The Shapiro Files

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beatles in Stereo or Mono?

After treading the "music geek" waters with my recent Paul McCartney posting, I figured I might as well take the plunge and take on a full-out Beatles-related topic.

Over the years, I've occasionally read pieces from rock critics and music historians who claim that the only "real" way to hear the Beatles is in mono. The usual explanation for this preference is that unlike many of their contemporaries, The Beatles actually did entirely different mixes for mono and stereo releases. The more common process was simply doing a stereo mix, then combining it into a single channel to create a mono version. The Beatles, on the other hand, produced completely separate "from-scratch" mixes for each format. As a result, there are countless differences between the two mixes--many are fairly subtle, some quite substantial.

Also, since mono was still the more common format through most of the 60s, The Beatles were mainly only interested in the mono versions of their releases. Thus, the band members tended to be there only for mono mixing sessions. They'd then let George Martin and his engineers deal with the stereo mixes later without attending any of those subsequent sessions. This meant that a great deal more time and attention was spent on the mono mixes, which also implies that they are the true "Beatles-approved" mixes.

Even though I've been long aware of this history, I only had limited exposure to Beatles mono mixes until recently. Their first four albums were released in mono when first put out on CD in the 80s, but the rest of the CD releases were in stereo only. Years earlier, when my brother and I first became Beatles fanatics (I was probably in fifth or sixth grade at the time), we managed to get a few mono pressings of their albums on vinyl LP at a used record store. But I wasn't then a critical enough listener to really make an assessment of their merit relative to their stereo counterparts. But at long last, thanks to the re-release of the entire Beatles catalog on CD in both stereo and mono late last year, I have finally had the opportunity see if all the mono-hype was warranted.

Please Please Me (1962) and With the Beatles (1963)

Mono or Stereo? Mono

I'm lumping these two albums together since they are both two sides of the same aural coin. Both were very quickly recorded, mostly live-in-the-studio with limited overdubs, using two-track tape. Given the limitations of working with only two tracks, George Martin never intended for these albums to be released in anything but mono. Rather, he used the two tracks to help him balance the instruments on one track and the vocals on the other. He then combined the two into a single mono mix. However, unbeknownst to him, the company big-wigs got their hands on the two-track tapes and put out stereo pressings of these albums. The result were albums where all of the instruments come out of one speaker and all the vocals out of the other. While it's kind of cool to be able to hear only the instruments or just the voices by turning the balance knob on your stereo, aesthetically a mix of this sort is just, well, wrong. As a result, the mono releases really are the true way to hear these albums. The instrument/vocal balance is perfect and the obvious energy behind the performances come through in a way that get lost when everything is so dramatically split apart left/right in stereo.

A Hard Days Night (1963)

Mono or Stereo? Both

If there was one major point of contention I had with the initial Beatles CD releases in the 80s, it was that George Martin, in his understandable anxiousness to release the groups' first two albums in only mono for their first appearance on CD, somehow managed to lump the next two albums in with the same mono-only request. This had boggled my mind then and continues to do so today. After Please Please Me and With the Beatles, the band started recording on four-track tape. The result was that they were able to do proper stereo mixes (vocals in the center, instruments spread out to both left and right channels) for the first time. The resultant mixes were still a little bit on the primitive side, but the overall balance was very good and the stereo panning allowed for more detail to come through. I had loved my stereo vinyl LPs of these albums and was bitterly disappointed when I could only enjoy them in mono after I transitioned to CD. But after over 20 years, this major mistake was finally rectified when both mixes were released last year.

The funny thing is despite missing the stereo mixes for so long, I actually found both the mono and stereo mixes to be equal for Hard Days Night. The mono mix is probably a little better balanced, with tighter drums and bass, but the stereo mix is nice and full as well. It even has a funny little mixing mistake, with the wrong McCartney harmony vocal mixed into the last section of "If I Fell" where his voice cracks at the end of the phrase "was in vain." In fact, it was errors like these that demonstrate how much less attention went in to the stereo mixes at that point. But it's a fun mistake that always makes me smile when I hear it.

Beatles for Sale (1964)

Mono or Stereo: Stereo

With each album the band put out, they added increasingly more overdubs and layers of harmonies. As a result, I've always found the mono mix of this album to be too cluttered. The stereo mix, on the other hand, really opens up the soundscape (the whole point of stereo, naturally) and it's much easier to pick out individual instruments and voices. After so many years of waiting, I am thrilled to finally have this album in stereo on CD.

Help! (1965)

Mono or Stereo: Stereo

The mono mix of this great album definitely has its charms and I especially like that John's vocals on the title track are a little different than the stereo mix. But overall, this albums just sounds better in stereo. The guitars are crisper and the vocals clearer. A great stereo highlight of many is "I've Just Seen a Face" with its immersive acoustic guitars spread across the channels.

Rubber Soul (1965)

Mono or Stereo: Mono

After extolling the virtues of the previous two albums in stereo, it might seem strange that I give the nod to Rubber Soul's mono mix. However, by this point in their career, the Beatles' albums were getting increasingly richer and complex--all of which required more tracks. Although they were still working with four-track recorders, they were able to add more tracks through a process called bouncing. The downside of this process was that even more instruments and/or vocals had to be squeezed onto shared tracks. The result was that the original 1966 stereo mix of Rubber Soul had a fair amount of the instruments-on-one-side and vocals-on-the-other-side quality of their first two albums' stereo mixes. After releasing three proper stereo mixes, this was an unfortunate return to a more rudimentary approach to stereo. Thus it's for this reason that the mono mix of this album is much better balanced with the overall sound much punchier and powerful. I should note that George Martin even went through the trouble of doing a new stereo mix of this album in 1987 for its first CD release to try to correct the original mix. It could have potentially been an improvement over the original 1965 stereo mix, but was marred by the type of compressed, tinny sound that was very common in the 80s when digital recording and mixing was still relatively new and bitrates were low.

Revolver (1966)

Mono or Stereo: Both

This was the album that marked the arrival of sound engineer Geoff Emerick to the Beatles' story. It's hard to overstate his enormous contribution to the band through what is arguably their most creative period. He was young and eager to please and did things with microphone placement and effects processors that no one had done before. As a result, Revolver sounds great in both mono and stereo. The usual four-track limitations still resulted in some too-wide stereo panning, but at least the vocals were mostly back in the center and the overall balance is consistently good. There's also a fun little stereo mixing mistake on "Eleanor Rigby" that I've noticed for years but only recently learned exactly what caused it. At the beginning of the first verse, Paul's voice on the first couple of syllables of the word "Eleanor" is in both speakers and then abruptly shifts to just one side for the remainder of the verse. As it turns out, this happens because the ADT (Automatic Double Tracking) effect used on the opening "Ah, look at all the lonely people" refrain was accidentally kept on for those couple of syllables before it was turned off for the rest of the verse. It's just one of those random accidents that again demonstrates how less attention was paid to stereo mixes.

The mono mix probably has more powerful drums and bass and the brass on "Got to Get You Into My Life" is especially powerful. But overall I enjoy both mixes equally.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Mono or Stereo: Mono

I was absolutely shocked to discover that everything I've heard over the years about the mono mix of Sgt. Pepper was true. This album truly does rock harder in mono. The level balance and equalization of all the instruments is just perfect. Everything is exactly right in mono. The stereo mix definitely tries to be more psychedelically trippy in stereo with all its panning effects, but the overall album is less punchy and aurally uneven. You can tell that mistakes were made along the way with various instrument levels not always in balance or things like there not being enough phaser/flanger effect applied to John's voice in "Lucy in the Sky." There is even a pretty dramatic difference in the speed of "She's Leaving Home," which is faster in mono. The only song that arguably works better in stereo is "A Day in the Life" because of all the aforementioned stereo panning effects. If there was ever song that would benefit from sounds frequently moving left-to-right, this would definitely be the one. But unless you're listening to the album with headphones on, the mono mix really is better. Believe me, I'm as surprised as anyone.

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Mono or Stereo: Both

Much like Sgt. Pepper, the balance is generally better in mono. Songs like "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Hello Goodbye" are particularly powerful in their mono incarnations. On the other hand, songs like "Strawberry Fields" and "I Am the Walrus" are more immersive in stereo. So I call it a draw. I like both mixes equally.

The Beatles [a.k.a. The White Album] (1968)

Mono or Stereo: Stereo

The Beatles' famous self-titled double-album was the first one in which George Martin and team were able to get their hands on eight-track recording equipment. Although it wasn't used for all the tracks on the album, you can definitely hear the difference in general. The stereo panning is still fairly wide at times, but somehow less harsh. I'm guessing at this point, stereo was getting so common that the recording professionals across the industry were simply getting more adept at creating solid, well-balanced stereo mixes. And again, they had the luxury of more tracks in several cases. Plus, a baroque album like The White Album simply benefits from the expanded sound field that stereo affords. Whether it's the honkey-tonk piano jumping out of one channel in "Rocky Racoon" or the beautifully-recorded orchestra and choir in "Good Night" encompassing both channels, stereo just suits this album so well. That's not to say that there aren't pleasures to be had in the mono mix (I especially like the extra emphasis the pig sound effects in "Piggies" get in mono), but the stereo mix is less cluttered and full of surprises. Plus, the experimental sound collage "Revolution 9" makes no sense in mono. In fact, "Revolution 9" is one of the few times when the group actually did was most of the industry did, which was mix only in stereo, then bounce down to a single track for mono release.

Non-Album Singles

Through their entire recording career, The Beatles released countless non-album singles, including all their biggest hits such as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Hey Jude." Since I've gone on long enough, I'll only say that "Paperback Writer" rocks harder and has a much more effective echo effect in the mono mix. It's flip-side, "Rain," also benefits from a much better balance and sharper equalization in the mono mix. Many of the group's other singles have similar differences.

Other than the Yellow Submarine film soundtrack in 1968, which was never released with mono-specific mixes (although the recent CD release include a few first-time mono releases from the album), the group's post-White Album albums were released in stereo only. So this is where my comparisons end.

In just a small handful of years, The Beatles went from recording in a world where mono ruled to a world in which stereo was now the new standard. As a result of this transition, for the past 40 years, most people have only been familiar with the band's stereo releases. But as I hope is clear from this commentary, the mono mixes are frequently the better mixes. So as all those Beatles purists have been saying for years, you really haven't heard the Beatles until you've heard them in mono. Who knew?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In Defense of Sir Paul

As a lifelong Beatles fan, I frequently obsess over random questions related to the Fab Four. My latest obsession is around Paul McCartney's oft-maligned solo career and how he got such a negative reputation from both critics and many serious rock fans. After all, he's an undisputed virtuoso on the bass--an incredible talent he never seems to get enough credit for. Then on top of that, he's written a wealth of great songs over the past 40 years of his post-Beatles career.

But then I realize the answer is obvious: Songwriting has always come so easy to McCartney that he's never been much of a self-editor. For every "Band on the Run" there's a "Girlfriend" or "Average Person." Plus there were the light-rock radio staples of the 70s and 80s that were more often as not perceived as unadventurous and shallow--although I'd argue that such an interpretation wasn't always fair. Take a song like "My Love." It's undeniably cheesy--especially lyrically. But it was a huge hit for a reason: Its song-craft is impeccable. The arrangement, musicianship, and melodic content all work together in a way as to make the song nearly irresistible. Say what you will about corny McCartney ballads, but you can't deny that the guy knew how to craft together a recording in a way that made it all seem so effortless. So it's no surprise that songs like "My Love" became such big hits. Unfortunately, this success came with consequences--namely that such songs tended to overshadow other facets of McCartney's work. For many people, a song like "My Love" began representing the totality of what McCartney was capable of. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. It's is a good song, but far from his best.

It's well-documented that McCartney never took particularly well to constructive feedback from anyone other than John Lennon and sometimes Beatles producer George Martin. Thus when freed from that type of input, he didn't always have the impetus to push himself beyond the things that came most naturally. It's probably for that reason that his early solo career got off to a particularly rough start. After so many ornate, brilliantly-produced Beatles albums, McCartney's self-titled debut solo album must have been something of a shock to fans and critics alike. It was entirely self-performed--mainly via a home-studio four-track machine (albeit later treated to recording studio overdubs and other touch-ups) with a deliberately "homemade" feel. It was McCartney's way of starting over with a "back to basics" approach. It's an understandable move and even admirable. But so much of the resultant album feels very "throw-away" with its random instrumentals and simplistic lyrics a la "That Would Be Something" or "The Lovely Linda." Yet buried near the end of that album is "Maybe I'm Amazed," one of McCartney's best songs he's ever written. With some proper guidance and nudging, perhaps the album could have a few more "Maybe I'm Amazed"s and fewer "Valentine Day"s.

The McCartney album was followed by Ram, which was McCartney's attempt to return to a properly produced recording. The problem was that the quality of the songwriting varied too widely. The Grammy-award winning "Uncle Albert" was indeed in the same universe as some of his more creative Beatles-era songs, but songs like "Too Many People" or "Smile Away" are both charming, but surprisingly crude. Making matters worse was that the album was amateurishly engineered and mixed. Which is a shame because I've always thought it was perhaps his most underrated album. He's undoubtedly a bit unhinged and could have done with the type of external guidance a George Martin could have provided, but he's definitely adventurous enough. "Back Seat in My Car" is an especially strong song that's only marred by a terrible audio mix and poor recording techniques. It's a shame because with the right production, that song could have easily reached the same heights of some of the best moments on Abbey Road.

After Ram, McCartney formed Wings and the remainder of the 70s consisted of the band's eventual rise to worldwide success (despite numerous personnel changes) and a string of hit singles. During those years, McCartney took the band from being a rough-and-tumble group playing college campuses to a slick and polished professional outfit capable of filling arenas. Throughout it all, McCartney continued to write catchy tunes and produce impeccably crafted recordings. I have no doubt it was all lots of work despite how effortless it all seemed. But it was that effortlessness that was probably the most damaging to McCartney's credibility. Songs like "With a Little Luck" or "Let 'em In" are so breezy and go down so smoothly that it's hard to imagine that either took any labor to create. But it actually takes a relentless pursuit of excellence--no doubt burning out many a Wings member along the way--to create somewhat that sounds so easy.

The 80s proved to be an interesting decade for McCartney, as it both produced his highly-regarded and Grammy-nominated Tug of War album (due in no small part to the fact that it was produced by George Martin and engineered by Geoff Emerick) and the box-office flop Give My Regards to Broad Street. At least the decade ended off very strong with his excellent Flowers in the Dirt, which marked the beginning of his long road towards some degree of critical acceptance. The last two decades since have been especially strong, with his two most recent studio albums among his very best.

So in the spirit of redeeming Sir Paul, I thought it would be fun to take a look through his entire post-Beatles discography and make a list of the very best tracks from his long career. You probably won't see too many of his bigger hits here, which is probably a good thing. It should probably also go without saying that this is very much a personal list. Talk to another McCartney fan and you'd probably get an entirely different list. But hey, this is my blog, so I get to do whatever I want here.

Classic McCartney

"Maybe I'm Amazed" from McCartney (1970) and Wings Across America (1976)
As classic McCartney as it gets. A beautiful melody, great piano and guitar work (all played by Paul) that would have been very much at home on Abbey Road or The White Album. The 1976 live version is a little slower and has an extended coda, and might be even better than the original studio recording.

"Another Day" (1971 single)
A very Beatles-esque song that tells a nice quiet story of a woman leading a solitary life. A very understated, but no less expertly crafted recording.

"Back Seat of My Car" from Ram (1971)
I love this song, especially the descending chord progression of the "Oh we believe that we can't go wrong" refrain. I just wish it weren't so horribly horribly recorded and mixed. Oh Paul, why didn't you invite Geoff Emerick to engineer this one?

"Little Lamb Dragonfly" from Red Rose Speedway (1973)
Even devout McCartney fans might think I'm crazy for including this one. But I think it's a beautiful song with a perfect melody and arrangement.

"Band on the Run" from Band on the Run (1973)
An obvious choice, but no less an excellent song. Trivia: The drums on this recording are played by Paul himself. The only thing that's always been weird to me in the out-of-tune bass. Given what a famously excellent bass player Paul was, it's hard to imagine how that happened. Still, a great tune.

"Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" from Band on the Run (1973)
A great piano-based rock song that builds to a perfect crescendo.

"Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People" from Venus and Mars (1975)
For anyone who only knows "Listen to What the Man Said" from the Venus and Mars album probably doesn't know that this song represents the second half of that song, as the instrumental interlude that closes that song leads directly to this one. The melancholic turn the melody takes in the "Lonely Old People" section really makes this song a standout for me.

"The Broadcast" from Back to the Egg (1979)
This is a particularly odd track from an album that is better than the reviews make it out to be. "The Broadcast" is an instrumental track played under excerpts from "The Sport of Kings" by Ian Hay and "The Little Man" by John Galsworthy. It's a short and surprisingly moving piece. It's also fairly rare for McCartney to do an instrumental of this nature, as he tends to go all-out classical in his instrumental work. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'd love to hear him try a more contemporary piano-based instrumental full-length composition as well.

"The Pound Is Sinking" from Tug of War (1982)
This is a type of exploratory composition that McCartney has written many times throughout his career. But this time he had George Martin to tastefully shape it into a mini-suite and Geoff Emerick to make it sound lush and full (by 1982 standards at least).

"My Brave Face" from Flowers in the Dirt (1989)
A collaboration with Elvis Costello resulted in this perfect pop confection. Not much else to say other than it's endless listenable and catchy as almost any early Beatles song.

"We Got Married" from Flowers in the Dirt (1989)
The darkest tribute to marriage that I can think of. I think it's a positive lyric, but the music is so heavy that it creates a wonderful dissonance between theme and execution. I love Dave Gilmore's great guitar work on this track.

"Beautiful Night" from Flaming Pie (1997)
A great highlight from an album full of highlights. Classic McCartney piano ballad, plus Ringo on the drums and a George Martin orchestra arrangement. A real return to form.

"No Other Baby" from Run Devil Run (1999)
An almost shockingly cathartic moment of raw expression delivered via an oldie from McCartney's youth. Run Devil Run was McCartney's first album release after Linda's passing and the whole album feels like a soul-scorching expression of angst under the guise of a seemingly jubilant album of rock and roll covers. There's something so stark about McCartney's vocals on this track that it might very well be the most emotionally honest thing he has every released commercially.

"She's Given Up Talking" from Driving Rain (2001)
For anyone who knows Driving Rain, this is probably a surprising choice from an album that also has both the excellent "Your Loving Flame" and Beatles-esque "Heather." But there's something so arresting about this song's minimal lyric and creative production that makes this a standout track for me.

"English Tea" from Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
The whole Chaos and Creation album is among McCartney's very best releases, so you can pretty much pick out any track on the album as representing the strength of the entire thing. But as a lifelong Beatles fan, I can't resist this throwback to "For No One" from nearly 40 years earlier.

"The End of the End" from Memory Almost Full (2007)
McCartney has never been one to lay his soul bare in his work like his former collaborator John Lennon did. Rather, he liked hiding behind "silly love songs," bucolic topics, and light social commentary. So this song is particularly striking in its directness about his life and mortality. I guess it shouldn't be too surprising given some of the huge personal blows he endured over the years with the passing of Lennon, George Harrison, and his beloved wife Linda. These events have turned the charmingly elusive McCartney of the past into a more introspective songwriter. As as a result, "The End of the End" has a poignancy that's rare for McCartney and which makes it one of his best compositions yet.


Here are a bunch of other favorites that almost made the list:
  • "Junk" and "Every Night" from McCartney (1970)
  • "Dear Boy" and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" from Ram (1971)
  • "Tomorrow" and "Dear Friend" from Wild Life (1971)
  • "Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me) from Band on the Run (1973)
  • "Call Me Back Again" from Venus and Mars (1975)
  • "Let 'Em In" and "Beware My Love" from Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976)
  • "London Town" and With a Little Luck" from London Town (1978)
  • "Getting Closer" and "Arrow Through Me" from Back to the Egg (1979)
  • "Coming Up" (Live) from McCartney II (1980) [as an "bonus" 45RPM single in the original LP and now a CD bonus track]
  • "Tug of War" and "Take it Away" from Tug of War (1982)
  • "The Other Me" and "Keep Under Cover" from Pipes of Peace (1983)
  • "Stranglehold" and "Only Love Remains" from Press to Play (1986)
  • Every song on Flowers in the Dirt (1989)
  • "Summertime" from CHOBA B CCCP (released 1991, recorded in 1987)
  • "Winedark Open Sea" and "C'mon People" from Off the Ground (1993)
  • "The Song We Were Singing," "Somedays," "Calico Skies," Flaming Pie," and "Little Willow" from Flaming Pie (1997)
  • "Lonely Road," "From a Lover to a Friend," "Heather," and "Your Loving Flame" from Driving Rain (2001)
  • Every song on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
  • Every song on Memory Almost Full (2007)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

A Mother's Day "Father Knows Best?" and More

In honor of Mother's Day, check out my latest "Father Knows Best?" column, which is essentially a Mother's Day card to Marcie. The basic theme: Dads get too much praise and Moms never get enough.

Also, check out last month's column, which is my favorite one yet.

Coming next month: my first published use of the word accouterment and praise for an indispensable object of childcare paraphernalia called a Boo-Boo Bunny.