Sonic Grade: F
At the end of a recent shootout for Let It Be (June 2014) we decided to see how the 2012 Digitally Remastered Heavy Vinyl pressing would acquit itself when played against the 12 (yes, twelve!) British copies we had just spent hours critically auditioning.
Having just finished listening to the two best copies on side two, we felt we knew exactly what separated the killer copies (White Hot) from the next tier down (Super Hot).
Armed with a vivid memory still fresh in our minds of just how good the music could sound we threw on the new pressing. We worked on the VTA adjustment for a couple of minutes to get the sound balanced and as hi-rez as possible for the thicker vinyl and after a few waves of the Talisman we were soon hearing the rich, grungy guitar intro of I’ve Got a Feeling.
My scribbled first notes: not bad! Sure, there’s only a fraction of the space and three-dimensionality of the real British pressings, but the bass seemed to be there, the energy seemed decent enough, the tonality was good if a bit smooth and dark — all in all not a bad Beatles record.
Then we played One After 909 and the sound just went over a cliff. It was so compressed! The parts of the song that get loud on the regular pressings never get loud on the new one. The live-in-the-studio Beatles’ rock energy just disappeared. We couldn’t take more than a minute or two of the song, it was that frustrating and irritating. What the hell did they do to make this record sound this way? We had no idea.
Didn’t matter. It was game over. The gong on The Gong Show had rung. The record had to go.
We had played twelve British copies, all with stampers that we knew to be good on side two. Two or three of those copies did not merit a Hot Stamper sonic grade. Nothing new there, happens all the time. Yet even the worst copy we played of the twelve had more jump-factor, more life and more dynamic energy than the new Heavy Vinyl pressing.
Which means that there’s a very good chance that any copy you pick up on British vinyl will be better sounding — maybe not a 100% chance but easily a 90+% chance. Which makes buying the new Heavy Vinyl LP — not to mention playing it — entirely pointless.
The Beatles: Rock Band
On the better pressings the natural rock n’ roll energy of a song such as Dig A Pony will blow your mind. There’s no studio wizardry, no heavy-handed mastering, no phony EQ — just the sound of the greatest pop/rock band of all time playing and singing their hearts out.
It’s the kind of thrill you really don’t get from the more psychedelic albums like Sgt. Pepper’s or Magical Mystery Tour. You have to go all the way back to Long Tall Sally and Roll Over Beethoven to find the Beatles consistently letting loose the way they do on Let It Be (or at least on the tracks that are more or less live, which make up about half the album).
The Brits Are King
The British copies seem to be the only way to go for this album. In years past we’ve played German copies which were a mixed bag — some tracks would sound very good but others would sound funny. Some Capitol pressings are surprisingly good [some of the Purple label pressings will do in a pinch; definitely avoid the originals]. That said, they’ll never have all the magic of the master tape. It takes a superb copy to get this album right, and this Hot Stamper really does the job.
Track Listing and Commentary
Two of Us
Dig a Pony
On the heavy guitar intro for Dig a Pony, the sound should be full-bodied and Tubey Magical, with plenty of bass. If your copy is too lean, just forget it, it will never rock.
What blew our minds about the Shootout Winning side one we played recently was how outrageously big, open and transparent it was. As the song started up the studio space seemed to expand in every direction, creating a much bigger space than we had ever experienced with the record before.
In addition, Ringo’s kit was dramatically more clear and present in the center of the soundfield just behind the vocal, raising the energy of the track to a level higher than we had any right to believe was possible. The way he attacks the hi-hat on this song is crazy good, and Glyn Johns really gives it the snap it needs. These are precisely the qualities that speed and transparency can contribute to the sound. If you have Old School vintage tube equipment, these are the qualities you are most likely living without. You only need to play this one track on other (faster, better-resolving) equipment to hear what you’ve been missing.
On the line after “All I want is you”, the energy of “Everything has got to be just like you want it to” should make it sound like The Beatles are shouting at the top of their lungs. If you have the right pressing they really get LOUD on that line.
Across the Universe
I Me Mine
Just like I Dig a Pony, the intro should be rich and full, with a clear, Tubey Magical organ.
The solo acoustic guitar can get lost if the copy is smeary or lacking in top end.
Look for more top-of-the-lungs shouting in the chorus, accompanied by a blistering fuzzed-out guitar jumping out of the speakers, the more fuzzed-out and the more jumping the better.
Let It Be
This is not usually a track we test with. That said, any track with heavy electric keyboards and organ always makes a good test; both should be Tubey Magically Rich, and neither smeared or dull. And of course, the orchestration will be congested, smeary and veiled on most copies.
George’s heavily fuzzed-out guitar tone is genius; it’s one of our favorite solos from the man. He recorded and re-recorded it over the course of months, with the blistering final version raising the energy of the song into the stratosphere.
The maracas Paul brings in as the song develops are much more audible on the album version of the song than they are on the single. Any percussion instrument of this kind will always clue you in to how high-rez your pressing is, as well as the amount of top end you have to work with — and whether or not it’s harmonically correct. (This has always been the problem with The Beatles on MoFi. The remastered top end is usually screwy, making instruments like maracas and tambourines sound hi-fi-ish to some degree.)
Once you’ve worked through the tracks we discussed on side one, you will find side two a lot easier. Now that you’ve spent some time listening to Let It Be, you’re more or less looking for the same qualities, just on different material.
I’ve Got a Feeling
A real rocker to lead off the side, one that will let you know right away if you have the Rock and Roll ENERGY and solid BASS to get the job done. The various instruments will be positively jumping out of your speakers if you have one of our top copies — or a top copy of your own of course.
Breathy texture on Paul’s and John’s purposefully raw vocals are critical to the song’s success. Listen for tape hiss; all the copies with an extended top end will have hiss that’s clear and harmonically correct.
Also, the copies with the most transparency (that aren’t thin or bright) will allow you to hear and appreciate the mix’s many subtleties
One After 909
The Long and Winding Road
Another song we don’t normally play in a shootout, but with such heavy-handed orchestration (which, contra the critics, I happen to like), it makes an excellent test track. Listen for sheen on the strings; rich, full-bodied horns; and of course, size and space, the bigger the better. The best copies have the space to let everything breathe (assuming you have the big speakers and the big room that make that kind of space possible).
For You Blue
The guitar harmonics are the key to this track, first George’s acoustic in the intro, with John joining in on a lap steel guitar, the likes of which we have never heard on a Beatles album before. Love that sound!
No two copies of the album will get that harmonically-unique guitar to sound the same, or give it the same space to occupy. (The vocals are never as breathy on this track as they are on many of the others by the way.)