By Jack Sharkey, September 9, 2014.
I had the extreme honor of being invited to the East Coast premiere of The Beatles In Mono last night at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan's West Village. The evening was moderated by Sound & Vision Magazine's Mike Mettler, with guest speakers Steven Berkowitz and Ken Scott. I've worked with Scott on a couple of occasions doing our Masters of Sound program, but this was the first time I'd had a chance to just sit back and listen to him talk from firsthand experience about what it was I was listening to. I have to say it was really quite a treat.
But, before the jaded amongst you think "oh, here we go, another Beatles product to separate us from our collective lunch monies," I would exhort you to reconsider all of that cynicism. You may think you've heard the Beatles before, but if you're an American, you haven't.
I was never really more than a casual Beatles fan until much later in my music journey. Growing up, the Beatles were everywhere, kind of like air and bad report cards. To this day I'm not an over-the-top fan: I own a couple of CD re-issues and the original LPs I bought back in the day. I can't do Beatles trivia very well, and my Beatles reading is pretty much limited to Ken Scott's and Geoff Emrick's books, which were more about the production than the Fab Four-ish aspects of the Fab Four. My point? If a casual fan can be as blown away by what they heard as I was, I can only imagine what the serious Beatle fan is going to experience.
I'm Serious, I Was Completely Blown Away By The Beatles In Mono On Vinyl
Like you, I've heard most of these songs all of my life, although I did hear two last night that I'd never heard before (When I Get Home and another later one one I didn't catch the title of). But the fourteen I had heard before were so fresh and new it was actually a bit stunning.
In the early 1960's, stereo was new, expensive and pretty much not commercial. In fact, stereo was reserved for high-end jazz and classical recordings. Particularly in the UK, for pop and commercial records, stereo wasn't a consideration because the people buying theose records simply didn't spend the money on their music like the serious audiophiles of the day did. The US market embraced stereo before the rest of the world, but that early adoption wasn't always a good thing – did you ever listen to a mid-sixties pop record and wonder why all of the drums were in one channel and the rest of the band was in the other? That kids, was what passed for stereo back in the day as labels re-mastered mono records into "stereo."
The Beatles would sign off on the mono mixes and that's what was released in the UK and the rest of the world except for the US. A few weeks after the original mastering was done, George Martin and the engineers on deck for the session would go back and re-mix for stereo. The problem was, they were remixing to stereo from recordings originally intended for mono. That's why us Americans heard the three-part harmony in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band all panned over to the left channel while the guitar was panned hard right. It's not natural I tells ya! Now Paul is hard right. Cute, but not at all what the band had in mind when they recorded the songs in the first place.
Listening to the mono re-masters, I heard instruments and other things throughout the night that I had never heard before. This was because of the absolute clarity of the production, but also because originally, when they went back in to re-master in the studio, they often-times simply forgot what they had done on the original mixes. Most stunning to me was some laughter and talking at the end of a verse in I Am the Walrus that completely (for the better) changed the song for me.
Unlike the horrid remixes (particularly on CD in the 80s) that we've been assaulted with over the years, these re-mastered vinyl records were done as completely true to the technology, vibe and expectation of the time, as possible. This was no small feat because much of the original equipment is either gone or not working as it did in the 60s. According to Berkowitz, even getting the angle of the playback heads on the tape machines aligned to reproduce the frequencies as per the original notes was an at times painstaking task.
As I type this paragraph I am listening to A Day In the Life on my cheesy CD remix, with Paul and John's vocals hard right, John's guitar hard left, and all of that icky 1980s compression. Last night I heard the song how it was intended to be heard by the Beatles themselves and it was, without fear of being accused of being hyperbolic, transcendent. In my mind, I could smell the ozone in the air from the transformers and vacuum tubes at the same time I actually heard the song for the very first time. Okay, there was a little 60 cycle hum from the turntable that I could have done without (ground lift anyone?), but now I'm just being picky because that had nothing to do with the music.
Steve Berkowitz and Sean Magee simply did a fantastic job re-producing what had originally been produced fifty years earlier but that we here in the US never got to hear.
I Woke Up This Morning With I Am The Walrus Swimming Around In Mono In My Head
The fact that the event was held in Electric Lady Studios added to the overall vibe of the evening. Electric Lady was built by Jimi Hendrix in 1968 after a nightclub he frequently jammed in closed down. Electric Lady is considered to have installed the first full 24-track console in the world, and artists from Led Zeppelin to Daft Punk have recorded there. The original murals still line the walls, and the lamps and furnishings pull you back to the hey-day of rock & roll.
Two other things struck me as I listened to the program and the music: Watching the one hundred or so guests, I was comforted to see an amazing range of ages, styles and backgrounds. The smiles on people's faces as they closed their eyes and listened and moved to the music was truly something to witness. Here we were listening to fifty year-old music and collectively digging on it as if it were the first time we had ever heard it. After each song played the audience applauded as loudly as if they were at a live show. Try that MP3/Ear Bud Generation!
The second and most profound thing to me was the sheer exhiliration of the history. Not just music history, not just British history – world history. Each song transported each listener back to a time either in their own lives or in our collective consciousness, and that journey was as emotionally real as I'm thinking is possible. To me that's the result of the music (obviously) and (less obviously) the sound of the music, which wholly captured how things sounded and how people felt when these songs were recorded. That my friends, is an amazing feat.
I don't know about you, but I'm getting the box set, with the book and the 14 LPs, as soon as I can.
The opinions expressed in this articles are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of KEF or its employees.