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The Beatles Stereo LP Box Set
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The Beatles - in Stereo

 

 

After a long wait, The Beatles discography has finally appeared on vinyl. Paul Rigby reviews The Beatles In Stereo.

 

The last time The Beatles catalogue officially appeared via EMI, newly remastered on vinyl was back in 1978 with an additional Mobile Fidelity box set released later in 1982. Since that time, we have waited for a new, updated, version to appear. And now it has. 

   The set itself features original stereo mixes for all of the Beatles albums, from ‘Please Please Me’ to ‘Let It Be’, including ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and ‘Past Masters 1 & 2’. They are pressed on 180gm vinyl and presented in thick card sleeves, along with a magnificent 253-page hardback book detailing every album. These items are contained in a sturdy, flip-top box, an outer card sleeve encasing the box. 

The review of this album set begins at the source, however – in this case Abbey Road and an interview with one of the participating mastering engineers, Sean Magee, who has been working on this project since October 2009. He is an ideal figure to lay to rest internet gossip regarding this release, prompting queries to us at Hi-Fi World. But then, The Beatles have a semi-religious world-wide following and any re-release like this gets close and critical inspection. 

   A major concern is the source of the music. Was it the original master tapes? Apparently not. 

  “We couldn’t really”, said Magee. “We have all the cutting notes left by Harry Moss (the original cutting engineer for The Beatles’ recording output) but we don’t have the same equipment. We could kind of recreate the analogue chain and kind of recreate what Harry Moss did to get that sound but it wouldn’t be the same.” 

   Another reason has been the demands of Apple: that amalgamation of the remaining Beatles plus the estates of the rest. Apple want any Beatles recordings to have a particular ‘sound’, a traditional presentation based upon the original recordings that, to some extent, constrained the mastering engineers at Abbey Road. To get the required sound required a considerable amount of EQ (Equalization: boosting or reducing the levels of different frequencies in a signal). “To physically do this in real time whilst cutting from the original analogue masters would have been almost impossible to do”, said Magee.

   The approved EQ shouldn’t be taken lightly, either. It took four and a half years to create it, prior to the release of the CD box sets in 2009. Consequently, the vinyl has been remastered from digital sources created before the CD box sets were released, in 24bit/192kHz digital, meaning super high quality, way better than CD. 

   Magee found, however, that even those files were going to be a problem when remastering the stereo vinyl because of vinyl cutting EQ requirements. 

   Also, on the earlier albums, primitive stereo processing placed vocals on one channel and instruments on the other which meant that “there are different EQs on the left than there is on the right because the content is different on either side. Sorting all of these EQs, track by track, whilst cutting would be impossible. 

   Also, you cannot do separate jobs at 192. You can’t de-click, then EQ and so on. You have to do the lot while cutting. There isn’t the equipment at 192 to do that. Not easily, at any rate. The practicality and time of even doing that process at 24/96 would have taken about a year. You’d also need a lot of double checking”.

   It so happened that the complex EQ applications had already been made on the CD version. “To use the 192kHz sources now would have entailed recreating the EQ source that we did at 24/44.1, which wasn’t viable”. 

 

 

 

From the enclosed book, Studio 2, Abbey Road, where The Beatles

recorded their early albums.

 

So a decision was made  to master the vinyl at 24bit/44.1kHz. I can hear the sound of fainting audiophiles across the land. 

Despite the extra time that a 24bit/192kHz or even a 24bit/96kHz cutting master would have taken to create there was, according to Magee, no real deadline for this project. So the reason for using the 44.1kHz files was? “I was told to use these 24bits (files), so that’s what we used, it was the most practical”.

   Practical? Because of the cutter head, according to Magee. “It has a limited frequency response and cuts off at 24kHz. There is nothing above that. As a cutting engineer, anything of significant level above 16kHz is dangerous. You don’t want that going to your cutter head because it gets very hot and can destroy it. It wouldn’t have mattered if the signal had gone to 192kHz or 96kHz, it wouldn’t have been on the record because you can’t cut it, you can’t hear it and I wouldn’t want it there anyway because a stray signal at 60kHz would destroy the lathe head. The most important part is that it's 24bit, not that it's 96kHz or 192kHz (sample rate) because the cutter head won’t even cut content up to 48kHz”. 

   According to Magee, you’re far better off having a decent ADC (Analogue-to-Digital Convertor, a high-specification design from Prism in Abbey Road’s case) and a clean 24bit signal if you are capturing all of those extra highs. “The reason 24bit is important is because, in 16bit audio CD play, when you get down to -50 something then you start getting quantisation. The signal can’t make up its mind whether it’s a one or a zero. You end up with a buzzy sound. At 24bit, you get no perceivable noise”.

   Audiophiles will be happy to hear that no compression has been added to the vinyl masters, while a decision to use Direct Metal Master cutting process to enhance detail was rejected by Apple in favour of the warmer sound of lacquers. The only processing done was a series of precise and targeted removals of sibilance which, with Cedia Retouch, is almost surgical in its accuracy and doesn’t affect adjacent frequencies as older systems did.

   On other points of note, the contentious George Martin 1986 stereo mixes for ‘Help!’ and ‘Rubber Soul’ that surfaced in the CD version of the Stereo box set have also appeared within this vinyl box set. The original stereo mixes can currently be found in the CD Mono box set. There is no information about which version will appear in the future Beatles On Mono box set.


SOUND QUALITY 

I auditioned and compared three generations of pressings for this review. I selected an original copy of ‘With The Beatles’ album (1963) and the 1978 UK version from the EMI box set reissue (better sounding than the comparable USA and Australian versions and sourced direct from the master tapes) and the new 2012 copy. 

   Also, the original pressing of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ (1967) was compared directly with the new version. I also decided to undertake a more considered test with the 1978 and 2012 versions of ‘Abbey Road’ (1969). 

Starting with ‘With The Beatles’ and the track ‘It Won’t Be Long’, the 1978 reissue offered more detail than the original. I could hear that Lennon’s voice was double tracked while the bass had more resonance and body. Drums played a big part in the mix, with beautiful separation between cymbal strikes. The downside was the compression that dominated both record versions. There was a brightness that compromised the sonic improvements of the 1978 version.

   Moving to the new release, the 2012 version offered a much quieter cut: gain had to be upped a few notches to achieve the same volume. Even though there was no compression on these pressings the nature of the EQ - an Apple stipulation – meant that the vocals sounded slightly restricted. This was partly down to the early stereo mix that sounds rather claustrophobic. Even so, Lennon’s double-tracked vocals were pleasingly resonant. Similarly, the backing harmonies were far more recognisable with a separation from the lead that just wasn’t present on the original pressing and was less noticeable on the 1978 version due to the compression used. 

With the 2012 version of  ‘It Won’t Be Long’, instrumentally the track was a triumph, despite the claustrophobic effect. The drums were more at ease, making clear a flair and nonchalance that drummer Ringo Starr was known for, while the new master better revealed Harrison’s attacking guitar style. 

   Comparing the new version of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and the original, there really was no contest. The 2012 version offered a more explicit soundstage structure within the limited boundaries of the rather naive stereo mix. It also clarified the upper mids, adding separation to the harmonic and double tracked vocals and making each vocal part more recognisable. The essential brass accompaniment, an iconic section of this famous track, could be heard properly for the first time. Each instrument had personality and less bloom while the secondary percussion that was masked by compression on the original could now be discerned. McCartney’s bass was prominent too, while drums bathed in a clarity that was sadly lacking within the original.

   Moving to ‘Here Comes The Sun’,  from the Abbey Road album, I must say that I feared for the new version after listening to the 1978 cut. The latter is an excellent version, one of the highlights of that entire box set, in fact. The detail extraction was of a high order while the soundstage was wide and the upper mids were tonally accurate with a deftness of presentation, along with a 3D stereo image and an attractive instrumental separation. 

   Quite incredibly, the new 2012 version blew the 1978 master away. The right/left transition at the beginning of the track was strong and secure, while the organ effect on the left channel was more noticeable. The instrumental separation was not only superior but, once separated, each instrument was clearer. Detail on this track was quite magnificent, with tonally correct hand claps. The acoustic guitar had a rich texture that emphasised the attack of strumming, while percussive bass was solid and provided a firm foundation for the track. 

What was most surprising was the Moog synthesiser which had a dominating effect on the new master, broadening the track and adding complexity to the arrangement while adding welcome contrast with the other rhythmic elements. 


CONCLUSION

A number of points raised their heads during this test. Firstly, the original masters are poor in audiophile terms. Aimed at the Dansette generation, compression and brightness was the order of the day back then. 

   Another point of interest is that a mastering engineer’s client can have a significant effect on the final product. If Apple was not so set on retaining the original EQ, I think that the Abbey Road engineers would have produced an even better sounding suite of albums. But then, we wouldn’t be listening to The Beatles as we know them. For the audiophile, is that a bad thing?

   What will be shocking to some, however, is the realisation that the source is not the be-all and end-all for a good quality vinyl cut. That became obvious in my comparisons. Both the original issue and the 1978 master used the original master tapes but both were significantly inferior to the new pressings, that use ‘mere’ 24bit/44.1kHz digital files as a source. 

   The critical variable is a human one: the mastering engineer. Mastering engineers can make or break an LP cut. I feel the Abbey Road engineers have done a fine job with this new Stereo box set. Beatles fans around the world will hear the original balances, but with much improved audio quality, fit for today's hi-fi, rather than yesterday's Dansettes! 

 

 

 

An LP cutting lathe at Abbey Road studios, part of the LP production process.

It cuts the groove into a soft 'lacquer'.  This is then plated to produce stampers

for the pressing machines. Note the B&W 802 monitor loudspeaker in the 

background, used for sound quality checks.

 

THE BEATLES MONO LP BOX SET - due 2013

The early mono mix downs for radio and TV took precedence at Abbey Road and are considered definitive.

Less time was spent on the Stereo mixes, made after the Monos.

The Monos are for true fans and collectors – and we will be reviewing them. See Paul Rigby’s column, p73, for more.

 

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