Listening #123 Page 2
The next album up, Beatles for Sale, sounded decentbut no betterin its new vinyl guise. Compared with my German EMI/Odeon copy, the new LP was slightly veiled and lacking in physical impact. For its part, the new version of Help! lacked the easy, natural treble quality I heard in Please Please Me and With the Beatles, although it had good clarity, immediacy, and touchthe raking of guitar strings in "Tell Me What You See" came across well, as did the irregular emphasis Ringo Starr applies to some snare beats in "You Like Me too Much." My old Parlophone mono copy was better still in this departmentby farbut that isn't a terribly fair comparison.
Rubber Soul? More like Polycarbonate Soul. Some aspects of the new LP were nicethose dead-silent surfaces, mostlybut there was a bit of crunch hiding between the notes, and, again, some of the singing sounded muffled and unclear. The right-channel vocals of my well-worn original Capitol LP sound clearer and less murky than in this premium-priced reissue. Seriously.
Dogs for dogging
That brings us to what some folks see as the big kahuna of the collection: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, faithfully packaged, à la the original UK Parlophone, without the apostrophe on its spine. This one sounded mostly quite good, if just a teensy bit veiled: The Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UHQR version offers clearer voices, as heard in Paul's scat singing toward the end of the "(Reprise)" of the title song, plus altogether tighter, clearer electric-bass lines. Still, the new Apple LP had surprisingly fine color and impact. (The original Parlophone mono has much more of the latterbut, again, that's comparing new apples and old apples.) The reproduction of the cover art on this one is distinctly good, too, and the Apple engineers deserve credit for duplicating, almost perfectly, the Beatles' gibberish in the side 2 lead-out groove.
From there on out, the news is mixed. Some tracks on Apple's new Magical Mystery Tour LP had more instrumental color, impact, presence, and clarity than any other version I've heardfor once, the sounds of ensemble flutes in "The Fool on the Hill" were revealed as a Mellotronwithout the subtle top-end crunch of the originals. Still, some vocal performances sounded indistinct and veiled compared to those on even the commonest Capitol copy. The difference was especially audible in John's voice in "Strawberry Fields Forever," which is inarguably clearer and more present on the US original. The same applied to The Beatles: The new LP wasn't as brittle as the original US release, but neither did it have much in the way of clarity and openness. Voices and instruments alike were criminally dull in "Dear Prudence," my '70s-era US Apple release being laughably superior to the new reissue. And in those selections where the basic tracks seemed to have suffered the greatest compression and dulling from bouncing-down"Savoy Truffle" comes to mindeven the 2009 stereo CD reissues sound better than the new Apple LP: a sadder-than-hell thing to have to say about a premium vinyl release in the 21st century.
The pattern continued from there. Yes, I actually liked the goosed-up electric bass in "Come Together," on Abbey Road, but I didn't like the distant, murky sound of the lead vocal. Let It Be had the cleanest surfaces I've heard on any vinyl copy of that albumbut my domestic Apple original sounded so much clearer and more open that I listened to it the rest of the way through and forgot about the new reissue.
Which is the response deserved by about half of the albums in the new Stereo Vinyl Box Set: Forget them.
Here we are: It's 2012, and someone has set out to offer a series of premium-priced, premium-quality LP reissues of music recordings that were all originally released in the 1960s. Yet none of the 16 discs in the set sounds better than its original LP release, and the majority of them actually sound worse, some significantly so. The new vinyl was mastered from digital files, from recordings that were equalized and compressed in such a way that they no longer represented the sound on the original analog tapes (footnote 4). Some elements of the packagingthe labeling on the jackets, the choice and arrangement of the artwork, the labels on the discs themselvesis calculated to duplicate the original UK releases, yet the materials and construction of the jackets are patterned after the US releases. And the asking price is $450 (most retailers have discounted that price so far), which, even if one were sufficiently generous to assign to the included hardcover book a value of $75, still works out to almost $24 per disc.
Prior to hearing these LPs, a title such as The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set might have been cause for optimism: It implies that a Mono Box Set of Beatles vinyl is in the works. Now it's cause for dreadI can only assume that Apple and their too-easily-satisfied engineers will once again conclude that good enough is good enough when it comes to the most monumental opus in rock'n'roll. The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set is impressive on some levels, well made on others. It's shiny and new. Buying it is kind of fun, I suppose. Then again, buying it is kind of like buying a clone of a deceased pet: It isn't the real thingjust an extremely impressive souvenir. The real thing is gone. And, frankly, if this is somebody's idea of how to bring it back, I'd rather they not try again.
May it serve you well
And if they do insist on trying, let me suggest three recent accomplishments the quality of which Apple's engineers would do well to try to match:
The Doors: L.A. Woman (Elektra EKS 75011), recorded in Los Angeles in 19701971, produced by Bruce Botnick; remastered from the original master tape by Doug Sax, for LP reissue by Analogue Productions of Salina, Kansas. I've never been much of a Doors fan, but this two-disc, 45rpm reissue comes closer than anything else to changing my mind. Jim Morrison's lyrics aside, the Analogue Productions reissue shows the band at their best: tight but spontaneous, and capable of injecting drama into their music without the need for overdubbing or special effects. Easily one of the best-sounding rock reissues you can buy on vinyl, if not the best.
Dave Brubeck: Time Further Out (Columbia CS 8490), recorded in New York in 1961, produced by Teo Macero; remastered from the original two-track analog tape by George Marino, for LP reissue by Impex Records of Simi Valley, California. I'm happy whenever a reissue house offers a clean, flat LP that sounds as good as the best original pressing, and this new release from Impexthe company that rose from the ashes of the fondly remembered Cisco labelactually sounds better: a remarkable accomplishment. News of the passing of Dave Brubeck, who died one day before his 92nd birthday, came while I was writing this paragraph; there may be no finer tribute than spinning this vivid, lovingly produced LP.
Schubert: Octet in F Major, D.803, performed by the Vienna Octet (Decca SXL 2028), recorded in Vienna in 1958, produced by John Culshaw; remastered from the original two-track analog tape by Tony Hawkins, for LP reissue by Speakers Corner of Gettorf, Germany. This reissue house remains the one to beat, and their recent Schubert Octet exemplifies their greatest strengths. Were I to select an example of realistic instrumental textures and believably saturated timbral colors in recorded music, this is the record I would reach for. Extra points for a perfectly aligned spindle hole (also a Speakers Corner characteristic), without which the sustained notes of the introductory bars would be far less listenable. Speakers Corner even sweats the graphic details: On the record labels of the original Decca classical recordings, the catalog number is shadowed by a four-digit number with the prefix ZAL, usually printed upside down (although, on at least one '70s-era original in my collection, it's right-side up): That's the unique number for the master tape used to cut that side, and Speakers Corner reproduces that, tooas much to ensure that they, too, have used the correct tape as for a touch of authenticity. Nice.
Footnote 4: The EQ and compression was only performed for the 2009 stereo reissue CDs; the 2009 mono reissues were straight transfers from the analog master tapes.Ed.