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

Monday, September 14, 2009

Second Listen: The Beatles in MONO Remastered Box Set -- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Released in 1967, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band marked the Beatles most ambitious recording project to date. Originally released on vinyl in both mono and stereo, the mono version quickly went out of print and has never been issued on compact disc until now. Favored by many hardcore fans as representing the true intention of the band, a mythology has developed behind the mono version and many younger fans are now hearing it for the first time.

While there will always be some debate over which is the greater version of the recording, there is no doubt that the mono Pepper remaster has been about as highly anticipated as any other of their recordings, save The Beatles (White Album) in mono. Given that interest, Myvinylreview reviews the Pepper mono remaster today.

(The Beatles release Sgt. Pepper's, 1967)

In preparation for this review, I pulled out my original U.K. Parlophone mono (with -1/-1 matrices) for comparison with the remastered mono cd from the Beatles in MONO box set. As with all of the reviews in this remaster series, my method was repeated listenings of full album sides, plus occasional back to back comparisons of individual songs.

In this instance, E.M.I. did an excellent job of not only giving us a fantastic sounding Pepper, but also in staying faithful to the sound on the original Parlophone mono vinyl. As advertised, there is no evidence of any compression or limiting being added during mastering--and this cd sounds better and better as you turn it up. Unlike the mono remastered cd of The Beatles (White Album), where it sounds like the EQ was changed from what is on the original vinyl to bring a more modern, uniform sound to the double album, the EQ on the mono Pepper remaster stays true to the sound of the original.

I've always preferred the mono Pepper over the stereo for all but the epic closer, A Day in the Life, where the stereo simply works better in conveying the overall apocalyptic mood of the song. And this remastered mono cd really delivers from start to finish, conveying 98% of the experience of the original U.K. mono vinyl, if only bringing a bit less air and ambiance to the mix. For many, the lack of any surface noise or inner groove distortion will make this their preferred listen even if they already own the original vinyl.

A great deal of what makes Sgt. Pepper's such a compelling experience is the orchestration that accompanies much of the record. And the mono remaster really delivers the midrange richness of the strings during She's Leaving Home, as well as Harrison's dreamy sitar-driven Within You Without You. The mono remaster also beautifully reproduces the sweet midrange wood of the clarinet as well as the character of McCartney's voice in When I'm Sixty-Four, with the same realism as the original vinyl.

Only on the opening title cut (and the later reprise), and during some of the transitions between songs, does one really even notice that last bit realism and ambience to be lacking on the cd--and there is a good argument to be made that it is the noise inherent in the vinyl format that contributes to this difference, rather than any mastering choice by the engineer.

All in all, this is an excellent effort by E.M.I. Given the true-to-the-original EQ and lack of surface noise and inner groove distortion, this mono remastered cd is what I would consider essential. Those who own the original U.K. vinyl (and don't needledrop) can put it away, as this cd will get you 98% there and then some. Hopefully, E.M.I. will use the same approach in doing the remastered stereo vinyl, and then we can also have A Day in the Life in all of its stereo glory.

NEW: Beatles Revolver Stereo Remastered cd review and vinyl comparison

First Listen: The Beatles in MONO Box Set (The White Album) remastered cd review and comparison to U.K. vinyl

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)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for these reviews. But aren't we missing the point by always talking about EQs, levels, clarity and detail, as though music is something static? For me the big problem with CDs compared to vinyl lies in the timing. More often than not, CDs simply don't reproduce "that swing" you get on analogue. They are like a dancing robot that is programmed with all the right moves, but lacking the human element. If you tell it to the technician who made the thing, he will shout and scream at your that you're a psych somatic clown what belongs in a mental home, because according to HIS computer analysis everything is perfect. I compared the new CD of "Abbey Road" with my old Japanese vinyl edition. Of course it's horrible that the cymbals, hi-hat and snare drum have no real ambiance and sound like kitchen utensils banged together, but it's even worse that the entire rhythm section sounds positively straight-jacketed. Perhaps this is better than the 1987 edition, but it's still not good enough. Perhaps a higher sampling rate will work. So tell me, is there any truth behind the rumour that a vinyl edition made from the 196kHz masters will actually be release, or is everyone just dreaming.

sean watson said...
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Keir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keir said...

I remember being shocked listening to an old vinyl Pepper I bought as a kid and hearing different sounds and pauses to what I'd been accustomed to; especially McCartney's shouting during the reprise.
But what I'm interested to learn is why one would choose mono over stereo. To get a real sound experience, doesn't sound separation trump mono where all sounds are lumped in together? How can a mono LSD be a more rewarding experience than stereo?

Anonymous said...

Dogdamnjamesboy says:

The "stereo" of the 1960s was not stereo as we know it today. There are several reasons for that.

1. Limitations in studio recording equipment. Basically, making a good stereo mix from a four track master machine is difficult if you also want to utilise the possibilities of overdubbing and correcting individual mistakes, which at that point was deemed more important than a well-balanced stereo mix.

2. Limitations in domestic stereo systems. These were often built into a single cabinet with a short distance between the speakers. Hence, for the consumer to hear a really noticeable stereo spectrum, instrument or voices were often "panned hard", i.e. placed far out on either side of the mix. Also, people who had just invested in a stereo system expected to be able to really hear the separation and hence demanded such a mix.

3. In the 1960s everyone was expected to be "experimentive", so some pretty silly things happened on that account. That goes for mixing in stereo as well.

4. The lack of a common industry standard for how to make a stereo mix. This standard actually existed with early stereo, when studios recorded straight on to a stereo machine with no possibility of subsequent mixing. For instance, many Elvis Presley stereo recordings from the early 1960s sound very modern in the way they are balanced. When studios got in multi-track recorders they kind of lost the plot for some 6-8 years, after which technological development (more tracks) meant a return to the old principles, which have ruled ever since.

The philosophy behind mixing a rock group is to have the centre of gravity - i.e. the bass and the bass drum - in the middle along with the main focal point, i.e. the lead vocal. Everything else is spread symmetrically on either side. For instance, a rhythm guitar on one side can be balanced up with a piano on other other. In comparison, the 1960s stereo mixes have instruments and voices spread pretty much at random, not focal centre and no center of gravity. Since the whole point of playing ensemble music is to create something wholesome and coherent, the idea of splitting it up in this manner can be almost destructive to the music, particularly when played on a modern system with three metres between the speakers, or when listened to in headphones. This is particularly pronounced with the Beatles, who weren't outstanding solo players but were incredible ensemble players who outweighed each others' shortcomings perfectly. The stereo mixes of the day show up the shortcomings and miss out on the collective effort.

When comparing the stereo and mono mixes of the 1960s, it is ironical but true that the mono versions are the ones closest to the way stereo is mixed today, as well as the way it was done prior to c. 1963. The mono mixes have the same weight and focal center as modern stereo, and though they obviously have no instruments panned to either side they will on a good hi-fi system sound very full and satisfying. Furthermore, they were the preferred medium of the group and their producer and the main core of the Beatles catalogue, the exception perhaps being the "White Album". Since then their records were only mixed in stereo, but in a manner to also meet the demands of consumers who only had mono systems, which were probably still the majority. Such stereo mixes were called "mono compatible". It is well worth listening to both "Abbey Road" and "Let it Be" with the mono button depressed for the sake of variation, and it is just as much what the group intended us to hear as playing these records in stereo.

Anonymous said...

Dogdamenjamesboy continues:

It should be added to the above that in Britain at the time, stereo was not taken seriously but seen as a gimmick that had caught on in the US, but would probably go away after a short while. After all, a stereo system is really two systems built into one, costly, and presenting a lot of practical problems including the sheer amount of space they demand. Had it not been for US demand it is doubtful that very many stereo records would have been made in the UK during the 1960s at all. In any case, these mixes were very much done in a hurry and with not much thought of the result. Why EMI/Apple has chosen to relegate the sonically superior and historically all important mono mixes to a limited box set is quite beyond belief.

Alain C B said...

I basically agree with "Anonymous"/"Dogdamnedjamesboy" about the all-too-important mono mixes (see "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn"), and I too have trouble coping with the irony of EMI's LIMITED release box sets of The Beatles' mono recordings.

Just a quick word about how you over rationalised the mono vs stereo justifications of the époque (60's) -- in the UK in those days almost all music was played in mono - on the radio - and most people had single speaker turntables and/or radios, and then some people(/"audiophiles") like my dad owned HI-FI "stereo" sytems with TWO SEPARATE SPEAKERS you could place on either side of yer room, analog amp with EQ needles, and a sweet direct-drive turntable (equipped with a Shure or Grado cart) that plays 33+1/3s, 45s, AND 78s!!


Alain C B said...

... not to mention he's got 1st UK 12" pressings of 'Help!','Rubber Soul','Revolver','Sgt. Peppers [...]', 'The Beatles' (/"White Album" - 1st UK pressings were top-opening, and had the famous serial no. stamped on ...), and they're all of 'em near mint (!) ...

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