Five years after the Beatles' mono recordings were released on CD, Capitol Records and Universal Music are fostering the notion that to hear the Beatles music the way John, Paul, George and Ringo did in the 1960s, a mono LP is mandatory listening.
To illuminate that point, selections from the Beatles' studio albums were played on top-of-the-line McIntosh gear at Capitol Studios on June 25 in an exercise that would be repeated at Electric Lady in New York and Abbey Road in London. The team that led the "Beatles in Mono" LP project consistently rallied behind the idea that these are the exact recordings the Beatles approved for release.
“In the evolution of recording I don’t think there is a greater concentration than ‘Please Please Me’ to the end of the Beatles,” mastering supervisor Steve Berkowitz told Billboard after the session. “The evolution of sound and recording techniques -- mono to stereo, four- to eight- to multi-track -- and the sounds they made were tremendously new and different.
“That’s one of the reasons I played ‘Taxman.’ We had never heard anything like that, with the close miking and the far miking, the distortion up in your face. The type of production on each record is different, it evolved so quickly from album to album.”
The mono CDs, which were cleaned up and re-EQ'd in a way that did not occur with the new set of LPs, "was an attempt to give the history its day in the sun," said project supervisor Guy Hayden.
Work on the project began in 2009 with the intention of releasing the mono set alongside the stereo set of LPs. It was curtailed for two reasons: No need to ask consumers to buy two expensive boxes and technology made it possible for the records to sound better.
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“There was no hurry and, in true Beatles fashion, if you can do it better, you do it again,” says Sean Magee, an Abbey Road-trained engineer who oversaw the mastering of the albums.
The mono records, which will be available as individual titles and in a 14-LP/108-page book box set beginning Sept. 9, were pressed from the original master tapes, all of which are in superb condition after the "Please Please Me" album. New pressings were A/B'ed with original British pressings.
"We get it to sound the way they heard it, but we can reveal a lot more due to the equipment (of today)," Magee says.
The recordings speak for themselves, especially when played on an $85,000 stereo system. "Money (That's What I Want)" has a unique depth of field in which each instrument is distinct and separate, a quality equally evident on "Don't Bother Me" and "I Feel Fine." Later recordings such as "Within You, Without You" and "All You Need is Love" have grander, more unified sound.
"Glass Onion," "Yesterday" and "Taxman" were also played to reinforce Magee’s point that “you can’t take clicks out of analog” the way they were removed from the CDs. Buzzes, bits of distortion and clicks sit alongside instruments that sound more natural than in other releases – a saxophone in “All You Need is Love,” the piano on “Money,” the string section of “Yesterday.”
Hayden, involved in the remastering project since 2008, said the albums are being printed in Germany where they are pressing a million pieces of vinyl. (They were traveling with the first set off the production line). Packaging and artwork resembles the British versions, which means a faded cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and a top-loading white album.
Berkowitz was an A&R executive at Sony at the time Columbia did a similar mono project with Bob Dylan's LPs from the 1960s. The emphatic ally says “there’s a far greater explosion and evolution with the Beatles," but there is a parallel.
“In terms of technical things, Dylan’s stuff stayed pretty straight ahead in terms of standard technical recording,” he says. “As a production, they’re similar because you’re following a path that’s already been given.
“I often compare ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ There was tremendous focus on the mono and a little quicker version for stereo.”
Magee backs him up noting “Sgt. Pepper’s” mono mix took three weeks and the stereo was done in three days.
Berkowitz was told the stereo mix of “Blonde on Blonde” was done in four hours by the album’s producer Bon Johnston.