"Past Masters" Still Masterful

The Beatles' early output was as confusingly presented as it was prolific. That was true on both sides of "the pond." In America, Capitol Records at first decided to pass on The Beatles. In the U.K. singles didn't make it onto albums.

In America after Capitol passed on The Beatles (still hilariously dumb, more so than U.K. Decca's passing on signing the group since that was before the group had written and recorded original tunes), the Chicago-based Vee-Jay label picked up the option, releasing a series of singles on Vee-Jay and on its Tollie subsidiary. While Vee-Jay was mostly an r&b and jazz label, it was also The Four Seasons' label and that group was a break-out success in the early '60s.

Along with the singles, Vee-Jay issued in January of 1964 the oft-bootlegged album Introducing the Beatles that was originally slated for release in the summer of 1963 but held up because of financial problems caused by one of the principle's gambling problems.

At first Vee-Jay was going to duplicate the group's fourteen song U.K. debut but then decided to issue a twelve song version as was the rule in America, removing "Ask Me Why" and "Please, Please Me". By the time the company got the album out (with various back covers because of a lack of artwork), it had been served with a restraining order because Capitol's music publishing division held publishing rights to "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You."

This restraining order was served despite the fact that the first Beatles album Capitol was about to release, Meet the Beatles, did not contain those two songs! So Vee-Jay was forced to pull the album, which had by then sold more than 75,000 copies in mono and but a few thousand in stereo, and re-issue it with the two songs it had previously cut! Only "I Saw Her Standing There" appeared simultaneously on the two albums, though Vee-Jay's lacked Paul's countdown because Vee-Jay's engineers thought it an editing mistake.

Capitol and Vee-Jay fought it out in court all during this time and eventually Vee-Jay was allowed to market their album until the mid-October 1964, after which all rights to the songs reverted to Capitol. At one point Vee-Jay repackaged the album as Songs, Stories and Pictures of The Beatles in a 3/4 gatefold sleeve. Both of these albums charted simultaneously and sold well, though stereo copies of the Vee-Jay albums were very rare.

Late summer of 1964 I was in the Cortlandt Street area of lower Manhattan, which is where "Radio Row" was located before it was torn down to build The World Trade Center. Radio Row of course is where the American audio industry had its beginnings and I was there to drool in front of the windows of Harvey's, Leonard's, Rabson's and the other hi-fi stores in the area. The windows were full of McIntosh, Marantz, Harman-Kardon, and the rest.

I stopped into a small record store and there was this album Songs, Stories and Pictures of The Beatles (VJLPS-1092). Stereo? Could it be "real" stereo? I bought it and yes, it was, and it sounded amazing. The only problem was that the packaging was beyond tacky: "Look inside. Complete story of their favorite male and female singer, their favourite foods, types of girls, sport, hobby, songs, colors, real name, birthplace, birthdays, height, education, color of hair & eyes."

Yikes! The back cover had outlines of hearts next to each Beatle and the words "Paul Loves," "Ringo Loves" (etc.) that you were supposed to paste your picture on. But it sounded so good I ignored that. By my sophomore year of college Capitol had released the same tunes on The Early Beatles using a cover photo probably taken at the same session that produced the cover for Beatles For Sale, so now I could get rid of that stupid Vee-Jay album.

I remember in the fall of 1965 selling it at a record swap in the coat room of Willard Straight Hall, then the campus student union for a dollar. Today that record regularly sells for around $600. I hate when that happens!

The point is, the first few years of Beatles music was issued in a confusing heap on both sides of the Atlantic and various versions of many songs abound. Many tracks were issued in America that never were on "regular" albums in the U.K. though they were in America, and instead were on the popular glossy sleeve 4 song E.P. format. Some tunes, like "Bad Boy", slipped through the cracks altogether. "Bad Boy" was issued on LP in the U.K. a year and a half after it appeared on Beatles VI in America, on a "greatest hits" album called A Collection of Beatles Oldies (Parlophone PCS 7016) released there in December, 1966.

That album was the first British Beatles album I ever saw and I bought it just because. But when I heard it, OMG! First of all, "I Feel Fine" and "Day Tripper" were in real stereo, unlike on the Capitol albums, and even though eight songs were crammed onto each side, they all sounded so much better than on the Capitol albums, my next step was to order all of the Parlophones, not knowing how different the track listings and orders were.

So, getting (finally) to this double LP set: it's essential, particularly in the context of a box set based on the original British album releases since so many of these tracks did not appear on the original albums. Other than the original version of "Love Me Do" on which Ringo plays drums, taken from a 45rpm mono disc (he was replaced on later pressings), and a few others, all of the tracks were transferred from stereo master tapes and all of them hold interest for one reason or another.

I'm not going to go through them track by track, since you can easily find the track listing elsewhere. The very nicely produced gatefold insert with photos contains thorough notes by Kevin Howlett, written in February 2009 for the CD box set release. What's best about the notes is that it sorts and threads together the singles recorded by the group between 1962 and 1970 to produce an exciting narrative, even without the benefit of playing the records.

The sound here is mostly superb, taken in the context of the "house sound" produced for this box set reissue, which is ultra-clean, dry, and in many ways "revisionist" in nature in terms of EQ and what sounds like a restricted top end that's common to the entire set.

Every song, even the most familiar, produces added, often surprising pleasures, particularly those that only previously appeared on American Capitol. For instance, "This Boy". Here, minus the echo and whatever else Capitol did to "prepare" the songs for "kiddie" release, there's an immediacy and power to the 12/8 rhythm guitar track centered between the speakers that will floor you.

I think I enjoyed listening to this two LP, thirty three song set more than any of the other records in the box set, in part because I felt that few of the box set records surpassed or even equalled the sound of the originals. Here, with no context the results are far more pleasurable.

Highly recommended for both listening and for the set's musical story-telling.

Music Direct Buy It Now

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Comments
JC1957's picture
In defense of

The new Past Masters vinyl, I heard "I Want To Hold Your Hand" needledropped and downloaded today. Even on my crappy computer speakers, I never heard the stereo version sound that good. The stereo mix now seems to have some of the guts and glory we always heard on the mono mix.

dmoore's picture
Beatles Reissues

Hi,

You have been incredibly kind to everyone involved in the new Beatles vinyl reissues. It is lovely to have any recordings, let alone great ones, issued on vinyl but we have waited a long time for these supposedly so they could be done the right way.

I have just bought and listened to 'Past Masters' which is the only mainstream, official Beatles recording I have not owned. After listening once I pulled out my old copy of The Beatles 1967-1970 compilation reissued sometime in the 70's made from typical 70's thin vinyl. I played 'Let It Be' and suddenly the performance had much more life, air, detail and humanity than I was hearing from the same song on the Past Masters reissue.

I was born and lived all my life in England (sorry America) so maybe I have been spoilt by British pressings but whatever has been done to the new reissues they sound as though they have been made from a CD transfer. I couldn't give them a mark of more than 5 out of 10 for sound.

Derek Moore - Linn Sondek Klimax (as I understand they're now calling the top set up), Naim Superline and Supercap.

mother3251's picture
Past Masters re-issue

Hi Derek,

Thankyou very much for your review of this re-issue, you have saved me £34.

I waited for Michael to review this and the USA issue is one of the best of a mediocre lot. I live in Scotland, and like you I am so fortunate to own the original vinyl, played on my SME 30/2.

Its an absolute travesty that these re-issues have not surpassed or even equalled the originals, with all todays technology around.

I look forward now to the mono box, here's hoping that this box set is re-issued with no expense spared, including the pressings, I am sure that genuine Beatles vinyl fans would welcome the definitive vinyl pressings, including a 45rpm set

Other USA companies can do it, so lets see it done

Once again thanks to Michael and his enthusiastic reviews

Alex's picture
Summing

Hi Paul,

Summing is usually referred to the sum of all tracks - be there one or one hundred - into the master track along with all the modifications done to the indiviadual tracks (edits, eq, compression, panning, effects, etc).

In the Beatles case, we are dealing with this ''summed'' stereo track which is on tape (mastertape). These tracks were transferred into Pro Tools (a computer based system). Here is where more mods were made in cleaning up, eq'ing the bass and the highs, etc. What were used for this? Analogue equipment or software? Now the tricky part: even though they were dealing with one stereo file, some sort of summing had to take place. Was it sent to an analogue mixer or a summing mixer, or was everything done in Pro tools? Would it have made a difference with only a stereo track? And finally, the downsizing of the sampling rate.

One thing is certain: somewhere along these steps, the width, depth and pinpoint imaging was lost, but where did it happen, my dear Watson? 

Paul Boudreau's picture
Interesting,

thanks.  So "summing" in this case would mean assembling various tracks into one digital file that had previously been manipulated individually, as separate files, after their A>D transfer into Pro Tools?

Alex's picture
Hi Paul,   Kind of.

Hi Paul,

 

Kind of. Basically, they took only the analogue stereo master (the mix had already been done originally back in the 60's, except for Help and Rubber Soul which was remixed later), converted this master into Pro Tools. Now we have the identical stereo master but in the digital world. Once there, additional processing was involved and a new stereo master track was created that contained all of the manipulations (the result is what you now hear). Summing is usually referred to in the mixing stage because the stereo track is the sum of all the individual tracks that make it up. In the present case, the summing would only be from one stereo track to another one, so it's kind of a ''mini'' summing. This is a thorny subject in the recording world as some believe that digital summing vs analogue summing is identical, while others believe that digital summing causes the image to collapse.

One thing is certain, as Michael mentioned in all of his Beatle reviews, the image has flattened. Is this due to the digital summing, or to the sampling rate reduction? Or a combination of both? We won't really know until we get to compare it with a 96KHz version...

Alex's picture
Why not?

There's more talk on these pages about numbers and such than there is about the actual sound of these reissues. That disturbs me...

I do a fair bit of Mastering work (albeit not for vinyl) and reading about - amongst other things - why EMI chose the Benchmark DAC saddens me. There could me many reasons. One could be economical: to give us improved sound in small increments in order to ensure that the Beatles will continue selling for the next hundred years. Trust me, I would be the first one to wish for the full 24/192 for the present set. Another reason could be that the engineers felt that this DAC offered the best results for this particular project. Does anyone refuse to listen to Yesterday because he read somewhere that Paul used a ''cheap'' Epiphone acoustic instead of a more expensive Gibson? How do we know that Abbey Road engineers didn't modify the Benchmark, or that this model was not custom-made for them? As for the sampling rate, we don't know that a higher sampling rate would yield better results due to the actual sound of the original tapes. Maybe yes, maybe no. While the imaging and the air surrounding each element is less accurate, indeed, this can be caused by a sampling rate reduction; however, it can aslo be due to the summing of the tracks in the digital domain (digital workstation) as opposed to an analogue mixing desk. 

Whatever the reasons, for me at least, this set sounds better than the USB stick. It sounds better than the 2009 cd's. It sounds better than the 1987 cd's. It sounds better than all of the Crapitol vinyls - even though they were all analogue. It's a step forward - even if small - but at least it's forward. If vinyl is to make some sort of a comeback, EMI has made the right decisions, except for one: Rainbo angry  

Michael Fremer's picture
By the numbers?

I think that's an unfair criticism since I've attempted to go into great detail about how these records sound. We don't know that higher sampling rates would yield better sound, but usually, all things being equal, they do.

I did compare the Doors box cut from 192/24 bit files with the more recent all analogue at 45rpm reissues and there's no comparison! The AAA records kill the digital sourced ones.

Is it unfair to extrapolate from that? I don't think so!

I agree that this box sounds better overall than the Capitol originals (where applicable) and I've written that too. 

I don't see an analogy between Paul's guitar and the choice of D/A converters. When I interviewed Sean Magee (you can stream it here) he mentioned the Benchmark but did not volunteer anything about modifications.

Since they could have gotten any DAC by just asking, I don't see economics involved, nor did Sean volunteer that they experimented with a variety of them before choosing the Benchmark.

However, your comment about air and top end is telling: something did make the imaging and air "less accurate" and that's too bad because on some of these titles it did seriously detract from the presentation. In other cases not so much.

Once I've gotten through all of the records I'll write a wrap up putting it all in perspective but that the box sounds better than the Capitol originals is hardly a standard by which the box should be measured in my opinion!

Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

Alex's picture
In response...

Hi Michael,

 

Sorry if it came across like I was criticizing what you wrote. I wasn't. I was referring to the few posts here from various contributors parrot-ing what you said without even having heard these reissues - let alone a Benchmark or a Prism.

I think we all agree, that in absolute terms, the best thing was to have a direct analogue transfer onto 45 rpm's with the best possible pressing. The problem with that is that the Beatles, in spite of everything, are a people's band. Such an undertaking would boost the price beyond the $17.99 that the new issues go for. This would make it elitist, something that Lennon would probably be against if he were still alive. Some people have suggested that they make a limited 45 rpm version for such a market, and I'm sure EMI has considered it, but for whatever reason, such was not to be - for now at least.

The present set is somewhat revisionist. However, in my opinion, in a tasteful way. Now Let it Be Naked is revisionist! There is justification in the bass boost. Geoff Emerick himself has mentioned in his book that EMI's top people were obssessed with cutting the bass - even more so than was the norm for the period. So, I'm glad that we can actually hear Paul playing now, and that Ringo's kick drum isn't actually him knocking on a table!

Again, sorry if you thought I was referring to your reviews!!!

Paul Boudreau's picture
"Summing Of The Tracks..."

"While the imaging and the air surrounding each element is less accurate, indeed, this can be caused by a sampling rate reduction; however, it can aslo be due to the summing of the tracks in the digital domain (digital workstation) as opposed to an analogue mixing desk."

I was wondering about this too (the part after the semicolon).  What does "...summing of the tracks in the digital domain..." mean and is it part of the standard operating procedure for digital recordings?

Alex's picture
Paul, I replied higher up. I

Paul, I replied higher up. I forgot to click on ''reply'' :-P

soundman45's picture
Converters

I too don't understand the choice of converters, and for that matter the choice of mastering team. The whole way in which EMI and The Beatles approach remastering and distributing what is their legacy is completely backwards to me. I can understand tyring to protect their investment, but the end result unfortunately compromises the final product.

Alex's picture
Thanks Michael!

 

Thank you for your wonderful reviews. Your use of the original UK releases is important, whether we argree with the review or not. I particularly appreciate your personal experiences surrounding each individual release. Although our age, city, and circumstances may be different, as Beatles fans, we've all experienced that naïve and pure excitement uopn bringing home that first Beatle record. This new series has brought back - for me - that same sensation. Strangely, the smell of these new reissues, when first pulling out the record, is similar to that of the Capitol issues in the 70's or 80's smiley

MusicNut612's picture
Best of the bunch...

The take of Revolution on this pressing to me at least sounds very very nice. I'm sure the neighbors are getting sick of hearing it, but I don't care. It just begs to be played at high volumes. A friend of mine who can't even stand The Beatles was commenting on how nice Day Tripper sounded. To me this was the stand out LP of the set. Now that you've listened to these time to throw that 3LP set of Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill on smiley  May be the best LP of 2012 if you ask me.

Paul Boudreau's picture
Neil & Crazies

I just listened to sides 1-4 of "Psychedelic Pill" and the music is thick & crunchy, as you'd expect.  The pressing is truly awful though - loud pops & thunks that cut through NY & CH plus at least two songs actually skip!  I've never seen a modern pressing this bad so I'm going to try to send it back.  Was it Oktoberfest in Germany (Pallas)?

MusicNut612's picture
Wow...

I know at least the US version was pressed at Pallas. Mine has a bit of surface noise here and there. Nothing that takes away from the music and definitely no skips. Sorry to hear that. Hopefully you're able to return it.

earwaxxer's picture
Dont forget...

George Martin was recording in digital in the early days. Primitive I'm sure. But just the same.

Moodeez1's picture
All these Beatles reissues

Is it just me or shouldn't every single one of these LP's have been transferred and mastered from the original analog sources? Digital has no business being part of a remastering so historically significant. If the original session tapes are supposedly in such great condition, the decision to use digital files is insulting. The whole project smacks of having been done on the cheap to do what....hit a desirable retail price point?! Fans of vinyl and, especially, high end audio deserve better. I'll put a reissued hot stamper from the 70's (analog transfers, doncha know) up against any of these titles.

wao62's picture
Original UK Past Masters

I can't confirm this, but I've read that the original UK vinyl release of Past Masters was mastered from tape (& the US vinyl from a digital source).    In any case I have the original UK edition and find it a very enjoyable listen! 

WaxtotheMax's picture
Past Masters

Can't wait to buy this one!!!

Smafdy Assmilk's picture
Great Reviews...

I've been enjoying these Beatles reviews, not so much for the parts about the music, but for the stories that make up the majority of the articles. I didn't live through the era, so it's nice to be placed into that time.

Thanks!

otaku2's picture
Radio Row

Love the mention of Radio Row.  Did you visit City Radio?  It was founded by my grandfather.

Michael Fremer's picture
City Radio

I'm sure I walked into every store in that area at one time or another: Cantor the Cabinet King, Oscar's etc. etc.

thomoz's picture
restricted top end

Even well cut, digitally sourced lps seem to miss some "air" or top end.  I think that's why engineers go out of their way to boost treble on a lot of releases. I think it's to Sean Magee's credit that he did not mess with the eq and let the 24-bit chips fall where they may.  Except for some odd midrange eq on "Thank You Girl" (this odd eq was in the 2009 cd of the same title) I have been very happy with this new pressing.

Michael Fremer's picture
Odd eq?

Since they were transferring each tune individually and then doing the EQ (as opposed to running an entire side and making choices), each day or each session often brings different "attitudes" or ideas, or the system sounds different or someone had a fight with their significant other or whatever... I guess sometimes that can lead to "odd EQ". 

On the other hand these tracks are from such disparate sources, there's no way to bring uniformity to the sound. However, the D/A converter definitely has a "sound" and that Benchmark is just OK and hardly state of the art.

I cannot understand why they didn't seek better. Any of the top manufacturers would have been happy to lend them theirs for this project I'm sure. They used a Prism for A/D so why not for D/A? 

That's what I don't get.

Bigrasshopper's picture
I cannot understand why...

Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum! 

I smell the blood of an Englishman.  

Be he 'live, or be he dead, 

I'll grind his bones to make my bread.

Smafdy Assmilk's picture
Absolutely. The Prism

Absolutely. The Prism converters are exceptional designs, but, like you said, they could've had any piece of gear they wanted for these remasters.

The top end darkness you're hearing *may* have been caused by the Studio A-80 tape machine used for the analog transfers. I know they auditioned several machines and that was the favorite of the remastering team. But, I was hoping they would've used a Studer J-37 so we could hear the same playback electronics they heard when mixing the songs. Oh well...

Jack Gilvey's picture
Speaking of Ringo's replacement...

Andy White lives in my town!

 

 I may have to pick this one up after reading your review. 

mward's picture
Disc 2

The second disc of this set is, in my mind, essential. "Daytripper", "We Can Work It Out", the original recording of "Across the Universe", "Don't Let Me Down", "Ballad of John and Yoko", "Hey Jude", "Get Back", "Revolution", the unadorned "Let It Be"... wow. What a killer compilation. 

marmaduke's picture
At long last Love

I am happy that at long last you seem to be at peace with at least one release in this set.

No sarcasm intended or implied, as everyone who reads your reactions to this set knows how disappointed you have been overall.

Looks as though I will have to order this from the U.K.

Michael Fremer's picture
Disappointed?

Well conceptually disappointed since I would have preferred an all analog set, especially after hearing what Analogue Productions did with The Doors compared to Rhino's box, which was very well pressed and used 192k/24 bit files. The Analogue Productions set is so much better.

Here we have lower resolution files, not the best plating and pressing so it's difficult to get excited but still I was happy with "Sgt. Peppers..." and a few others but certainly not the re-mixes at 44.1/24 bit. And I was very disappointed with "The Beatles". 

When I've finally gotten through the lot I'm going to write a wrap-up to put it all in perspective. I realize that a younger generation or new vinyl converts have never heard The Beatles sound this good unless they've tracked down UK originals so I don't mean to rain on their parade.

On the other hand I can't be a cheerleader.

Smafdy Assmilk's picture
The Doors vinyl on Rhino

The Doors vinyl on Rhino didn't have the advantage of having Doug Sax master it. The Rhino set is at a huge disadvantage because of it. I suspect Bruce Botnick and crew over-analyzed and over-mastered the Rhino set, creeping the top end up each time they listened. Sure sounds like it.

marmaduke's picture
Rah Rah Sis Boom Bah

I suspect our pom pom and maegaphone days are indeed behind us but where the flesh is weak the spirit is more than willing if the endeavor justifies.

vinyldaze's picture
Michael-What Remixes?

Michael-What remixes are you referring to here in your above post? 

Michael Fremer's picture
Remixes?

George Martin was so unhappy with the original stereo mixes of "Help" and "Rubber Soul" that he re-mixed them in 1987 to digital at 16 bit 44.1k resolution and those masters were used for the recent CD issue and for this vinyl one too unfortunately. The original stereo mixes digitized at 192/24 bit were included in the mono CD box set and will hopefully be in the mono vinyl box set too.