With all due respect to Sir George Martin, we’ve played a number of mono pressings of this album in the past twenty or so years and have never been particularly impressed with any of them. The monos jam all the voices and instruments together in the middle, stacking them one in front of the other, and lots of musical information gets mashed together and simply disappears in the congestion.
But is Twin Track stereo any better? Yes, when you do it the way Norman Smith did on Please Please Me.
Twin Track stereo (which is actually not very much like two-track stereo, I’m sure Wikipedia must have a listing for it if you’re interested) is like two mono tracks running simultaneously. It allows the completely separate voices to occupy one channel and the completely separate instruments to occupy another with no leakage between them.
On some stereos it may seem as though the musicians and the singers are not playing together the way they would if one were hearing them in mono. They are in fact recorded on two separate mono tracks, the instruments appearing in the left channel and the singers in the right, separated as much as is physically possible.
Stuck in their individual stereo speakers, so far apart from one another, the members of the band don’t even seem to be playing together in the same room.
That’s on some stereos, and by some stereos I mean stereos that need improvement. Here’s why.
In the final mixing stage, Norman Smith added separate reverb to each of the two channels, sending the reverb for the sound recorded in each channel to the opposite channel. This has the effect of making the studio, the physical space that The Beatles appear to be in, seem to stretch all the way from the right channel, where the Beatles’ voices are heard, to the back left corner of the studio, where the reverb eventually trails off.
And vice versa for the instruments. They reach all the way from the left speaker, where they are heard playing, to the right rear corner of the studio, where the reverb for them trails off.
Which has the effect of making The Beatles sound like they are in a big studio. Both voices and instruments “occupy” the entire studio this way, stretching wall to wall, with at least the appearance of three-dimensionality. The sound reaches right across the stage in both directions and trails off in the dark corners at the back of the room.
It may only be an illusion, but it’s a convincing one never the less.
But it can only be convincing if you have two things:
One, a highly resolving system (we define the term to include equipment, proper setup, tweaks, electrical quality and room treatments) that is capable of reproducing the “room” and,
Two, a high resolution pressing that contains all that lovely room information, to be extracted from its grooves by the high-resolution system described above.
If a recording of Please Please Me sounds like it’s stuck in the speakers at your house, it’s the system (which includes the room and room treatments; they are every bit as important as the equipment you own, and probably more important, truth be told), or it’s the pressing, or it’s both.
We, on the other hand, have put literally thousands of hours into our system and room in order to hear the maximum amount of information, musical and otherwise, on the records we play, or as close to the maximum as we can manage. Ours is as big and open as any system in an 18 by 20 by 8 room I’ve ever heard. (We can’t compete with bigger rooms and higher ceilings; it’s a glorious sound but custom room additions are just not in our budget.)
Uncoloring the Stereo
It’s also as free from colorations of any kind as we can possibly make it (commentaries coming down the road on that one). We want to hear the record in its naked form; not the way we want it to sound, but the way it actually doessound. That way, when you get it home and play it yourself, it should sound very much the way we described it.
If too much of the sound we hear is what our stereo is doing, not what the record is doing, how can we know what will it sound like on your system? We try to be as truthful and as critical as we can when describing the records we sell. Too much coloration in the system would make those tasks much more difficult, if not downright impossible.
Why go to all the trouble? This is always the $64,000 dollar question for us as audiophiles, isn’t it? The way we look at it is not the least bit complicated. We love music! Why else would we bother? We could — and did — do this job with much less revealing equipment. But for some reason we keep working on our system. We keep running experiments.
Think about it: isn’t it more fun to hear more of what’s on the record rather than less? The question answers itself.
If wanting to hear your favorite music sound better isn’t what’s driving your progress in this hobby, one thing I can tell you: you won’t be getting very far.
We love the first Beatles album and will do whatever we can to make it sound its best. That first recording in twin-track stereo captures more of the live sound of these four guys playing together as a rock and roll band, live in the studio, than any record they ever made again. (Let It Be gets some of that live quality too and makes a great bookend for the group.)
Insightful Pitchfork Review
Click on the Reviews tab above to see what Tom Ewing, a particularly insightful critic, had to say about the album.
Whether or not you think the Beatles are the best rock band of all time, it’s hard to deny they’re the best rock story. Their narrative arc– of graft, tragedy, and stardom; of genius emerging and fragmenting– is irresistible. More so when you factor in the sense that they drove their fascinating times as much as mirrored them.
But the satisfying sweep of the Beatles’ epic risks doing them a disservice. It makes their achievements and development feel somehow predestined, an inevitable consequence of their astonishing talent. Of course, this isn’t the case: Every record they made was born out of a new set of challenges and built around tough decisions. The marketing of the band over the past few decades by their record label, Apple, has been aimed at creating a sense of apart-ness: Let lesser talents digitize their songs, feature on compilations, sell their music to samplers. The Beatles are different. This flatters listeners who were there, but setting the band apart from the rest of the pop world risks sterilizing their music and making newcomers as resentful as curious.
Besides, at the start they weren’t so different at all. Britain in the early 1960s swarmed with rock’n’roll bands, creating local scenes like the Mersey Sound the Beatles dominated. Rock’n’roll hadn’t died out, but it had become unfashionable in showbiz eyes– a small-club dance music that thrived on local passion. It was raucous, even charming in a quaint way, but there was no money in it for the big-timers of the London music biz.
At the same time the record market was booming. The Conservative UK government of the late 1950s had deliberately stoked a consumer boom: Aping the post-war consumption of the U.S., more British households than ever owned TVs, washing machines, and record players. The number of singles sold in Britain increased eightfold between the emergence of Elvis in 1956 and the Beatles in ’63. Combine this massively increased potential audience with the local popularity of rock’n’roll and some kind of crossover success seems inevitable– the idiocy of the Decca label in turning down the Beatles isn’t so much a businessman’s failure to recognize genius as a businessman’s failure to recognize good business.
The Beatles’ life as a rock’n’roll band– their fabled first acts in Hamburg clubs and Liverpool’s Cavern– is mostly lost to us. The party line on Please Please Me is that it’s a raw, high-energy run-through of their live set, but to me this seems just a little disingenuous. It’s not even that the album, by necessity, can’t reflect the group’s two-hour shows and the frenzy-baiting lengths they’d push setpiece songs to. It’s that the disc was recorded on the back of a #1 single, and there was a big new audience to consider when selecting material. There’s rawness here– rawness they never quite captured again– but a lot of sweetness too, particularly in Lennon-McCartney originals “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret”.
Rather than an accurate document of an evening with the pre-fame Beatles, Please Please Me works more like a DJ mix album– a truncated, idealized teaser for their early live shows. More than any other of their records, Please Please Me is a dance music album. Almost everything on the record, even ballads like “Anna”, has a swing and a kick born from the hard experience of making a small club move. And it starts and ends with “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout”, the most kinetic, danceable tracks they ever made.
The “evening with the band” feel makes Please Please Me a more coherent experience than other cover-heavy Beatles albums: Here other peoples’ songs work not just as filler, but as markers for styles and effects the band admired and might return to as songwriters. McCartney, for instance, would go on to write songs whose drama and emotional nuance would embarrass “A Taste of Honey”, but for now he puts his all into its cornball melodrama, and the song fits.
Please Please Me also works as a unit because the group’s vocals are so great. At least some of this is due to the remastering, which makes the Beatles’ singing thrillingly up-close and immediate. I’d never really paid much attention to “Chains” and the Ringo-led “Boys”, but the clearer vocals on each– “Chains”‘ sarcastic snarls and the harmonies helping Ringo out– make them far more compelling.
And as you’d imagine, making the voices more vivid means Lennon’s kamikaze take on “Twist and Shout” sounds even more ferocious. Done in one cut at the session’s end, it could have been an unusable wreck. Instead, it’s one of the group’s most famous triumphs. This sums up the Beatles for me. Rather than a band whose path to the top was ordained by their genius, they were a group with the luck to meet opportunities, the wit to recognize them, the drive to seize them, and the talent to fulfil them. Please Please Me is the sound of them doing all four.