"Nothing is Real..." Letters

A letter in response appeared in March 1996 (Vol.19. No.3):

Beatles recordings

Editor: I just read JA's "Nothing is real" column in the January 1996 Stereophile. I feel that he tried to apply preconceived ideas to a situation that doesn't support them—that in the case of Beatles recordings, solid-state technology and analog-tape-track width degraded audio quality.

In preparation for criticizing the later Beatles recordings, he praised early Beatles recordings for their basic sound quality, noting their extended response at the frequency extremes. True, the highs were there, but the bottom end was sorely lacking in many early Beatles recordings—mainly because EMI was terrified of their records skipping, and therefore wanted very little bottom on their product. You can't even hear bass guitar on "With the Beatles" or "A Hard Day's Night," it's so buried. On top of that, it was the policy of the EMI cutting rooms to cut off everything below 60Hz. The Beatles wanted the kind of bottom that American records had, but didn't get it until Geoff Emerick, a very young engineer willing to push the envelope, took the engineering helm. Finally there was a good punchy bottom on "Revolver" (1966) and the accompanying single from that era, "Paperback Writer/Rain"—and George Martin had to fight with EMI to get those recordings cut to disc, because again, EMI was so afraid of skipping records. Well, enough about the bottom end.

He then pointed out the lack of highs, lack of dynamic range, and "graininess" of the Let It Be era recordings, suggesting that reducing track width and solid-state consoles are responsible for this. Incidentally, the majority of consoles were still tube at this point. They did move from 1" 4-track to 1" 8-track in the middle of the "White" album—yet much of the White album is 4-track, (and still tubes), yet seems to suffer in recording quality anyway. (And for what it's worth, no Dolby-A was used on Beatle recordings).

Yet the later Beatles recordings used far less compression and had far more dynamic range than the early recordings. JA might be mistaking increased isolation between instruments, and drum damping (stylistic for the late '60s). Do keep in mind that although the dynamic range is narrower on 1" 8-track than 1" 4-track, they did far more bouncing of tracks when using 4-track, which would reduce the dynamic range through tape generation loss, rather than through narrowness of track width.

Being a recording engineer and Beatlemaniac, I'm curious to hear when JA felt that the "rightness" started to go away. I'm wondering if it's when the Beatles started to push the envelope of 4-track recording (many mixdown reductions). This would have been around Sgt. Pepper. And I'm also wondering how much was technical (recording engineering) and how much was musical (less complete basic tracks to start with, but more overdubs). Musically, I do notice time discrepancies happening more when more overdubs occurred. It's amazing how delicate a balance the Beatles were, in every aspect!

If anything, I feel that many of the early recordings are shrill, thin, and overcompressed by comparison to Abbey Road and Let It Be. But my point is that I feel JA gives too much weight to the equipment used, and not enough weight to the changes of engineering styles and practices. The changes he hears are probably due to closer miking, more isolation in the studio, and things like the deadening of individual drums with cloth, rather than changes in the equipment itself.—Daniel Caccavo, 74204.2053@compuserve.com

Good points, Mr. Caccavo. In the 1000-word space available for "As We See It," I'm afraid I tend to paint with a broad brush. I accept your arguments, but I still think there is a rightness to the overall sound of the early Beatles recordings (up to Revolver) that is missing from the later ones. And to exaggerate to make the point, compare the CD releases of Buddy Holly's From the Original Masters (MCA MCAD-5540), recorded in 1956–1959) and Steve Winwood's eponymous solo album (Island 422 842774), recorded in 1977. Both are favorites of mine, but one sounds open, clean, extended; the other sounds shut-in, band-limited compressed, and fuzzy. No prizes for guessing which is which. In my opinion, it wasn't until the mid-'80s, and then not all the time, that the fundamental sound quality of rock recording got back to where it had been a quarter-century earlier.John Atkinson