We discuss in detail what we’re listening for and what the best copies seem to do well that the run-of-the-mill copies simply do not.
If you own a copy of the German MMT, play yours and listen for what we’re listening for. It’s all laid out in the track commentary.
Magical Mystery Tour
The fact that this is a key track should be obvious to anyone who has ever played the album. If you don’t have a good copy of the MMT this song will take your head off. Only the German pressings have any real hope of getting it right — the MOFI, British, Japanese, domestic, etc. are uniformly awful in my experience: aggressive and irritating, the worst being the MOFI I would guess.
The German ones break down into three groups – too smooth; just right; and a bit bright or thin. Now remember, almost every copy of this record I played had the exact same stamper numbers. You can’t tell one from another except by dropping the needle on them. There is no visual clue on the record to associate with the sound, no possibility of bias. What comes out of the speakers is all I had to go by.
And it’s easy to confuse the overly smooth ones with the best ones, because on the song MMT smooth is a good thing . But when is smooth too smooth? That’s where track two comes in.
The Fool On The Hill
This song is full of airy flutes, woodwinds and the like. They should sound harmonically extended, delicate and sweet. We talked about the sound of the flutes on another record recently, Blood, Sweat & Tears. It’s as a good a test for this album as it is for that one.
Having said that, what separates the killer copies from the merely excellent ones is the quality of the flute sound. When you can hear the air going through the flute, and follow the playing throughout the song, you have a superbly transparent copy with all the presence and texture of the best. If the flute sounds right Katz’s voice will too. The sound will be Demonstration Quality of the highest order. Want to shoot out two different copies of this album on side one? Easy. Just play this track and see which one gets the flute right.
On the best copies Paul’s voice is amazingly present. You should feel as though you could reach out and touch him. Which means there are two basic elements to listen for in this song, both of which must be proportional and balanced. First, the flutes must sound open and airy. Then, Paul’s voice must retain its lower-midrange body and warmth without sounding veiled or thick in any way, yet have excellent presence. Not too many copies, maybe one out of ten, can really pull it off. It’s amazing when they do though!
If the first track is alive but not aggressive, and Fool sounds the way I describe it above, the only thing left is The Walrus Test. Feel free to skip to the last track if you like.
Blue Jay Way
Your Mother Should Know
This song is a lot like Fool — it’s all about how full and present Paul’s voice is as long as the highs are extended and open and the tape hiss (of which there is plenty) sounds correct.
I Am The Walrus
The fact that this song evolved into a good test for side one came as a complete surprise to me. I never really took this track seriously from an audiophile point of view. But as I was listening to the various copies, I noted that the opening cellos and basses in the right channel were often tonally identical from copy to copy, but sounded quite a bit more lively and energetic on some pressings compared to others. Was it EQ? Level?
As I tried to puzzle it out, playing first one copy and then another, it became clear to me what was happening. The cellists and the bassists were just plain digging HARDER into the strings on the best copies. When you see live classical music, the cellists at the front of the orchestra are usually sawing away with abandon when the music is really going. They dig their bows hard into the strings to make them vibrate as loud as possible. To make their instruments heard in the back row it becomes a matter of muscle, of pure physical exertion.
So armed with the copies where the string players are working the hardest, I checked the other tracks. Sure enough, the opening cut, MMT, jumped out of the speakers with the most energy I had heard on any copy. As I went through the tracks one by one, they had the most life of any of the copies I had been listening to. To use a word that was popular at the time, the music was HAPPENING.
This was the final piece to the puzzle.
Tonality always comes first. Frequency extension; lack of distortion; rich, powerful bass — these are important qualities as well.
But the life of the music is in the micro and macro dynamics, and that is what I had not been paying sufficient attention to in the shootout. That was until I listened to Walrus and heard the players working up a good healthy sweat. Then I knew I had a hot stamper. And when I played the not-so-hot stampers, the string guys sounded like session musicians picking up a paycheck.
Where was their passion? Didn’t they realize they were making a Classic?
If you get the right pressing they sure were!
Pretty bright as a rule on even the best copies. It will also tend to be slightly aggressive. I wouldn’t feel confident judging most copies by this track. Having said that, if everything else afterwards sounds right, this song should be working at its best too.
Strawberry Fields Forever
Should be right on the money tonally. One of the best sounding tracks on side 2. It’s very unlikely you have EVER heard Strawberry Fields Forever sound like this. Amazingly sweet and spacious. Practically Demo Disc Quality.
Penny Lane has a HUGE amount of upper midrange and high frequency information that is difficult to master properly. If you get a copy that does not have the extreme highs that are needed to balance out the more aggressive upper midrange information, Penny Lane will tear your head off.
Baby You’re A Rich Man
This track should be Demo Disc Quality on the real Hot Stamper pressings. As I was playing this song for the shootout, the thought occurred to me that if I had one track to play to someone to demonstrate what a thrill it is to have a big, expensive stereo, it would be hard to pick a better song than Baby You’re A Rich Man. The only other one that occurs to me off the top of my head is Sergio Mendes’ For What It’s Worth off of Stillness. The sound is wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling and BIG as LIFE. You can’t do that with screens and you can’t do that with smaller speakers and their smaller drivers.
Once you’ve heard that sound it’s hard to get too excited about anything else.
All You Need Is Love
Another one that is on the thin and bright side. The mix the Germans picked for their MMT sounds like it isn’t quite finished to these ears.