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The Beatles; The Beatles In Mono

  • EMI

The new Beatles box is glossy black, like a piano or a hearse, and the albums in the two interior cavities nestle on black satin ribbons that resemble the place-marker ribbons attached to many Bibles. The nearly two-kilogram package feels hefty, solemn and final, as if these newly remastered discs really were the last word in how the Beatles should sound in the digital age.

But after spending several hours with the 13 albums, and with the 11 in TheBeatles In Mono box set (which like the stereo box appears in stores Wednesday), I can't entirely agree with EMI's claim that the new stereo releases (called simply The Beatles ) offer "the highest fidelity the catalogue has seen." In the terms of traditional "hi-fi," they do sound cleaner and in some cases more present than the Beatles CDs we've been hearing for the past two decades. But if "fidelity" means closeness to what the Beatles wanted when they recorded the albums, the mono discs are in many ways more authentic.

All the new discs are remastered, not remixed. That means that the music on the master tapes was converted into digital form, then cleaned up and tweaked with an array of audio engineering tools, most of which are much more sophisticated now than when EMI first remastered the discs for CD release in 1987.

Sometimes the results are dramatic. The new stereo version of Get Back sounds so much livelier and more immediate than the old, it's as if a curtain had been lifted between us and the band. But in many cases, the improvements are incremental.

There's a little more depth and texture in the guitars on Day Tripper , though only an audiophile or hard-core Beatles buff would hear that as a compelling reason to buy the music all over again, especially at the box-set price: $190 on Amazon.ca.

The big revelations come from comparing the stereo versions with the mono, which EMI has never released on CD till now. Suddenly, all the weaknesses of the stereo mixes, most of which haven't been touched since the sixties, are dramatically apparent.

When the Beatles started recording in 1963, mono was still the dominant format, and remained so right through most of their seven-year studio career. Stereo was a niche market, especially among pop fans, so the Beatles concentrated on their mono releases. They were seldom present when the stereo versions were mixed.

"To us, what was important was the balance of the song," Paul McCartney says in an interview in the October issue of Mojo. "We felt we were sort of mixing the message, rather than putting things in places. We just weren't that interested in stereo. It wasn't where we were from."

Putting things in places became a necessity for the stereo mixers, who had to distribute through two speakers the elements that the Beatles and producer George Martin had mixed into a careful monaural balance. Unfortunately, there were sometimes only two tracks to work from, with voices on one and instruments on the other. Some of the stereo albums isolate the voices in the right channel, which makes for a very unnatural balance, especially if you're listening through headphones, as everyone with an iPod does.

Sometimes the stereo mixers got creative, as in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (the song), in which the vocals begin on the right side, jump suddenly across to the left, migrate through the middle and end up on the right again. None of this wandering minstrelsy happens in the original mono.

Many of the mono mixes have a unified, punchy effect that is somehow dissipated in stereo. They also tend to feel like recordings made by musicians playing together in an actual place, as opposed to discrete audio components that appear out of thin air in synchronized fashion.

The more I swapped between stereo and mono versions, the more it seemed to me that the stereo remasters enforce a somewhat alien aesthetic on the Beatles, especially on their early recordings. Please Please Me , their first disc, was virtually a studio recital of what the band was playing in clubs. The recordings were all made in one day, and in mono they have an integrated forceful sound ("wild, pungent, uninhibited" say the apt original liner notes) that doesn't fully survive the translation into the more neutral aural space of the cleaned-up stereo mix.

Michelle , in stereo, has more texture in the instrumental sounds, and draws us closer to the vocal part, but it also loses the bohemian period charm of the mono version - it's like seeing a black-and-white Truffaut film in colour. You Can Drive My Car sounds less rich in the mono version, but when you turn to the stereo mix and hear the untuned clunking in the right channel, you have to wonder: Is it a good thing to have so much more cowbell?

Even a fantastical studio confection like Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite! experiences a character makeover in the stereo version. The whole thing is more brilliant and aggressive than the mono, but it lacks the original's spirit of playful larkiness.

The new stereo versions are almost all noticeably louder than the mono, because EMI decided to add extra compression to the songs, to bring them closer to the escalating loudness of recent rock music. (They also have more bass, which is usually a benefit.) Compression is a way of making things louder by narrowing the dynamic range (essentially squashing the quietest and loudest extremes), then boosting the overall volume of the compact resultant sound. What you gain in volume, however, you lose in dynamic variety.

The extra compression (or "limiting") is presumably meant to lure the iPod generation, which is accustomed to louder overall sounds. As we know, Beatlemania today is more widespread, if less hysterical, than it was in 1966. But every sign indicates that younger listeners buy few CDs. Rather than launch another series of albums, in a format that may be in its sunset years, wouldn't it have made more sense for EMI and Apple Corps to simply put Beatles tracks for sale online?

Even that solution, however, wouldn't settle the problem posed by many of the stereo mixes, which will never sound natural or right through earbuds. The mono tracks are much better for that kind of in-head experience and they often rock harder than the stereo versions. But while the stereo albums will be sold separately, you can get the mono tracks only by buying the box set, which costs $220 at HMV.ca. Too bad EMI didn't double up the mono and stereo, as they did when they released box sets of the Capitol Beatles albums five years ago.

In short, rather than putting out a definitive set of recordings, Apple Corps has found a way to keep almost everyone a little unhappy about the continuing state of Beatles releases (except maybe the buyers of The Beatles: Rock Band , who get to play along with yet another revision of the band's recordings). Eventually, if interest in the band remains strong, we may get remixes of Beatles albums, in the spirit of the 1999 "songtrack" version of Yellow Submarine . But in that case, don't expect the results to be closer to an authentic Beatles sound. We already have that, more or less, in the mono recordings. Everything else is the present's attempt to remake the past in its own image.

Globe Recognition will be hosting a Beatles Mania! event on Sept 9. Go to www.globerecognition.com for details.