Friday, December 7, 2012

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - The Great Beatles Vinyl Experiment

When the new batch of Beatles vinyl came out a few weeks ago I took home Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour to check them out. My first impression was sort of ho-hum. I played my American Apple pressings and by comparison they seemed better, but just sort of. Then I started seeing various reports in the press about how either good or bad they were. There seemed to be no consensus about how these highly anticipated reissues really fared compared to other issues on vinyl. So, Twist and Shout’s vinyl guru Ben Sumner and myself decided to subject the reissues to some clinical testing and determine what we really thought. We went over to my house to avail ourselves of a decent stereo and then I subjected Ben to a blind listening of five different Peppers and four Mystery Tours. To avoid fatigue, we chose to listen to just a limited amount of music from each album. We played “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “With A little Help From My Friends” from the former and “Strawberry Fields Forever” from the latter. We fortified ourselves with pizza and some red wine and then dove in.

With Pepper, we played two different American Apple pressings, the new version, Ben’s first pressing British Parlophone version and finally the CD from the ’09 box set. We found that we agreed across the board with each other and the results were interesting and a bit unexpected. Both of the American Apples had a louder, more compressed and more radio-ready, exciting sound. When we played the original British copy it is safe to say it was a revelation comparatively. The field of sound broadened, there was more space between the instruments and the lows seemed lower. It was subtler and showed the album to be the avant-garde masterpiece it was. In my notes abut the American versions I wrote “No wonder America fell in love with the Beatles.” Those louder, slightly more compressed versions somehow took your attention away from the nuances and pushed these great songs to the front of the sonic field sounding like instant hits. When we played the new version in direct comparison, it fell squarely in between these two experiences. It lacked the beautiful delicacy of the original British and it also toned down some of the over-amped excitement of the American mixes. The down side was some of the vocals and drums sounded a bit muffled, but the positive side was we both agreed that these were actually pretty good versions that the average consumer could comfortably buy knowing they are getting a very respectable version of this classic material.

The Mystery Tours were an original American Capitol version, the new version, the highly coveted German, Apple (Horzu) version and again the CD to finish it off. By choosing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which has always been in true stereo, we sidestepped the whole stereo vs. duo phonic debate. Our results were similar to the Pepper experiment. The original Capitol jumped out of the speakers, again tamping down the subtlety and pumping up the excitement. The real revelation of the entire evening was the German version, which offered this psychedelic masterpiece in the most detailed and gorgeous presentation I’ve ever heard. It captured that ineffable quality that vinyl buyers crave. Some call it warmth, Ben says it is just a heightened space between the instruments, but it is the thing that lovers of the medium crave and seek out. It is also the thing that many digitally produced modern albums lack. Once again the new version fared pretty well also. It lacked the jaw dropping delicacy of the German, but it was a better sounding record than my original Capitol.

In both cases the new versions were nice pressings that obviously had the least surface noise and offered the least distracting vinyl listen. We both felt totally comfortable recommending these new pressings as a great way to get into the repertoire, knowing that there are still some collecting holy grails out there that can lead the diligent searcher to even more rarified listening experiences. Another affirmation was, that no matter what Neil Young says about CDs being an inferior listening experience, the ’09 CD versions are superb sounding and are a completely wonderful way to enjoy the Beatles. In addition to the expected loudness and clarity, they offered subtlety and nuance as well. The CDs will continue to be my go-to for the majority of my Beatles listening. One last thing that may seem obvious after all these years, but still mystifies me is how definitively great The Beatles were: as songwriters, performers and capturers of lightning in a bottle. The 60’s gestalt is encapsulated in these songs better than any other physical manifestation I can think of. If history favors any music from the rock era, The Beatles are sure to be on the top of the heap.
-Paul Epstein 

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