A visit to Abbey Road studios on Wednesday this week for an early listen to (and look at) The Beatles in Mono vinyl box set has this writer convinced that this set really is about as good as it’s going to get when it comes to recreating the sound and the feeling of purchasing an original mono pressing back in the 1960s.
In studio 3, remastering engineer Sean Magee was on hand to answer questions and the remastering supervisor in this process, Steve Berkowitz, was also there to not only tell us all about how the work was carried out, but also to drop the needle on the record of the new mono albums.
Inevitably, some great nuggets of information came out in this one hour session, and here’s some highlights:
• Checking and validating source material
In a true labour of love exercise, Sean and Steve took the original mono vinyl, then located the exact tape used to cut that vinyl (from numbers and writings on the runout groove) and digitised both. They then compared the original vinyl digital with the original tape digital AND the 2009 mono digital used for the Mono CD box. Only when they were 100% happy did they go back to the original tape and cut the vinyl straight from the analogue tape.
• Tape head angle
According to Steve there is about 11 possible differences in terms of kit and environment when playing back an original mono tape on the tape machines available today. These all have to be managed but the angle of the tape head that the tape runs over is one of the most critical. It can dramatically affect the sound. By a combination of referring to original cutting notes and the trial and error comparison process described above, the team worked out the optimum angle for the tape head for each song. Sean Magee would have to manually adjust the angle of the tape head in the 2-3 second gap between songs on the fly during the cutting process. This was achieved by Abbey Road engineers creating a mechanism to allow Magee to make small adjustments while the tape was running. If there were any mistakes they’d have to start the whole process again.
• Sgt Pepper flat transfer
All the original cutting notes were available help Steve and Sean recreate a 2014 mono vinyl pressing that matches as closely as possible the sound on the original pressings. These notes include details about lathe and EQ settings. Steve Berkowitz revealed that some albums had instructions not to adjust EQ at all. The notes for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band simply read “please cut flat”. So with that album you really are getting exactly what was on the original tape.
• McIntosh system
The playback of the vinyl records in Abbey Road studio 3 wasn’t on a studio system but rather a home system, albeit it VERY high end. The McIntosh set-up apparently costs (gulp) $84,000 – see photo below.
• Amazing packaging
The Beatles in Mono vinyl box looks great. It’s white (rather than black) and like the CD mono box, the records within replicate the original vinyl in every detail; flaps are outside at the rear, covers are glossy, but rear panel is not, Sgt Pepper includes ‘The Fool’ psychedelic inner sleeve as well as a poly-lined one, The White Album is numbered, has slots at the top and of course contains the poster and the photos and so on. The white hardcover book is also very well designed with some amazing photography evoking the period perfectly.
Inevitably, these new analogue mastered mono records sounded incredible. Admittedly, we were in Abbey Road, listening to The Beatles in Mono, in Studio 3, on an amazing bit of kit (it doesn’t get much better), but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that £300 for this vinyl set is money well spent. Not only are you hearing the records as they ought to be heard, but the educational value of talking about the LPs to your kids and showing them the artwork and liner notes, in full size album form, is priceless. In the 1970s I had this experience myself thanks to having access to my Dad’s original monos bought in the 1960s. A lifelong love of the Fab Four was the result. Unlike the CD box, these records are also available separately, so for little over £20 you can pick up a brand new Sgt Pepper mono vinyl. What’s not to like?
The Beatles in Mono vinyl box set and individual albums are issued on 8 September 2014. More details here.
Mono 14LP vinyl box set with book
- • UK Pre-order: The Beatles Mono Vinyl Box Set [VINYL]
- • USA Pre-order: The Beatles in Mono Vinyl Box Set (Limited Edition)
- • CANADA Pre-order: Mono Vinyl Box Set [14 LP Vinyl]
- • GERMANY Pre-order: The Beatles in Mono Vinyl Box [Vinyl LP]