Stereo Is Overrated

Today, 2009-09-09 is Beatles day (get it? Number NIne… Number Nine… Number Nine…). Which means new versions of their albums have been released.

Most of the attention has been placed on the new version of Rock Band that uses Beatles songs – and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what ended up making the most money. But there are also CDs, digitally remastered for the first time, which you can buy individually or in a big expensive box set. And the rumors have been swirling, fueled by Yoko Ono’s “confirmation” that Apple will make the announcement later today that The Beatles’s music will finally be made available on iTunes.

But the version I’ve been waiting for is the CD box set of the remastered mono mixes. I pre-ordered mine from J&R in New York, and in their effort to get it to me on the day of release, I got it a day early. I’m glad to have pre-ordered, as the mono box is apparently a limited edition and now appears to be sold out everywhere.

Why mono? Except for Abbey Road and Let It Be, all Beatles albums were originally mixed and released in mono. Stereo releases were made for the hi-fi market after the fact, often months afterwards. When The Beatles themselves became interested in the mixing process, they attended the mono mix, and left the stereo mix to George Martin.

Not that there is anything wrong with the stereo mixes that so many of us are familiar with. When the music is great, the mix hardly matters. But in the interest of experiencing the music as much as The Beatles intended it, the mono versions must be considered the definitive version.

I wonder how important stereo is anyway – to me or in general. No one realized that Jonathan Coulton’s Code Monkey was mono, after all, but since I discovered that I’m practically stereo blind, could I be stereo deaf as well? Stereo mixes don’t really sound dramatically better to me than mono mixes do.

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Of course, as we’ve discussed before, “digitally remastered” is not necessarily a good thing. While there does appear to been some dynamic range compression applied, but it was done with a light touch – it looks like only a couple dB of compression. Some compression is necessary, and given current trends, they could easily have gone much farther.

Fortunately, the music sounds glorious. This will probably be best sounding version of the Beatles albums we ever get. Even as technology improves, the potential for them to screw future releases up is too great.

The packaging is meticulous in its attention to detail. Each album is done up as a mini album, with original artwork and tiny paper LP sleeves. They have even included plastic sleeves for the CDs, just like a collector would use, to keep you from dinging up the paper sleeves.

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