The Beatles in Mono; Optimal Media [14 LPs]

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Optimal Media

180-Gram LPs Available individually and in a Limited 14-LP Boxed Edition with Hardbound Book. 

This magnificent box set came after the somewhat ill advised 2012 Stereo Box Set. Those LPs were remastered from digital masters and have received mixed reviews. For most, the stereo records would be perfectly satisfactory. But for many Beatles enthusiasts and completists, back to the originals are the recordings they lust after.

In the late 50s to late 60s, most pop recordings were released in mono, stereo only becoming the norm late in the decade. As such, for the monaural recordings, EMI senior studio engineer Guy Massey returned to the original analogue, quarter-inch master tapes at Abbey Road Studios. The box set was mastered by Steve Berkowitz. Both are Grammy winners. Equipment used? A Studer A80 machine for play back and a 1980s-era VMS80 lathe for cutting the vinyl. 

Mono was the format of choice for the musicians, too. George Harrison has been quoted many times how he and his band mates preferred the original mono mixes heard out of a single speaker. The stereo 'felt odd' and left us feeling 'naked'. 

The mono recordings are a wonderful, aural window on history. The first releases of how The Beatles would have heard their recordings.  

The Beatles recording at Abbey Road with George Martin. 

The Beatles recording at Abbey Road with George Martin. 

You'd be hard pressed to recognize them as mono heard through a good stereo. But they are different. In a good way. The mix seems more detailed. It's easier to hear the band members multitracked, the differences in their accents, the timbral differences of the instruments of the great London studio/orchestral musicians, the sound of George on lead and John on rhythm, and a myriad of differences subtle and not so subtle. The mixes seem more 'personal' and capture your attention, and they never let go. The recordings also reveal the differences in concept and sound -- each song, especially in the later LPs, is treated differently, the song's meaning and lyrics guiding the sound design. We'd be foolish not to realize how much influence the great George Martin had on just about every step of the creative process. 

The production is magnificent. The weighty box contains 14 LPs and a comprehensive book. The colour matching is superb and the pressings are utterly silent; the Parlophone labels, the correct folds on albums, etc. All perfect. Time machines. 

Of course things start brilliantly with one of their greatest songs, I Saw Her Standing There. But it's when we get to A Hard Day's Night where genius surpasses great talent. More hits, more sophistication, better production. It's quite a shock to hear the musical depth on this album compared to Please Please Me and With the Beatles. 

When we arrive at Rubber Soul, things take another musical exponential step forward, especially harmonically. With the ever-present Martin guiding them, songs become more complex, melodies more adventurous, lyrics richer and the aforementioned harmony more daring (lots of 2nds) and their first masterpiece, Norwegian Wood, a 6/8 melody of such beauty and honesty, it must have been a shock on first hearing. And with a sitar, no less. 

To hear the mono in all its glory, crank Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds  -- the accents, the echo chamber, the glorious guitars. In fact, Sgt. Pepper's, who many consider the greatest pop album of all time, is where the mono is best highlighted. It is magnificent and lends the whole project a musical seriousness that eases the sticker shock of USD $300.00. 

My one nit to pick is the bass. Paul's playing is well down the mix and is played beautifully (and effectively) but it's not as defined as other instruments. On my pressings at least, very slightly muffled. Could it be a room effect? Possibly. Bass on the stereo set does sound a little better via TidalHiFi on my main floor SONOS lifestyle system (with SUB). No matter, it does not bother the ears at all on the mono reproduction. 

What the German pressing company and the EMI engineers have given us is a musical gift. On a really good vinyl setup, you'll never hear the Beatles in better fidelity. Yes, it is expensive, but is still very highly recommended. 

Please Please Me
With The Beatles
A Hard Day's Night
Beatles For Sale
Help!
Rubber Soul
Revolver
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Magical Mystery Tour
The Beatles (2-LP)
Mono Masters (3-LP) Tour
The Beatles (2-LP)
Mono Masters (3-LP)