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|| News Item: Posted 2009-10-04

Magic and Mystery in Mono
By Brad Shirakawa

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Some 20 years ago, Sgt. Pepper taught the Beatles how to play. But it's been more like 45 years since hardcore Beatles fans have heard the music the way it was truly intended. And most people in the world never have.

Just a few weeks ago, Apple Corps. reissued the Beatles LPs as remastered mono and stereo CD box sets, much to the delight of these fans. Collectors have sought out so-called* original vinyl pressings of the music, because those "in the know" know that the 1980s CD issues weren't mastered all that well, and the old fashioned vinyl was the best way to hear die Beatles. And for the most part, it was true!

So with much anticipation come the 2009 remastered versions of the songs that have been heard millions of times, mostly on Capitol Records LPs in America, and on Parlophone CDs worldwide. So are the new mono CDs better?

I'd say yes.

Not night and day better, but enough for the $200 plus I spent on the mono set to be worth it. I'm not sure the casual fan will care, however.

I compared several songs from the my UK Parlophone and Swedish Parlophone LPs of "Please Please Me" vs. the 2009 remastered CD. No, I don't own "original" first pressings of the vinyl records. Most of my Beatles vinyl is in the fourth to 10th pressing range. (Generally, the earlier pressings sound better)

The CDs are just smoother, with tighter, more focused bass. Ringo's drums sound like a veil has been lifted. The vocals pop out, and you can hear details that weren't there now. The LP is a little grainy sounding and brittle, a little too bright, especially played loud. Do the new CDs sound like they were recorded yesterday? No. That's not the point.

How about comparing the 2009 mono remaster of "And I Love Her" to the 1992 Extended Play CD that no one knows exists? That's right…back in '92, Apple put out a box set of CD-EPs, each of which held four songs, in MONO! The box consisted of 15 CD-EPs, and is considered among the best sounding versions of the Beatles music

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Well…I can't tell the diff! Both are clean and clear. A dead heat. OK, the 1992 set isn't nearly the whole Beatles catalog, so if you want all the LPs, the 2009 version is far more inclusive. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab 'half speed master" vinyl recording of the "Rubber Soul" LP, issued by MFSL back in 1984. The Mobile Fidelity Beatles recordings are sometimes derided as being less than stellar, but after listening to "Norwegian Wood" I found the difference between the 1984 MFSL vinyl and the 2009 CD to be so slim I could barely tell which was which.

Finally, I listened to the remaster of "Day Tripper" from the 2009 "Mono Masters" CD to the 1994 "For Jukebox Only" Capitol 45-rpm record released on colored vinyl. Here the 2009 is just smoother, fuller and easier to listen to. The song has always been a little mid-rangy in tone, a little harsh. The Capitol version has reverb on the vocals, the 2009 CD doesn't. Capitol engineers in the 60s added the reverb, and most Beatle purists have a hard time listening these Americanized versions of the Beat boys. The 2009 wins this one pretty handily.

If you wonder why anyone would want a mono recording, its because the Beatles were far more interested in the mono mixes than stereo, as stereo was simply a novelty in the early 60s. The argument is that the mono versions are more of what the band members wanted. Someone else mixed the stereo versions of the early LPs, with the vocals sometimes panned far right and drums far left, and that bothers a lot of listeners (but not me). I can't say the mono versions are always better than the stereo, but it often sounds more natural.

Sometimes the mono mix is actually different than stereo. An obvious example is the stereo version of 'Please Please Me' that contains a singing mistake by the band that is corrected on the mono version. But I have to admit, I LOVE the stereo version. John laughs after the mistake, and it's a huge part of the charm of the song, which is my favorite of all their tunes. It's also one of the great things about most music made in this era. There's a human, unprocessed feeling to it that sounds like the band is having a good time making a song, mistakes and all.

Which gets us back to the beginning of this story. You want to hear the Fab Four as they intended? If you're a Beat-Geek like me, then go buy the mono set. Or buy the stereo CDs individually or as a box set as you like. 'Sgt. Pepper' is worth a listen in both mono and stereo, as there are variations between the two.

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Either way, I can just about guarantee that the Beatles will never sound better, and will never be remastered like this again. Too many people and corporations have to say "yes" for this kind of thing to happen, and it took decades.

Getting the 2009 box set is a damn sight easier than collecting the umpteenth version of the Beatles LPs or CDs that are out there. Believe me, completists spend mucho cash, searching out every version of Beatles songs that exist.

I can't say that my Parlophone vinyl versions will all see retirement. They still sound good enough. The fun part is putting one on a turntable, dropping the needle, and reading the LP cover while listening. And thinking about the magic, the mystery, and the plain great songwriting that is John, Paul, George & Ringo. Argue all you want about it, or Let It Be.

*Believe me when I say that finding original pressings is more than just finding a vinyl copy of a Beatles record at Goodwill. Early Parlophones were basically released in Europe only, and were then quickly superseded by another pressing. There are literally dozens, perhaps hundreds of variations of nearly every Beatles LP out there, and you have to really know what you are buying. For example, sometimes the best sounding Beatles LP came out of a German factory!

(Brad Shirakawa is a photographer and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can see his member page here:

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