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The Beatles - in Stereo
After a long wait, The Beatles discography has finally appeared on vinyl. Paul Rigby reviews The Beatles In Stereo.
The last time The Beatles catalogue officially appeared via EMI, newly remastered on vinyl was back in 1978 with an additional Mobile Fidelity box set released later in 1982. Since that time, we have waited for a new, updated, version to appear. And now it has.
The set itself features original stereo mixes for all of the Beatles albums, from ‘Please Please Me’ to ‘Let It Be’, including ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and ‘Past Masters 1 & 2’. They are pressed on 180gm vinyl and presented in thick card sleeves, along with a magnificent 253-page hardback book detailing every album. These items are contained in a sturdy, flip-top box, an outer card sleeve encasing the box.
The review of this album set begins at the source, however – in this case Abbey Road and an interview with one of the participating mastering engineers, Sean Magee, who has been working on this project since October 2009. He is an ideal figure to lay to rest internet gossip regarding this release, prompting queries to us at Hi-Fi World. But then, The Beatles have a semi-religious world-wide following and any re-release like this gets close and critical inspection.
A major concern is the source of the music. Was it the original master tapes? Apparently not.
“We couldn’t really”, said Magee. “We have all the cutting notes left by Harry Moss (the original cutting engineer for The Beatles’ recording output) but we don’t have the same equipment. We could kind of recreate the analogue chain and kind of recreate what Harry Moss did to get that sound but it wouldn’t be the same.”
Another reason has been the demands of Apple: that amalgamation of the remaining Beatles plus the estates of the rest. Apple want any Beatles recordings to have a particular ‘sound’, a traditional presentation based upon the original recordings that, to some extent, constrained the mastering engineers at Abbey Road. To get the required sound required a considerable amount of EQ (Equalization: boosting or reducing the levels of different frequencies in a signal). “To physically do this in real time whilst cutting from the original analogue masters would have been almost impossible to do”, said Magee.
The approved EQ shouldn’t be taken lightly, either. It took four and a half years to create it, prior to the release of the CD box sets in 2009. Consequently, the vinyl has been remastered from digital sources created before the CD box sets were released, in 24bit/192kHz digital, meaning super high quality, way better than CD.
Magee found, however, that even those files were going to be a problem when remastering the stereo vinyl because of vinyl cutting EQ requirements.
Also, on the earlier albums, primitive stereo processing placed vocals on one channel and instruments on the other which meant that “there are different EQs on the left than there is on the right because the content is different on either side. Sorting all of these EQs, track by track, whilst cutting would be impossible.
Also, you cannot do separate jobs at 192. You can’t de-click, then EQ and so on. You have to do the lot while cutting. There isn’t the equipment at 192 to do that. Not easily, at any rate. The practicality and time of even doing that process at 24/96 would have taken about a year. You’d also need a lot of double checking”.
It so happened that the complex EQ applications had already been made on the CD version. “To use the 192kHz sources now would have entailed recreating the EQ source that we did at 24/44.1, which wasn’t viable”.
From the enclosed book, Studio 2, Abbey Road, where The Beatles
recorded their early albums.
So a decision was made to master the vinyl at 24bit/44.1kHz. I can hear the sound of fainting audiophiles across the land.
Despite the extra time that a 24bit/192kHz or even a 24bit/96kHz cutting master would have taken to create there was, according to Magee, no real deadline for this project. So the reason for using the 44.1kHz files was? “I was told to use these 24bits (files), so that’s what we used, it was the most practical”.
Practical? Because of the cutter head, according to Magee. “It has a limited frequency response and cuts off at 24kHz. There is nothing above that. As a cutting engineer, anything of significant level above 16kHz is dangerous. You don’t want that going to your cutter head because it gets very hot and can destroy it. It wouldn’t have mattered if the signal had gone to 192kHz or 96kHz, it wouldn’t have been on the record because you can’t cut it, you can’t hear it and I wouldn’t want it there anyway because a stray signal at 60kHz would destroy the lathe head. The most important part is that it's 24bit, not that it's 96kHz or 192kHz (sample rate) because the cutter head won’t even cut content up to 48kHz”.
According to Magee, you’re far better off having a decent ADC (Analogue-to-Digital Convertor, a high-specification design from Prism in Abbey Road’s case) and a clean 24bit signal if you are capturing all of those extra highs. “The reason 24bit is important is because, in 16bit audio CD play, when you get down to -50 something then you start getting quantisation. The signal can’t make up its mind whether it’s a one or a zero. You end up with a buzzy sound. At 24bit, you get no perceivable noise”.
Audiophiles will be happy to hear that no compression has been added to the vinyl masters, while a decision to use Direct Metal Master cutting process to enhance detail was rejected by Apple in favour of the warmer sound of lacquers. The only processing done was a series of precise and targeted removals of sibilance which, with Cedia Retouch, is almost surgical in its accuracy and doesn’t affect adjacent frequencies as older systems did.
On other points of note, the contentious George Martin 1986 stereo mixes for ‘Help!’ and ‘Rubber Soul’ that surfaced in the CD version of the Stereo box set have also appeared within this vinyl box set. The original stereo mixes can currently be found in the CD Mono box set. There is no information about which version will appear in the future Beatles On Mono box set.