The Beatles White Album – Listening in Depth

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More of The White Album

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with plenty of What to Listen For (WTLF) tips. 

It’s exceedingly difficult to find audiophile quality sound on The White Album. The Beatles were breaking apart, often recording independently of each other, with their own favorite engineers as enablers, and George Martin nowhere to be found most of the time. They were also experimenting more and more with sound itself, which resulted in wonderful songs and interesting effects. However, these new approaches and added complexity often result in a loss of sonic “purity.”

Let’s face it, most audiophiles like simplicity: A female vocal, a solo guitar — these things are easy to reproduce and often result in pleasing sound, the kind of sound that doesn’t take a lot of expensive equipment or much effort to reproduce.

Dense mixes with wacky EQ are hard to reproduce (our famous Difficulty of Reproduction Scale (DORS) comes into play here), and the White Album is full of that sound, taking a break for songs like Blackbird and Julia.

Some of the Tubey Magic that you hear on Pepper is gone for good. (Play With a Little Help from My Friends on a seriously good Hot Stamper to see what has been lost forever.)

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Looks at the lineup for side one. Is there a rock album on the planet with a better batch of songs?

Having done shootouts for the White Album by the score, we can also say with some certainty that side one is the most difficult side to find White Hot stamper sound for. It’s somewhat rare to find a side one that earns our top Triple Plus (A+++) sonic grade, even when all the other sides do. (Actually what happens more often than not is that we take the best second discs and mate them with the best first discs to make the grades consistent for the whole album. But don’t tell anybody.)

Back in the U.S.S.R.

Dear Prudence

On a superb copy, you’ll hear tons of ambience on this track. Listen for the hand claps — with a good copy you’ll hear plenty of room around them. We all know what hand claps sound like. Does the clapping on your copy sound right? Like applause on a live album, hand clapping is usually a good test.

The guitars in the right channel are also key. They should be practically jumping out of the speaker — any veiling is a sign of transparency or “immediacy” problems. The best copies have wonderfully subtle harmonics to the guitars behind the main guitar as well. Listen for them. On a good copy played on high quality equipment you should easily be able to focus your attention to the guitars behind the main guitar in the right channel and hear lovely qualities to both the sound and playing. That’s what a good stereo and a good record are all about — bringing out the subtleties hiding in your music.

There’s always a lot going on behind the main attractions on this album. Those backing guitars are a perfect example.

Glass Onion

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

As one of the poppiest songs on the double album, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this track tends to be a little bright. We found that to be the correct sound for this track. If this song ISN’T a bit bright, you probably have a fairly dull copy, and a song like Happiness is a Warm Gun will really suffer as a result. The vocal at the beginning of happiness is a bit dull, Ob-La-Di… is a bit bright, and the best copies, tonally speaking, are going to be the ones that split the two right down the middle.

Wild Honey Pie
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

One of the all-time Harrison classics, right up there with Something and Within You, Without You.

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

Just the opposite of what we said about Ob-La-Di holds true here. The correct sound for this track is a bit dark in the early going. If this track sounds at all bright, you have an aggressive copy and the poppier songs are going to tear your head off. Wild Honey Pie with its close miked guitar will have your ears bleeding.

Side Two

Looks at the lineup for side two. Where is the weak material? Where is the filler? There isn’t any! Beatles albums don’t have filler.

Martha My Dear

I’m So Tired

Blackbird

You really need a copy with superb clarity to fully appreciate the delicacy and immediacy of Paul’s performance. Transparency is the key to this one. When the birds start chirping, they should be clear as a bell. Listening to the various pressings, we could easily follow the bird’s songs much better on some copies than others. Most of the copies we heard were tonally correct on this track, so the guitar and voice sounded right most of the time. But once we keyed in on the bird’s singing, it became clear which copies had the breathier, more realistic vocals and were capable of revealing the most subtle guitar harmonics. It’s all midrange; the better the birds are, the better Paul is.

Piggies

This is a great test track for side two. You want to hear lots of texture, with the rosin on the strings clearly audible. When the tambourine comes in, it should be fairly obvious whether you have a copy with too much grit or grain.

Rocky Raccoon
Don’t Pass Me By
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
I Will Julia

Wasn’t Paul supposed to be “the nice Beatle”? John could write ballads every bit as well as Paul (see above), and Paul’s rockers were every bit as intense as John’s (Helter Skelter anyone?).

Side Three

What rock album on the planet has a better batch of songs on any side, besides this one? I’m telling you, The White Album is the Beatles’ Masterpiece.

Birthday

Yer Blues

This song ROCKS! Listen to the big jam at the end of the song, where John’s vocal mic is turned off but his performace is still caught by a room or overheard mic. They obviously did this on purpose, killing his vocal track so that the “leaked” vocal could be heard.

Those crazy Beatles! It’s more than just a cool “effect”. It actually seems to kick the energy and power of the song up a notch. It’s clearly an accident, but an accident that works. I rather doubt George Martin approved. That kind of “throw the rule book out” approach is what makes The Beatles’ recordings so fascinating, and The White Album the most fascinating of them all.

The EQ for this song is also a good example of something The Beatles were experimenting with, as detailed in their recording sessions and interviews with the engineers. They were pushing the boundaries of normal EQ, of how much bass and treble a track could have. This track has seriously boosted bass, way too much, but somehow it works!

(The MOFI pressing really wreaks havoc with all the added bass and top end on this track. Their version is already too bright, and has sloppy bass to start with, so the result is way too much BAD bass and way too much BAD spitty 10k-boosted treble, unlike the good imports, which have way too much GOOD bass and treble.)

Mother Nature’s Son

It should be fairly apparent early on if your copy possesses the warmth, sweetness, and delicacy this track demands. The intro is classic McCartney — quite similar to the intros to Michele and Singalong Junk. He loves that chord progression, and who can blame him? It’s his sound, he created it, and we love him for it!

Also, listen for the vocal mic opening up in the right channel early in the track, well before he sings. On a high resolution system you can clearly hear the whole room open on the right side of the soundstage, completely separately from when he starts to sing.

Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey

Genius. And a great test track for side three. It HAS to be lively and punchy, with lots of studio echo audible on Ringo’s snare. On most copies that hand bell (yes, the same kind that would be used to call the kids in from recess in a one room schoolhouse!) is a mess — distorted, smeared, etc. Some copies manage to get it to really ring, with all its harmonics intact — but not many.

Sexy Sadie
Helter Skelter
Long, Long, Long

Such a perfect track for The White Album from George, so unlike anything he had ever done.

Side Four

This is where the White Album runs out of steam a bit. Five very good songs, but certainly not equal to any of the strongest found on the first three sides, and then there’s the matter of Revolution 9, which brings down the side even more. Not a bad song, but not one that rewards repeated playings in the same way the others do. Good Night does bring the White Album experience to a lovely close, but side four must be considered the weakest of the lot.

Revolution 1

Honey Pie

Paul and the boys seem to be going for kind of an old-timey feel here — something you might find on a ’78. The sound should be forward, bright, punchy, and lively. The high hat is key — accept no smearing or loss of immediacy; good copies don’t have those problems.

Savoy Truffle

A great song, but there’s just too much overdubbing and compression here for the song to ever sound amazing.

Cry Baby Cry
Revolution 9
Good Night