Unbiased reviews of new vinyl releases, audiophile reissues, and more

Thursday, September 10, 2009

First Listen: The Beatles in MONO Remastered Box Set (The White Album)

On September 9, 2009, EMI released the long-anticipated remasterings of the Beatles U.K. catalog. For the first time on compact disc, all of the albums originally released on mono will be available, along with a two-disc Mono Masters set, which collects all of the singles and non-album mono tracks. These mono discs are packaged in a box set entitled, The Beatles in Mono and the individual titles will not be available separately.

Unlike the stereo box set, the mono set is being produced in limited quantities and is likely to become a collectible in the future. This mono set was manufactured in Japan and has exquisite mini-LP packaging, which replicates the original vinyl packaging right down to the Sgt. Pepper's and White Album inserts.

The Beatles (White Album) mono

The Beatles, otherwise known as The White Album, was originally released in 1968 and is the last Beatles title to have been issued in both mono and stereo. Both versions were sold in the U.K., however, if you resided in the U.S.A., only a stereo version was available. Over the years, the mono White Album has become increasingly difficult to find in clean condition and copies routinely fetch hundreds on Ebay and elsewhere. Given its scarcity, it isn't surprising that there is more interest in this title than any other title in the Mono boxset.

In preparation for this review, I pulled out my original numbered U.K. mono top loader copy. As with the other remastered Beatles titles, my primary review method is repeated listenings of full album sides, with only occasional head-to-head comparisons of individual songs.

The Beatles (1968)

The first thing you notice upon playing this mono remaster, is that it isn't as loud as most of the stereo releases. Unlike the stereo remasters, no compression or limiting was used in mastering the mono releases and it begs the question: why couldn't the stereo releases be done this way?

The mono remaster has excellent dynamics and never sounds too loud or causes any listening fatigue as do many modern cd masterings. I suppose the reason they used compression/limiting on the stereo releases was to make them sound a bit more modern as the target buyer of the stereo discs is considerably different from the buyer of the mono box.

While thankfully there wasn't any attempt to moderninze this mono album by making it louder, such an effort was made via the EQ choices made during mastering. This mono remaster sounds much closer to 2009 than did the original 1968 U.K. mono vinyl.

The Beatles in Mono (mini LP packaging)

Unlike Abbey Road, which was released the following year, The White Album didn't possess audiophile quality sound. The album opens with Back in the U.S.S.R., which more than any other song on the record, has a harsh, bright, a.m. radio type sound. The remastered cd smooths out those harsh edges by adding some bottom end and taming the upper-mids and high end.

Likewise, on the equally bright Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, the remaster smooths out the sound--and on both of these songs, these eq choices work by making the songs more listenable and enjoyable. Unfortunately, for most of the remainder of the album, this modernizing comes off as a kind of revisionism, and this smoother, more polite, hifi sound also results in a much less active midrange and top end, sapping the life out of more than a few of the songs.

Accompanying John Lennon on Dear Prudence, is a haunting steel string guitar. On the vinyl, the highs and upper mids of the guitar sparkle and sound oh-so realistic. Sadly, the smoothing of the mids and highs that worked so well for the remaster on the other songs falls flat and the guitar loses the magic sparkle heard on the vinyl. And while the vocal character in I Will and Julia shines through, the acoustic guitar on Julia is once again missing that last bit of sparkle found on the vinyl.

Unlike the remastered cd, listening to the vinyl takes me back in time--full midrange and highs; full, but not big bass. Some will say the vinyl sounds like it's coming through a bullhorn or a.m. radio. But next to the overly polite remaster, I find it more exciting.

The Beatles (1968)

The remastered cd does have a couple of distict advantages over the original vinyl. It has none of the surface noise and occasional groove distortion that plagues some of the songs on my vinyl copy. Noise and distortion notwithstanding, the original vinyl easily beats the cd if for no other reason that it rocks more.

The irony of the increased bass on the remaster is that Ringo's snare drum, which gets many a workout on this record, is much more realistic sounding on the vinyl. On both Birthday and Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey, Ringo's snare drum sounds far more realistic on the vinyl. Furthermore, due the shaving of the upper-mids, the remaster loses some of the organic crunch of the guitars and the realism of the snare. Simply said, the vinyl sounds like a four-track tape recording in a sweaty club; the cd sounds more like it was recorded direct to a board in the studio.

You could easily spend the better part of the cost of the entire mono box set trying to find a clean, original U.K. mono copy of the White Album. If you don't spin vinyl, this set seems to be a no-brainer as there simply are no other legitimate means to get the Beatles mono output on compact disc. However, if you primarily spin vinyl, as nice as this set it, I can't recommend buying it for this disc alone. And when the remastered vinyl is released later this year, we'll still have at least one more shot at the perfect mono White Album.

NEW-- Second Listen: Beatles in MONO (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band) Remastered Cd Review and Comparison to U.K. Mono Vinyl

Related: Beatles Abbey Road Remastered Cd Review and Comparison to U.K. Vinyl

Beatledrops -- Samples of Beatles Mono and Stereo Vinyl, Remastered cds

Vintage Vinyl Spotlight: The Beatles Blue Box (BC-13)


Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

I realize that the times we live in are just too damned weird to focus any degree of attention on a rock 'n' roll band that released its final recording forty-years-ago last month - two of whose members are gone from our midst. Think about it. In 1969, at the height of all that was going on then, any columnist who would have devoted a entire page to the greatness of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra would have been laughed out of the business. But this isn't just any band we're talking about here. With the exception of the President's address to a joint session of Congress last night, I didn't spend much time yesterday focusing on affairs of state. September 9, 2009 belonged to the Beatles.

Yesterday marked the long-awaited release of a box set containing all fourteen albums recorded by the Fab Four between the years 1962 and 1970. What makes this package different from what has previously been available is the fact that the engineers at EMI (the studio in London where they did most of their work) have digitally remastered the recordings from the original multi-track tapes. It was like listening to them for the first time all over again. The Beatles have never sounded better - I didn't even think that was possible!

Let me attempt the impossible and sum up the Beatles' message in one sentence: We are the makers of our own dreams. That works for me.

Dream. Dream away.


Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

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