Rarely does a new release on vinyl grab any attention from music fans–hell 50% of the country doesn’t even know that vinyl records are even still being made. But the recent issue of mono versions of the Beatles albums is a cause for major celebration for all vinyl junkies out there, never mind Beatles fanatics. Never before has a reissue program made such an impact on the record buying public as this. There are several reasons, but the main point of this is: you need these records.
Mono albums are kind of a polarizing issue for many people. I mean stereo? This is what we grew up with. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is a good example as to what can be accomplished with stereo-effects fluttering throughout the mix, sounds travel back and forth, up and down, and essentially you freak out nicely at the sonic gymnastics. This is what we grew up expecting, spatial stereo mixed albums. Mono comes out the same in both speakers. No separation of instruments, voices, percussion. Done well, it can feel very warm. Done poorly it can sound like a cheap AM radio playing. But back in the 60’s, mono was the gold standard. The Beatles (and the Rolling Stones) put all of their albums out as mono releases. The big reason was that back then was simple. Most record players had a single speaker. Most portable radios had a single speaker. Car radios had a single speaker in the top of the dashboard. AM radio broadcast in mono. So for all practicality, mono was best suited to all forms of playback that were out there. This is why an inordinate amount of time was put into mono mixes. For many vinyl aficionados, mono releases are du rigeur. Fifty years of stereo releases have erased this fact from most people’s memories and from most audiophile’s playbooks. The new Beatles releases are set to change all of that.
Some little known facts back this up. First, the mono mixes were the only ones the Beatles sat in on, and approved. They worked long hours to get these mixes perfect. They recorded with mono in mind. The set up of microphones in the studio for all instruments was done with mono in mind. The final product was intended to be mono. With the recordings fresh in their minds, the band and George Martin worked together to put the final touches on the recordings to make them ‘perfect’. Or as perfect as they could. Stereo was new then, few had discrete stereo systems with two speakers. FM radio, with its ability to broadcast in stereo was in its infancy in America. So stereo mixes were haphazard, quick and sometimes messy. The Beatles were not in attendance for any of the early mixes in stereo, and sometimes even George Martin declined to participate, leaving the task to studio engineers. They were considered an afterthought. (although some concerted stereo effort did go into the White Album, and Sgt Pepper) The stereo albums often amateurishly pushed the instruments into one channel and the vocals in the other, an unsettling experience on a good stereo. This is an important point: the Beatles mixes we have been listening to since childhood are not the ones the Beatles thought were what the album should sound like. From the first album Please Please Me to The White Album, all Beatles albums were created in mono, meticulously rendered by George Martin and the band. But these albums disappeared very quickly from shelves, or in the case of the White Album, never appeared on American shelves at all. (Abbey Road and Let it Be were recorded only in stereo). The stereo mixes soon crammed the mono albums, the ones that the Beatles intended us to hear, completely out of sight forever. A huge part of musical history was lost. George Harrison is on record as saying the stereo mixes “ruined the sound from our point of view”. This is pretty weird when you think about it. The Beatles albums that were created from 1963-1968 have essentially never been heard by anyone in the United States, or even the UK for that matter. Unless of course you are over 60 and were clued in to what was cool in the mid sixties. That list is definitely makes up the minority of record collectors.
This changed in September 2014, with the vinyl release of the Beatles complete in mono. I know what some people are thinking-“Didn’t the Beatles remasters come out on vinyl in 2012?”. Yes, that is true. But those copies are not true analog releases. For some inexplicable reason, they were sourced from digital remasters, (and not even the high quality transfers either, the downsized 44.1k files were the source, not the 192k transfers). Most of the public has never heard an analog Beatles release-1987’s CDs were sourced from a digital transfer. So for the last 27 years, we have had some fairly crappy approximations of what the Beatles wanted us to hear. The new mono releases, however were created in a true analog path. The original analog master tapes at Abbey Road were brought out of mothballs, fired up on original tape machines, and were sent to a laquer cutter with no digital equipment involved in any part of the path. Pretty amazing to pull this off in 2014’s digital age. The result is an endearing warmth that is easily noticeable on any decent sound system. Advances in sound reproduction in the last 50 years have enabled masters to be cut with more clarity and definition than the originals, and sound is improved. This is an achievement for 2014, going backwards to go forwards.
Another big reason to snap up these puppies is that for the original mono releases, many different mixes were used. The best example is Sgt Pepper. Playing this album will be a revelation. You never have heard this record sound like this. Other websites chronicle the exact differences (suffice it to say they are significantly different), but lets leave it at this single statement-mono Sgt Pepper and stereo Sgt Pepper are two completely different animals. The White Album and Magical Mystery Tour (really only an EP, not an album) also deviate noticeably from the familiar mixes we all grew up with. Revolver and Rubber Soul also have some large differences in guitar, vocal and percussion choices.
The production is stellar. They were pressed in a former East German record plant, with heavyweight virgin vinyl, under near computer chip clean room protocol. Each individual LP was allowed to cool before being sleeved. The US stereo LPs of 2012 were pressed at Rainbo records, and were distinctly poor quality. Recycled vinyl, paper scraps swirled into the vinyl, pops, warps and skips. Terrible stuff. But these things look and sound incredible. Between songs they are almost as silent as a CD. The jackets reproduce the mid sixties UK jackets-glossy covers, flaps wrapping around the back on three sides, the White Album sliding the vinyl in the top not the side (and each LP individually numbered like the original), the original inner sleeve for Sgt Pepper (not seen in over 45 years). The only quibble would be the photographic reproduction of the color covers is not quite up to spec, fuzzy and unfocused, with color washouts.
So to wrap it all up in one shiny blanket-get these things if you have a turntable. Get these if you like the Beatles even if you don’t have a turntable. Ditch your 2012 vinyl remasters. Ditch your CDs, ditch the kids, settle in, hunker down, and relive the sixties like you were meant to. But never had the opportunity. Until now.