Friday, November 20, 2009

Michael Fremer Review

I am very proud to continue our new feature (look for this every Friday), music reviews that are written by the senior contributing editor of Stereophile magazine- Michael Fremer. It has been a pleasure to speak with Michael and learn more about audio sound and equipment. In fact, his new DVD, "It's A Vinyl World, After All" has hit the shelves and is selling out very quickly. This is a must have for anybody who loves vinyl, it is a true masterpiece.

The Beatles (new reissue)
The Beatles Boxes: Stereo and Mono

Parlophone/Apple stereo and mono box sets

Produced by: George Martin
Engineered by: Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick
Mixed by: various mixers
Mastered by: various mastering engineers
Reissue produced by: various producers

Review by: Michael Fremer

The Beatles Remasters: A Splendid Time Is Guaranteed For Most

How bad were the original Beatles CDs issued back in 1987? So bad that even the clueless conditioned to believe that CDs represented an automatic sonic step up from vinyl noticed something was terribly wrong.

Amusing to some observers was the nature of the complaints: “they sound tinny,” “they sound flat,” “they sound thin and bright,” “they’re harsh and edgy,” “where’s the warmth?” etc.

Why did it take The Beatles for these folks to notice how bad almost every attempt at re-mastering great analog recordings to CD sounded?

I can’t name a single CD reissue back then that sounded as good as the original LP version, never mind any that sounded better, yet the same folks who chucked their LPs and were happily munching on their crispy CDs somehow heard all of the problems with the 1987 Beatles CDs they might have heard with all of their CDs had they paid more attention.

Leave it to the mythical Beatles to pull down the CD format’s digital pants and expose its, er, shortcomings. Not surprising since the group has held a special place in the hearts, minds and souls of generations and not surprising considering how well recorded the albums were—even the “primitive” early ones, thanks to the EMI studios, engineers Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick and of course producer George Martin.

Add low rent, almost dismissive packaging for such hallowed musical ground and the curious decision to issue the first four in mono only, when both mono and stereo versions would have fit on a single disc and you have a truly shitty reissue program, one that thumbed EMI’s corporate nose at both the surviving Beatles and especially the group’s fans.

The New Remasters

As reported elsewhere on this site and all over the media, this time EMI was determined to do a much better job and by any standard they have, both in terms of the sonics and especially the packaging.

The stereo box is deluxe in every way, with gatefolded digi-pak style jackets, original label artwork, previously unseen photos and Quick-Time mini-documentaries accompanying each disc. An additional disc holds all of the documentaries so you can watch all of them without having to go through the individual discs. In addition to the original releases, the set includes a double CD of singles and EPs not appearing on the original UK sets, which usually omitted the singles.

One curious move was the decision to use George Martin’s 1987 re-mixes of Rubber Soul and Help! instead of the original stereo mixes. These were digitized at 16 bit/44.1K resolution using what today would be considered stone aged A/D converters.

So if anyone tells you that the “new” Rubber Soul and Help! reissues sound so much better than the 1987 issues, ask them what they weren’t smoking. Surely, mood enhanced they’d notice they were listening to the same mixes, only perhaps a bit louder and punchier due to the touch of compression applied to all of these stereo reissues.

Ironically, if you want to hear the original stereo mixes of Rubber Soul and Help! transferred without compression you’ll need to buy the mono box! Yes, the producers chose to tack the original stereo mixes onto the mono CDs of these two albums. More about that later.

The compression applied is so minor it’s not worth worrying about. Yes, these reissues do sound a bit “punchier” and “louder,” but overall the reissue producers have not messed around much with what was on the tapes that they transferred at 192K/24 bit resolution, with one notable exception: clearly they’ve boosted the bass on every one of these stereo masters and I don’t write that simply because I’m used to the LPs and perhaps the LPs had their bass slightly rolled off. I’ve heard the master tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and there’s more bass on these reissues than I remember hearing on that tape.

On a full range playback system, one that’s reasonably flat to 20Hz, the added bass, though tastefully done, can become oppressive after a while, but for most listeners both the added bottom and the “pop” provided by the compression will sound like pleasing “fresheners” instead of deal breakers. Don’t worry: these reissue do not sound like the “modernized” abomination that was 1.

What excites most listeners about the new reissues is the return of the tactile, warm sound, or some of it at least, found on the original LPs. These CDs do sound really good, with some expression of instrumental textures, depth and inner detail resolution. For folks who grew up on the ’87 CDs and who haven’t touched base with the original vinyl (or any vinyl since 1987), these CDs are a revelation.

They are as good as one can expect from CDs but surely the process of reducing 192k/24 transfers to 44.1k/16 has taken a toll on various aspects of the sound because the original UK vinyl still beats these CDs in most ways, by a narrow margin in some and by a much wider one in others.

For instance, on the cover of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love,” there’s a particular ring to the high pitched electric guitar lines that one hears live and on the original LPs that just doesn’t register on the CD. The ring should jump out at you as it does live and on the LP. On the CD it remains boxed in physically and is tonally truncated. And yes, you can be an aging boomer whose hearing may not be what it once was, and yet still hear it.

The handclaps sound very good but they just don’t sound fleshy-real as they do on the LP, nor do they inhabit the separate space they do on the LP. Nor do the vocals project into 3D space. The harmonies, so easily split into separate voices on the LP fuse into one on the CD. John Lennon’s voice has a chilling quality that cuts through you on LP throughout the Beatles catalog. It’s lacking on the CD. You can feel Lennon alive on the other side of the mic on the LPs, you don’t derive the sensation on the CDs good as they are.

The CDs are genuinely pleasing to listen to physically and intellectually, the LPs sound even better and they take you for an emotional roller coaster ride the CDs just don’t. That’s not just my reaction: it’s what everyone who’s listened here heard, including people who don’t have an analog axe to grind.

On the other hand, the closer the digital comes to the analog—and these CDs come closer than most—the more the differences between the two formats assert themselves, for better or worse. Listening to these excellent sounding CDs with their jet black backdrops and ultra-cleanliness means that when you put the records on, while they do sound better, you just wish you could have the superior sound of one and the pristine perfection and black backdrops of the other! Previously, what was there on the CDs was so bad sounding, the black backdrops were hardly compensatory. BTW: Magical Mystery Tour is in real stereo like the German original.

So, will a Blu-ray set mastered at full 192K/24 bit resolution (maybe with the bass turned down a bit too?) produce near perfection and sound superior to clean original LPs? I don’t know, nor are we likely to find out as such a release has not been announced.

LPs are supposedly coming next year and since Sean Magee and Steve Rooke, two of the engineers who worked on the project also are expert lathe operators (they’ve cut for Pure Pleasure, Warner Brothers, Steve Albini and others) and since Abbey Road has a very good sounding DMM lathe and since the full resolution files are right there, why wouldn’t they use the 192K/24 bit masters to produce the LPs? As The Doors box proved, once you’re at that resolution, it’s almost analog.

In the case of The Doors, the deteriorated tapes made a one pass digital transfer a necessity. The Beatles tapes are in excellent condition and the original tapes could be used to cut from analog but at this point in time you can be the powers that be prefer consistently across format lines to religious purity, so don’t expect AAA, though we can hope, as we can hope for fold-over laminated cover art as well done as the fold-over, laminated mini-LP CD sleeves complete with facsimiles of the original inner sleeves found in the mono box.

The Mono Masters

Given a choice of one box or the other, I’d opt for the mono box. For one thing, the transfers were apparently done without compression or augmented equalization. They are what’s on the tape, though again, the 192k/24 bit masters have been squeezed through the redbook CD sausage machine. The mono packaging is more authentic as well. The Beatles for instance, features a miniature duplicate of the laminated, double gatefold “top loader” fold-over jacket complete with black inner sleeves, individual color portraits and fold-open poster.

The “stereo’ mixes of the first two albums, with vocals on one side and instruments on the other, produced that way to allow for vocal/instrumental balance to be adjusted later, sound interesting on the stereo box, but they sound fuller and whole in mono.

A Hard Day’s Night sound better in stereo than mono in my opinion but the mono mix is fine too. I prefer Help in stereo too (the original mix found on the mono box for sure!) but not everyone agrees with that. For Sale is preferable in stereo too, but again, the mono mix offers its own pleasures.

As for Rubber Soul and Revolver the complexities of the arrangements required track bouncing. Track bouncing made a true stereo mix difficult so you a lot hard/left right stuff as on the first few albums, so overall the original mono mixes really are preferable but nostalgiacs whose genes are now encoded with the stereo mixes will probably stick with those, though the original stereo mix of Rubber Soul found on the mono box is preferable.

The mono mixes are strikingly different from the stereo ones, particularly on the later, more complex productions as anyone who has them on vinyl knows. More than just mix differences, are differing takes and parts that are highlighted in the accompanying booklet, though most of those are on the earlier albums. Some people revel in hearing and exposing these difference, like where John fluffs a lyric on one version and not the other, but that kind of thing has never excited me so you’ll have to look elsewhere for a catalogue of those.

Not many Beatles fans have heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Beatles in mono. These are the mixes upon which the band members lavished their full attention and that will be obvious when you hear them—not that there’s anything whatsoever wrong with the stereo mixes. When I compared the original stereo Parlophone LP with the new stereo CD, it wasn’t even close: the record is richer, fuller and far more tonally pleasing. Ditto the mono LP vs the new CD.

Oh, and you also get the original stereo mixes of Rubber Soul and Help! transferred from analog at 192k/24 bit, which you don’t get in the stereo box. Needless to say those two sound much better than the remixes found on the stereo box.

The Verdict

Both the packaging and sound of these two sets (the stereo albums are available separately) are digitized editions finally worthy of The Beatles. The packaging is superb, great care went into the mastering, which attempted to bump up the sound for modern ears without ruining the ride for those used to the original sound. In that the team has mostly succeeded.

The packaging of both boxes is truly deluxe and any Beatle fan, even those who own all of the original UK vinyl, will want to have these sets for the packaging enhancements alone.

Hopefully higher resolution digital and/or analog will follow. Sure, I’d prefer new vinyl cut from the analog originals and we can all lobby for it, but I doubt it will happen.

SOURCE: Reprinted By Permission

1 comment:

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