My friend Jeff Sherrick brought the new Beatles vinyl box set over yesterday. Rumors began circulating about the release of newly remastered versions of all the Beatles LPs soon after the 2009 CD reissues hit the market. At least one retailer told me his sources at Capitol Records, who distribute EMI/Apple here in the US, said the new LPs would be sourced from 96K/24 bit, high resolution digital files, as opposed to the 16 bit files that were the final basis for the CDs. Michael Fremer posted a news item on his blog, Analog Planet, in October reporting that the LPs would be in the higher resolution, but later found out from Sean Magee, who mastered the LPs for EMI/ Apple, that the files were 44.1k/24 bit.
I get lost in these technical details, but higher resolution is better and commenters on Michael Fremer’s Analog Planet and Steve Hoffman’s forum expressed disappointment . However, any questions about the mastering were soon drowned out by complaints about the quality of the pressings, the box the LPs and accompanying book were housed in, and the covers. Hoffman’s site was flooded with tales of woe, although a few posters said they didn’t encounter any problems.
After Jeff and I read about the bad experiences so many people were having, we were apprehensive. I’m happy to report that we didn’t encounter any problems with the package, which was easy to open, or the pressings. We didn’t find any incidents of non-fill or other groove anomalies. I did note, however that the edges on the LPs were sharp (I actually cut my finger on one when I was cleaning it) and there were some visual irregularities, such as unevenness on the outer edge of some of the records. The lead in grooves on Abbey Road and Rubber Soul were a bit noisier than the other LPs, but not enough to be distracting. The vinyl on all the records we played was quiet.
Just as a point of reference I’ll note that I cleaned the records using a Spin Clean and a KAB vacuum cleaner. I played them on a Denon DP59L with an Audio Technica 440MLa cartridge. My amp is a Scott 299a integrated tube amp, and I have Paradigm Reference Studio 20 speakers.
We played Abbey Road first because so many people reported problems with bad pressings. Except for some noise on the lead in, noted above, the vinyl was quiet. The mastering is solid. The high hat and drums on “Come Together” sounded resonant and clear and Lennon’s voice was solidly out front. I did notice that this and all the LPs were somewhat low in output and required a bit of a bump in volume.
We compared the first three tracks on side two with the same tracks on a mid-70s UK pressing and some details, such as the hand claps and keyboards on “Here Comes the Sun,” and the vocals on “Because,” are better defined on the new master. I felt the acoustic guitar on “Here Comes the Sun” sounded more natural on the older LP, but the synthesizers on the first two songs on the new pressing sounded cleaner and more textured. I also played the 1987, digitally sourced LP, and I still stand by my opinion that the 1987 LP series mastered by Wally Traugott in the US are good records. The new master, by Sean McKee, sounded somewhat smoother, but Jeff and I didn’t find its sound to be markedly better than the old pressing.
I didn’t do a comparison with my Japanese pressing of Abbey Road, but I did do a side by side of a Japanese pressing of Please Please Me from the same series (with the EAS pre-fix) and the new pressing. This new master of the Beatles’ debut was far better. The Japanese LP emphasized the high end, but Magee’s mastering of this new one was dead-on. The instruments were better balanced, the vocals had more nuance, and small details, such as the reverb on John Lennon’s voice on “Ask Me Why,” were more striking and natural. In fact, the first three LPs—this one, With the Beatles, and A Hard Day’s Night—are exemplary.
Jeff and I found we preferred my late 70’s pressing of Beatles for Sale to the new one. There was nothing jarring about the new master, but the older one was livelier and pulled you into the music. The acoustic guitars on “No Reply” had more shimmer and fullness and the vocals were more cleanly separated. George’s solo on “Baby’s in Black” had a little more edge to it on the earlier pressing, and so on.
Rubber Soul has been controversial in any release since 1987, when George Martin remixed it for CD. Jeff and I didn’t notice anything amiss in our listen and some things, such as the 12 string guitar obbligato during the second verse of “Girl,” were more clearly etched. I didn’t do a comparison with the late 70s Parolophone I have (one of many copies of this LP that I own), but this record is the finest thing ever committed to vinyl and should always be heard in UK stereo or mono analogue, no compromises. With that caveat in mind, a perfectly listenable pressing, but the differences in the mix might be vexing over time to anyone familiar with the original.
Since we only had a few hours, we skipped Help, Magical Mystery Tour, and Yellow Submarine. We listened to tracks from Revolver and I heard some differences between it and my early Parlophone pressing that might merit a closer listen. In the end, though, I found that the older LP edged out the new one slightly. The drums on “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounded more open and rang out longer, the vocals sounded more natural to me, and overall the elements of the recording blended together better. On the other hand, the vocal and tape effects, such as the backwards guitar solo, were more focused on the new LP.
Michael Fremer heard significant differences between the new Sgt. Pepper’s and some earlier pressings. Jeff and I heard a few things, such as sibilance in the vocals and more clarity in the instruments, but I’d want to give a careful, full listen before rendering a final opinion. My gut level reaction is that I preferred the late 70s Parlophone pressing that I used as a reference. Paul’s bass on “With a Little Help From My Friends” had more snap and the guitars on the title track were less pronounced. I also found the keys on the opening of “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” to be a little too forward on the new LP. Still, this and Revolver sound different enough to suggest significant differences in mastering choices that made me want to hear them again.
We compared side one of a UK Apple pressing of the The Beatles—the White Album—from the mid-70s with the new version and the old one was just vastly better. The acoustic guitars on “Dear Prudence,” had more life and ring to them, the drums snapped harder, and Paul’s bass had more authority—it’s such an important part of the recording it seemed odd this version would under-emphasize it. The guitar solo on “Back In the USSR” lacked excitement and the sound of a jumbo jet that opens the track, zipping between the speakers, was bland. So far, the least compelling LP in the box.
I don’t have Past Masters on vinyl, so we didn’t do a comparison, but we listed to “Yes It Is” and “Day Tripper” and they sounded fine. The rhythm guitars on the latter track sounded especially good, a little clearer than I remembered hearing them in the past.
The LP covers in the box are the thin cardboard that has been standard since the late 70s. The color and photo reproduction, however, are much better than the ’87 or ’95 US reissues. Colors are less washed out and the photos are clearer. The finish is also a bit glossier than on previous US copies. Two of the covers in Jeff’s box had some pinching on the edges and, as I noted earlier, the vinyl on all the LPs wasn’t finished well.
The set includes a very nice hardbound book, on heavy glossy paper. My guess is that it is the same book, on a larger scale, that came with the CD box. It’s beautifully printed, but I think most collectors would have gone without it in lieu of better quality pressings from RTI or Pallas at the same price for the box.
I can’t imagine anyone who owns these recordings in stereo in good pressings would want the set except for collectibility, but individual LPs might be of interest. I don’t have stereo copies of Please Please Me or With the Beatles, and I will probably pick them up in this reissue. If I didn’t already have multiple copies of Revolver and Pepper in both mono and stereo, I’d be tempted to pick them up for further investigation.
Like many of you, I’ve listened to the music in this boxed set many times in the last 30 to 40 years. It still amazes in its variety and creative drive. The Beatles recorded for 8 years, and we can speak of an early, middle, and late period in their recordings. There are times when the early albums, with their sense of surprise and discovery, are all I want to hear, other times when Help! , Rubber Soul, and Revolver seem to me high points of Western culture (actually, that never varies). I no longer think, as I once did, that the last four LPs, from Pepper on, were the best the band did, but when I actually play them I’m still amazed. If you don’t have these records, buy this set and spend the rest of your life enjoying it and hearing new things with each listen.