile circles. The vinyl reissues were also cut from digital masters, not the original analog master tapes that audiophiles had clamored for. Adding insult to injury, Apple Records decided to go with the 44.1/24 cutting masters rather than the higher resolution 192/24 archival files, a missed opportunity in the minds of many, a fatal compromise for others. Yet, as if to make amends Apple has redeemed itself by cutting The Beatles in Mono (TBIM) from the original analog master tapes. And they’ve employed a pure analog chain, with no digital processing whatsoever—an event characterized in its press materials as “an audiophile-minded undertaking.”

Prior to the release of TBIM TAS music editor Jeff Wilson described the methodology used to bring the new vinyl to light (Issue 246). To recap, engineer Sean Magee and mastering supervisor Steve Berkowitz (Grammy recipients both), working at Abbey Road Studios, employed the same procedures used in the 1960s, right down to referring to the detailed transfer notes made by the original cutting engineers, notes that included gain and EQ and balance settings. Further, the pair spent hours comparing the master tapes with first pressings of the 60s vintage mono records. Using a well-tested Studer A80 machine with a true mono playback head, the new vinyl was cut on a 1980s-era Neumann VMS80 lathe. According to Sean Magee the goal was to produce the “original intention” of the band while allowing the advanced manufacturing procedures and LP playback systems of today to take full advantage of the analog tape’s potential, unimpeded by the cutting limitations and playback equipment of that distant era.

Much is made of the importance of The Beatles mono catalog, and for a very simple reason: up until the late 1960’s mono was the format. It was how the band and most everyone else listened to music. It was as natural for them to mix and master in mono, a familiar and popular format, as it would be to avoid devoting valuable time to a relatively obscure and unproven newcomer, stereo. It also explains why the stereo masters were mostly the work of producer George Martin and why his engineers often produced them in shorter sessions weeks after the fact. Today the Beatles catalog is an admixture of formats that differ materially from one another. While the myriad of quirky differences has been well documented for years, ultimately the monos represent the truest intention of how The Beatles wanted their songs to be heard.

The 14-LP box set includes the band’s nine UK albums (packaged in their original artwork and liner notes), the American-compiled Magical Mystery Tour, and the Mono Masters collection of non- album tracks produced on 180-gram vinyl from Optimal Media of Germany. The flip-top box, identical in construction to the stereo box set of 2012, includes an original 108-page hardbound book specific to the mono pressings that includes loads of artwork, rare photos, and further commentary and production notes by Keith Howlett.

The overall sonics of these mono recordings, especially as the band matured into its Help/Rubber Soul/Revolver phase, are simply superb right down to the pristinely quiet surfaces. This was not the narrow tunnel of clouded images and compressed sound that many of us have been led to believe define the mono listening experience, harkening back to AM radio for some of us. For example, cueing up the “fast” version of “Revolution” from The Beatles Mono Masters, you hear more of a throat- clearing blast, the guitar tracks roaring to life with energy and specificity and seeming to shake off the dust of decades. The tracks are strongly focused, as you’d expect with mono, and the vocals are almost surgically positioned, communicating the musical topography in far greater detail dynamically, and with a more colorful tonal palette. I repeatedly marveled at how delicately the backing vocals rode so smoothly on top of the lead vocal during “Drive My Car” (Rubber Soul), and how, on an early Ringo track like “Honey Don’t” (Beatles for Sale), the vocals retained a discrete quality that most would exclaim was stereo territory, not mono. The band’s complex yet effortlessly smooth harmonies and George’s touch on his guitar’s volume pedal on “Yes It Is” (B-side of “Ticket To Ride”) is truly something to hear on this vinyl set and makes the case for going back to analog masters as well as anything I’ve heard here. Even the band’s earliest albums, recorded hastily (listen to the mike distortion during Lennon’s performance of “Money”), sound more present, dynamic, and remarkably raw and intense.

Track to track, these recordings consistently sound as if a veil has been lifted away, allowing more light and contrast to illuminate the songs—even in comparison to the otherwise very good CD mono remasters of 2009. The discs, in contrast to these LPs, sound more midrangy and forward, a bit darker overall, less transparent, and comparatively flat in regard to representing soundspace depth. For example, Paul’s high harmony backing track during “If I Fell” (A Hard Day’s Night) is revealed in cleaner detail on the vinyl right down to the warble in his voice as it strains to hit the upper notes. During “And I Love Her,” George’s classical guitar solo is fuller, richer, and more authentic to the sound of the nylon- stringed instrument, and the woodblock percussion accompaniment has greater timbre and clarity. In general sibilances are crisper and resolve more smoothly, and during the closing guitar vamp you can now easily hear that it’s Paul’s voice humming along. The same cue on the CD puts a digital edge on that moment.