MOJO IS DOUBTING ITS own ears. We’re sitting in Abbey Road Studio 3, listening to a Beatles song we’ve heard hundreds of times, a Beatles song we’re not even especially fond of, and we’re tuning into things we’re sure we’ve never heard before; the hum of the acoustic guitar’s steel strings, a frail clarity to McCartney’s voice and an odd sort of reverb that acts as a bridge between vocals and strings. Yesterday has never sounded this good.
We’re here for Universal and Apple’s first official unveiling of “The Beatles’ original mono studio albums on vinyl”. The more canny of you will realize that the Beatles’ original studio albums are already available on vinyl, but time and entropy hasn’t been kind to the versions released between 1963 and 1968. So, on September 8 (September 9 in the US), The Beatles’ nine UK albums, plus the American-compiled Magical Mystery Tour, and the Mono Masters collection of non-album tracks will be released in newly mastered mono versions on 180-gram vinyl LPs with lovingly replicated original artwork.
“The goal was simple: make them sound like the artist intended.”
“You can’t touch them,” says a big American with a soul patch, as MOJO tries to have its first sneaky fondle of the Mono Box-Set, sitting in their bespoke white record box atop a small table in the corner of Abbey Road Studio 3. “I have them in a special order for the playback.”
This is Grammy-winning mastering supervisor Steve Berkowitz who, along with Granny-winning engineer Sean Magee worked on the Mono remastering.
While The Beatles In Mono CD boxed set released in 2009 was created from digital remasters, Magee and Berkowitz cut the vinyl versions without digital technology. Working in the same room at Abbey Road where most of The Beatles’ albums were initially cut, the pair spent over a hundred days fastidiously comparing first pressings of the ’60s mono records with the original quarter-inch master tapes, played on a Studer A80. The new vinyl masters were cut on a 1980s VMS80 lacquer-cutting lathe, guided by detailed transfer notes made by the original cutting engineers.
The mood is oddly tense as the first track is selected for playback, thanks in part to the eerie blue-green light cast by the high-end McIntosh Reference vinyl system but also because everyone looks properly knackered by this completed task.
“I’ve spent more time here than I have at home,” mutters Magee at one point, with an audible air of exhaustion. “These people put amazing detail onto those tapes. Hopefully we managed to do it justice.”
“The goal,” adds Berkowitz, “was simple: make them sound like the original artist and producer intended. We consulted all the original notes. N.A.S.A. should keep such good notes.”
He places the specially designed Ortofon cartridge on the first track, Love Me Do. It sounds clear and beefy, but not falsely so. Instrumental fluffs and those plosive ‘p’s on “pretend” have been kept in. It’s like someone has polished the original 51-year-old pressing with the best record cleaner in the world. We hear ten tracks in full. Here are MOJO’s Top 5.
1. I'll Follow The Sun
This melancholy McCartney ballad from December 1964’s Beatles For Sale sounds far more warm, delicate and human than this writer can recall, with McCartney’s lonesome optimism shining out above the almost jazz-trio arrangement. The sound of Ringo’s knee-slapping percussive accompaniment is so clear you can almost guess the cotton count on his trousers.
2. A Hard Day’s Night
The July 1964 album’s title track now sounds up-front and in-the-room, especially thanks to George's audible guitar flubs, Ringo's beguiling rhythms and a more audible track three showcasing that additional acoustic guitar and Norman Lewis’ groovy bongos. Mono – it turns out – can be more three-dimensional than stereo.
3. I Feel Fine
After Yesterday, this is the biggest surprise of the day. Beatles bores are famed for getting out their mono copies of this November 1964 single and pumping up the volume for the drone and A-string feedback intro but to hear it box-fresh and crackle free – especially that tiny guitar solo and Ringo’s mini-latin drum break – is a joy.
“No attempt was made for there to be less distortion,” stresses Berkowitz after we’ve just paused to process the multi-layered bass and guitar attack and groovy dissonances of George Harrison’s breadhead diss of Harold Wilson’s government. Taxman always had beef but this is proper heavy.
5. Penny Lane
Mono has a more solid and stable image than stereo, meaning that, at its best, it has a stronger central core with less extraneous sonic bleed. Nowhere is this clearer today than on McCartney’s 1967 Liverpool picaresque. Dave Mason’s trumpet solo now sounds centred, less triumphant and the production effects no longer appear to compete with McCartney’s hometown portrait.
The last song, the mysteriously lovely Goodnight is played and some figures are rolled out before the next audience is ushered in. Before MOJO leaves it discovers that…
• The records will be manufactured at Optimal Media in Germany. They are planning on producing something in the region of 35-40,000 boxes.
• Those willing to immerse themselves in the complete mono experience can purchase a specially manufactured Ortofon 2M Mono Special Edition “Beatles Tribute” Cartridge. Although the LPs will sound “just fine” with an existing stereo cartridge.
• George Harrison was once ejected from New York’s Plaza Hotel for playing his McIntosh stereo too loud.
• If a meeting goes on too long at Abbey Road the Beatles track they choose to play to hurry everyone out is Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.
• The Beatles On Mono is available to pre-order at http://www.thebeatles.com/news/beatles-get-back-mono