09 September 2009

The Beatles Remasters - Stereo vs. Mono

Note: I made revisions to this review on Sept. 12th, having spent more time with the mono box.
Obviously the Beatles are not particularly obscure, but these patron saints of psychedelia deserve at least a little monkey luv at the Psychedelic Garage with their remasters. We'll focus our psychedelic lens starting with "Rubber Soul" and continue through to "Abbey Road," bypassing "Yellow Submarine" because it's not worth it, and "Let It Be" simply because I don't like that album. I've heard most of the stereo remasters at this point, and the sound is quite sterling (I'm patiently waiting for my mono box to show up in the mail, but I have heard them all in Ebbett's form). All the bass missing from the 87' discs have returned, sometimes with a vengeance. I had to flat line the bass listening to "Abbey Road" in my Volkswagen Beetle, whose sound system usually annoys me due to lack of bass. There is some grunge back in the voices, which helps McCartney sound a little more human in those cheeseball moments of his ("Your Mother Should Know," "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da," and the list disturbingly goes on), makes Lennon sound more awesome, and Harrison spacier. Of course in the stereo versions allow for greater clarity in the instrumentation and allows the listener to have greater appreciation for the arrangements. Still, the Beatles were mostly involved with the mono mixes up until around the "White Album," and I'm greatly looking forward to the denser, but in my opinion generally more interesting mono mixes.

The mono set finally came in the mail, and sounds quite phenomenal. They didn't compress and limit and throw all the sound into the red, so it has a very smooth, quarter inch tape sound that the stereo remasters lack (and makes it sound firmly of 60's vintage). The liner notes for the mono are pretty impressive as well, even more so than the stereo version, whch I still enjoyed. Rubber Soul and Help! also include the 1965 stereo mixes. They're not too far off from Martin's 87' mixes, but they do benefit from the more appropriate remastering.

For those of you still stewing over which mix to go for, here are a few of my album-by-album notes:

Rubber Soul
The rockers like "Drive My Car" and "Run For Your Life" end up with a much sharper edge in the mono mix. Still, this album tends to be known for its folk rock cuts (especially in the U.S. version, which isn't part of either set). The stereo gives them a little more of an open, 'playing folk in the field' sort of sound, which is likely appealing for many of you. I still have to give my vote to the mono, which has a more claustrophobic, darker sound. I like my folk-rock a little hairier. Anyway, those of you sticking with the mono disc still get the 65' stereo mix, which is pretty oddball, but not as different from the 87' mix as some would have you believe. both of them feature hard stereo separation, which is a major pet peeve of mine.

I'm pretty split over which mix of this I prefer. In the column for stereo is "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows." The mono mix of "She Said She Said" annoyingly brings down the instruments when the vocals come in. Maybe I'm too OCD, but this almost ruins the mono album for me. "Tomorrow Never Knows" works pretty well either way, but I can't deny that the swirling sound effects in stereo is a major plus. Mono manages to add focus and aggression to rockers like "Taxman" and even "Doctor Robert" that the stereo lacks. "Eleanor Rigby" works a lot better when Paul and the strings are not in separate channels as they are in stereo, and in general George's Indian excursions, like "Love to You" here, work much better in mono. Sitar and tabla work much better when not spread out.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Y'know, I always thought that this album was waaay overrated until I heard the mono mix. Now it stays in contention for my favorite Beatles album. I will give that "A Day in the Life" works better in kaleidoscopic stereo, but the rest of it deserves to be heard in mono. The title tracks rock much harder in mono, as do "Getting Better" and "Lovely Rita." "She's Leaving Home" runs a touch faster and mono, giving it a grace completely lacking in stereo, the version on which I always found the track a drag. Paul knew what he was doing here- it just doesn't sound like that in stereo. Well, almost. I have trouble dealing with "When I'm Sixty-Four" in either mix. Lennon fares well in mono as "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" becomes, like, eight times more psychedelic and "Mr. Kite" is much groovier as well. "Within You Without You" is far more focused in mono, and I no longer consider it a dull excursion as I did with the stereo version. All in all, I'd call the mono a psychedelic masterpiece while the stereo strikes me as a mere shadow.

Magical Mystery Tour
I guess that the EMI engineers had figured out the whole psychedelic mixing thing by this time as the stereo version is generally listenable. The only major flaws are that "I Am the Walrus" infamously switches to mono since the "King Lear" broadcast at the end would otherwise be impossible, and "Baby You're a Rich Man" sounds pretty thin to my ears. Still, I feel like the mono has a groovier vibe - especially for the actual soundtrack songs and "Penny Lane," which comes across too cutesy for me in stereo. Although "Blue Jay Way" loses some elements in the mono, the mysterious vibe comes across just as well, if not better than the stereo track. There is something to be said for the wide open instrumentation of "Strawberry Fields Forever," but in the end I still prefer mono. Basically, this album is a toss-up in the sound debate. Oh yeah, I know the picture cover is incorrect; I just like the EP version better.

The Beatles
By this time the Beatles were taking more of an interest in the stereo mixes, and some of those were even created before the mono mix. In fact "Revolution 1" and "Revolution 9" (the latter of which I actually LOVE) never saw mono mixes and the ones on the mono album are simply fold-downs of the stereo (meaning both tracks are simply shoved together). The mono mix does sound more like a cohesive band than the stereo mix, which led most listeners to assume that the songs were basically solo pieces. There are many differences in the mix, for examples the extra bit at the end of "Helter Skelter" is missing in mono (including the famous shout of "I've got blisters on me fingers!"), and the mono "Good Night" goes straight into the orchestration, while the stereo fades it in. In general, I feel that Lennon's and Harrison's tracks, especially "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "I'm So Tired," "Happiness is a Warm Gun," and "Cry Baby Cry," tend to have superior mono mixes, while McCartney's and the sole Ringo track are better in stereo. Ringo's "Don't Pass Me By" is sped up and mono and it sounds like he's been snorting helium. In general, the stereo is perfect for cruising in your car or listening on the hi-fi, while the mono is great for a different perspective and headphone listening. For this one, you may very well need both.

Abbey Road
This album never had a proper mono mix (there are a few rare fold-down mono mixes), so at least there's no problem deciding which one to go for. I will say that I never really 'got' this album with my 87' CD, but with the improved sound I totally dig it. The fantastic arranging of the side two suite comes to light, and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" becomes dynamic proto-metal as opposed to the monolithic slab of dung I always took it for. I've also found myself listening to "Mean Mr. Mustard" repeatedly, which could cause insanity since it's only one minute long.

Past/Mono Masters
I'm totally biased here. Since these are the singles, it seems to me that the mono tracks are the definitive ones simply as AM radio stations in the 60's could only play mono. Of course, with the mono edition you miss out on the great "Ballad of John & Yoko/Old Brown Shoe Single," as well as the superior single version of "Let It Be," which only saw stereo mixes, but you do get the Beatles' tracks from "Yellow Submarine" in never released mono mixes. Harrison's tracks there really flower in mono, and "It's All Too Much" strangely comes across a little more like the Steve Hillage cover from 1976. That's pretty groovy. Meanwhile, "Don't Let Me Down" has a lot more power with the stereo version. With either edition, you get my sentimental favorite Beatles song in mono, "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)."


Anonymous said...

These are a little too common for this page. You should buy them, or look for a torrent if you can't find the mono.

bobbyb said...

Don't you think that this is a massive con. I was gutted to find out that these re-issues are simply lifted from the stereo and mono masters. Rather than going back to the original source tapes of the actual recordings and mixing them from scratch (see The Byrds, Who re-issues). People complain about the CD re-issues of the 80's, but I assume these are the same, with a heavier bass. Surely Apple should admit a large bulk of these recordings (mid-period in particular) were mixed badly in the first place. They were mixed on the assumption that they would be played on small mono box record players or for those with more cash on early stereo equipment which be demonstrate the width of stereo by putting vocals and drums often on one channel !.

So I can still look forward to vocals far too high in the mix and the drums and bass in the distance somewhere. Or the awful stereo mix of Rubber Soul and Help.

Hundreds of hours of pointless remastering and the only thing they got right was the Yellow Submarine Songtrack

Dr. Schluss said...

Yeah, you'll get the same mixes, complete with nighmarish, ping-pong headphone listening for the stereo albums, but the clean-up job does manage to reveal some previously hidden textures and instrumental and vocal nuances. That said, the whole thing probably is a bit of a con. The historically important mono mixes are expensive and seeming difficult to find and I bet they will remix the whole catalog i na few years for another reissue series. But I'm a grade A sucker for the con.

Were the Who reissues mixed from scratch? I believe you're correct about the Byrds. I thought the Doors remixes brought the drums out a little too much in general (although it is nice to hear Densmore clearly). Still, I have been listening to the remixes - especially the first album whose slowed doen original mix I now find horribly annoying.

icastico said...

I can't imagine that these will sound better than my old 8-tracks of Abbey Road and The While Album...;^)

Baby Indie said...

On Sgt. Pepper's mono mix I noticed that "She's Leaving Home" is faster. Any reason why?

Dr. Schluss said...

I suppose the tape machine dragged or something on the stereo mix. I'm pretty certain that the mono mix is the correct speed.

Xian B. said...

Thanks for your opinions on the middle albums. I already bought the last five albums in stereo, and plan to buy the first four in mono when they come out individually. (I'm taking a chance that the mono BOX SET is limited edition, not the albums themselves. It looks like a typical marketing ploy: Release most expensive items first, ie limited editions, then release cheaper versions a year later. Happens all the time in books, movies, music, etc. Hopefully it's the same pattern here.)

At first the extreme stereo separation was giving me vertigo (drums in the left ear, vocals in the right? Sheesh), but then I opened Audacity (audio mixing software) and remixed the tracks myself, moving both channels a little closer to the center on tracks that clearly needed it. Worked like a charm, earache is all gone.

Came across your article while trying to find the differences between mono and stereo tracks for the four middle albums, to see what is truly different in mono and what can just be remixed/folded down from the stereo versions. You've been a great help, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I have both sets and plump for mono right up to Magical Mystery Tour. Tracks like Eleanor Rigby in stereo are awful - try listening to it with headphones on.
Also, I hate the harmonica intro to the stereo 'I should've known better' with the break at 0.05.
The Beatles themselves were only involved in the mono mix for Pepper and left the stereo to Martin.
I Am The Walrus always was terrible in stereo and still is.

Sleazy Martinez said...

I would go with the mono Tomorrow Never Knows every time. I mean, listen to the "guitar solo" - it's bathed in ADT, which just isn't there on the stereo mix. Same with tracks like And Your Bird Can Sing.

And the remasters are still the original mixes, yes, but sounding a lot closer to the way the masters must sound. The bass and percussion particularly are much clearer in the mix. Try the White Album if you don't believe me.

Konrad Useo said...

I do prefer the stereo becuase I have 2 ears,but your post here shows why it's good to have both,so one can compare.
Very good reading.

Anonymous said...

Good/improved/clearer/cleaner sound but....
1)The majority of the albums were originally MIXED for mono playback; in keeping with the predominant playback option at that time (mono).
2)The MIXING process (at that time) resulted in varying numbers (song-dependant) of bounces of pre-mixed subgroups (e.g. backing vocals, drums+bass). The final subgroup bounces were then bounced together to form the final mono mix for each song. Each song was then mastered, in context, with all other songs for that album.
3)The engineers for the 2009 releases had access, predominantly, ONLY to pre-mixed sub-group material...i.e...
4)The engineers did not have access to all individual audio tracks that contributed to each song. As such they would have very limited spacial/stereo separation options available for each song (hence, this is a 'remastering' project).
5)(Importantly) By default, if these songs were recorded today, the mixing (and mastering) process would lead to a clearly perceivable different listening experience, primarily since we do not, in the main, use mono play-back devices, and ...
6)We have 2 ears - we do not hear sound in mono - we are able to determine spacial separation very effectively - left/right(and forward/back) and as such...in order to fully(faithfully?) (re)present to the listener a live band experience we should reproduce what that listener would have heard at the time of the concert/band event, of course, minus crowd!.
7)We will always make more compromises (e.g. spacial, instrument/subgroup EQ) to the playback experience by mixing subgroups/songs in mono. Mono mixing always reduces track separation. We will always make compromises by having available for future remastering (remixing) projects only mono submixes (no matter how well grouped!).
8)With this, were The Beatles starting their recording career today, they would not be limiting the listeners playback experience to the mono submix method they used in the past - no matter how well they are 'remastered' into 'stereo'.
9) I don't think the original songs/submixes would ever be allowed to be compromised by allowing engineers - no matter who - access to the full availability of all original tracks for each song.

glauberovsky said...

the cover of the ep version of magical mystery tour is far better. i got it with the booklet and all. love it!


Wilthomer said...

Could not agree more about "Revolver". Well said! It'll be provoking fights amongst my friends and I for ages to come but right on!


Anonymous said...

I know I'm swimming against the tide of popular opinion, but I feel the need to chime in on the stereo side of this dispute. For one thing, it's great fun to cut out one channel or the other, to zero in on just the vocals, say, or just the rhythm guitar sans vocal. After listening to these immortal tracks so many zillions of times, fresh discoveries await when given an alternative listen that way. Try "Norwegian Wood" without that silly, annoying sitar -- you'll finally get to hear John's acoustic guitar playing -- expressive as all get-out and mashed into oblivion by that once-revolutionary-but-now-cliched sitar lick. Secondly, I'm no obsessive/compulsive audiophile, and I even suspect I'm a little hard of hearing after so many years of dangerously loud rock music, but stereo seems to fill the room so much more vibrantly and colorfully than mono. True, even Geoff Emerick claims, in his MUST READ book "Here, There and Everywhere," that little attention was given the stereo mixes at the time. But I've always gotten much joy in listening to what I consider inspired knob-twisting on headphones. Adds to the psychedelic experience for me, all the mind-bending zooms and pans and carefully positioned subtleties of instrumentation. To me, the mono mixes are more than amazing in themselves, but they can only sit there in one place; two-dimensional, compared with the added depth and color and movement and unexpected discoveries in the stereo mixes. Finally, I've always considered Beatles albums the apex of the art of stereo manipulation, just as their songwriting, interpretation, etc., etc. were the ultimate musical achievements of the ages. No one else holds a candle, stereo or mono.

marcel said...

It's really simple and people seem to complicate it.
1- If you like, or are used to modern day type of cd/dvd releases and have never touched an old vinyl, go with stereo - they've tried, in 2009, to bring the Beatles' catalogue to a more contemporary style and mix of frequencies, with a more open, shiny, clearer vibe - to match the equipment people are using nowadays to play their music - and it does achieve that purpose! That is not a con at all, since those cds sound really different from any previous versions - and way better than 1987's releases. It plays louder, clearer (it's a delight to listen to remastred vocal harmonies) and it does provide a new listening experience. Anyways, that's the Beatles for 2009's sound systems. you'll listen to the Beatles, and the latest Oasis, The White Stripes or U2's latest releases and won't miss out any frequency and loudness.

BUT If you like the vintage feel, if you're curious in knowing how the Beatles probably have sounded back in the day, in simpler and quieter recievers (and it wasn't as clear and bright at all, sometimes even muddy compared to today's mixings) - but thicker, warmer, more natural(since everything blends well, vocals are at the same level as the other instruments, unlike stereo) and most important, more vinyl-esque, go get the mono. I'd buy the mono just because personally, I like to imagine the feeling of playing a big vinyl record by the Beatles in a turntable (I even miss the clicks), and I don't care much about fidelity. I like music the way it is in it's original state.
So, I don't think there's a better version. There are different ways to enjoy it. Depends on the kind of person you are.

berk hakman said...

hello..these are very useful talkings..but i really wonder what will you say about the beatles usb stereo set? i mean the usb disk(apple)

i got it yesterday and in it,there are mp3 and FLAC formats of the songs..yeah you know the very special flac format.have you ever listened them in flac?

some expert says,flac are great,the master.and they also say there's nothing like the flac.if you ve got time please let's compare and talk bout flac with the mono and stereo mixes..

i wish a happy new year for everyone and long live the beatles!

Anonymous said...

Cool blog Mate! But I have to say this:

Hey Bulldog and It's All Too Much are among my fave Beatles tracks - Have you actually HEARD those - or did you just hear the awfull title track and the Brass-soup on side two, thinking 'there can't be anything of interest here' ...

claus :)

Dr. Schluss said...

"Hey Bulldog" and "It's All Too Much" appear with the other exclusive "Yellow Submarine" tracks on the "Mono Masters" disc two in previously unreleased (and in my opinion superior) mono mixes. No, I couldn't live without those. All I'm missing out on are George Martin's instrumentals. I can live without those.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to bump an old thread, but it was an interesting read. Just a suggestion: when listening to stereo (especially the primitive variety) on headphones, use a crossfeed circuit or audio processor.

You can find info on the hardware here: http://headwize.com/?page_id=654

As for software, I use a VST plugin, info here: http://www.112db.com/redline/monitor/