Thursday, October 01, 2009
Don't Let Me Down
As anyone who knows me had probably assumed before I ever wrote this, I bought both the Beatles Mono and Stereo Box Sets back on September 10th (the one after 9/09, get it?). I haven't written about them because I wanted to take a while to listen to them and draw some conclusions before saying anything.
First off, I have to point out that this isn't a revelatory new release or anything; extreme statements by some fellow Beatles aficionados to the contrary, the 1987 CD releases weren't abhorrent in any way. They were a little flat, a little lifeless in places--even in comparison with other 1987 era mixes--but they weren't awful. Of course, the fact that the first four 1987 albums were done in a mixdown mono (not the true mono mix, not a stereo mix--sort of a variant mix in their own right) left a lot of fans (including me) dissatisfied. So I was glad to get these reissues.
Don't assume that I've waited 22 years for better versions of the Beatles albums, though. In the intervening years, I've transferred the first four stereo albums in my Mobile Fidelity boxed vinyl set to CD, so I have those songs in stereo; I've acquired the Dr. Ebbett's mixes and the Millennium mixes, enhanced versions of the original CDs tweaked by technologically advanced Beatles fans; the Purple Chick mixes, which include all sorts of bonuses, alternate takes, etc.; and the Capitol mixes of the first eight American Beatles albums, which is in many cases the way I actually prefer to hear these songs (the Dave Dexter remixes, as I've said before, were always punchier and richer in sound on those early discs than the comparable British original albums, and since that's what I heard hundreds of times in my childhood, some of those songs sound more "right" to my ears because it's the sonic signature that has been burned into my brain cells).
I listened to the stereo set first, because I prefer stereo to mono. The first two albums still sound thin; since most of the songs on those albums were recorded "instruments left, vocals right," there's little room to improve the bass resonance, for instance--all the instruments are packed together in one channel, and the dynamic range can only be tweaked so much. Voices are clearer, like a layer of gauze has been removed, but there's nothing remarkable here.
From the third album on, the sound begins to improve remarkably. Once the remastering engineers had multitracks to work with, they were able to do much more with bass response, drum crispness, vocal clarity, etc. The mid-period albums sound crisp and sharp and have a strong presence--but it's the last albums that sound the most improved. Sgt. Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour show some improvement, but the albums that really stand out are The Beatles (aka the White Album), Abbey Road, and Let It Be. The sound is energetic, punchy, and realistic in a way that the original CDs weren't; it comes across as if you're truly listening to a studio monitor mix rather than a standard CD.
(A couple of fans have created their own DTS 5.1 mixes from these albums, and the sound is quite impressive. There's enough stereo separation and instrumental clarity to make the 5.1 mixes seem quite believable; I think I've listened to those albums in quasi-5.1 as often as I've listened to them in stereo.)
The box set is quite nice, but there's nothing amazing about the package itelf. The features about the making of each album are intriguing, the booklets offer some great background info and rare photos, but the best package of all is the Box of Vision, a 12" x 12" album-sized box designed to hold all the stereo CDs plus their accompanying booklets and covers, along with an album-sized hardcover reproducing the album art in the size that it originally appeared. I bought the Box of Vision before I received the stereo set, so I already had a home for the discs as soon as they arrived.
The mono set is the more impressive package in terms of design. The CD covers are true miniature reproductions of the original album covers, and each CD is packaged in a protective plastic inner sleeve to prevent scuffing and scratching (yes, even after charging over $200 for the stereo set, they didn't even put the albums in protective plastic inner sleeves... pretty chintzy, huh?). But the problem is, these are mono mixes, and they simply don't have the resonance and the rich sound field of the stereo version.
I have a theory that a speaker can only reproduce complex sounds up to a certain levels before the instrumental sounds blur together to create a single-speaker sound that is an amalgam of all the instruments than the distinct sound of each instrument. Stereo spreads the instruments and voices over twice as many channels, so each speaker only has to reproduce half as many component sounds; mono requires each speaker to reproduce them all at one time, so instruments get buried in the mix. There are many mono mixes where I can't hear guitar bits very clearly at all, or piano lines get lost in the overall sound. The same songs in stereo distinctly sound each instrument, and I hear nuances that just aren't there in the mono.
Even so, it's good to have the mono mixes. These aren't just remixes; in some cases, they are different takes or different versions of the same song, altered in post-production with differing sound effects, slightly different mix speeds, etc. In truth, they are variant editions, and the completist in me sees the necessity of having both sets. Furthermore, the mono box set is the only place where you can get the legitimate stereo versions of Help and Rubber Soul, since George Martin remixed those albums for the stereo versions in 1987, creating another variant mix.
What I'm hoping for, of course, is that Apple and EMI will choose to release a 5.1 DVD-A version of these albums at some point. That would offer the clearest, most high-fidelity version of the albums possible, spread across six speakers so that each speaker can reproduce a smaller facet of the overall sound, creating a much greater fidelity. If you want to get an idea just how good that could sound, listen to the DVD-A version of the Beatles Love and you'll realize just how breathtaking a genuine 192kHz 5.1 mix could be. It seems absurd that every album by the Doors or Genesis or the Talking Heads could be available on DVD-A or SACD, but the body of work of the most influential band in rock history is only just now getting upgraded CD versions; there should have been a 5.1 DVD-A set offered on the same day as the remastered CDs. That's the set that will be the ultimate version of the Beatles music; everything until then is just an interim improvement.