TO HEAR the Beatles as they heard themselves in the famous EMI Recording Studios on Abbey Road, all you need is gloves and $325. The money gets you a splendid 14-record boxed set containing all the British albums recorded by the Beatles between 1962 and 1970. You'll want the gloves so you won't damage the merchandise.
There have been boxed collections before, and there have been a dozen crass repackagings of individual songs, including Capitol's latest, "20 Greatest Hits."
But Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's "The Beatles/The Collection" (BC-1) is something special. It's pressed in Japan on the world's highest quality vinyl and mastered at half-speed to bring out the full aural nuances; it has an album-sized artbook with the original covers; there's even a Geo-Disc alignment instrument to improve playback performance.
But most important, the music has been transferred to disc from the Beatles' original recording studio master tapes. In effect, you are there for the first time, hearing the full sonic range of their music. If you grew up on the American pressings, you're in for a shock. What you've been hearing is like watching a chopped-up "Stars Wars" on a portable black-and-white television.
There's more clarity, a more ambient dynamic; but what you don't hear is most impressive--there's no surface noise or sense of the studio recording process. The dynamic range is vastly expanded, with the high end a lot cleaner and the low end fuller, the details better preserved. Each instrument is better defined: Acoustic guitars sound as if they're positioned inside the speaker, and the timbre of the vocals is greatly extended.
Now, consider the Beatles, a group whose artistic and social impact has been immense and lasting. They were the musical and emotional cornerstone of a generation, the most important and influential band ever. In "The Compleat Beatles," Milt Okun writes, accurately, "There is no precedent in the history of pop music for the dazzling variety, versatility, innovation and relentless genius of the music composed and recorded by the Beatles between 1962 and 1970." Considering their importance, getting a chance to hear the full breadth of the Beatles' creation is akin to uncovering a Renaissance fresco that had been painted over so its colors wouldn't fade.
Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon solidified the transition from scored music to studio recording as the medium for musical history. Yet, compared to today's 48-track computerized-digital wonderstudios, the EMI facilities seem archaic. The Beatles' first albums were recorded on two-track mono -- the vocals on one track, all the instruments on the other. It wasn't until late 1964 that they were able to move to four-track; eight-track wasn't available until 1968 on the "The Beatles" (better known as "The White Album").
There would ultimately be as many Beatles myths as Elvis myths, but the group's musical gifts were never obscured by the social dramas around them.
From the early daze of Liverpool to the final unraveling at the "Let It Be" sessions, the Fab Four grew splendidly within the music. They came into the studio as exuberant amateurs and left seven years later as polished, accomplished professionals; with the help of producer George Martin, they revolutionized both the message and the medium. The story of what went on inside the Abbey Road studios is told most clearly on "The Collection."
BUT IS the set merely an instant collector's item, an expensive audiophile status symbol? Herb Belkin, president of Mobile Fidelity, says that several years ago, "The universe of true audiophiles was somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 people. But we have put out some albums that have sold our maximum pressing, 200,000 copies."
Mobile Fidelity reinvented, as it were, an old process called half-speed mastering and teamed it with original masters to provide state-of-the-art fidelity for pop, jazz, rock and classical albums (114 so far). The process pulls more information off a master tape, which is then used for stringently limited pressings. It acts as a focusing or sharpening of sound not too dissimilar to the focusing of a movie camera, and provides a new look at familiar material.
The relationship between the California-based Mobile Fidelity and EMI Studios goes back to the days when Belkin was head of A&R at Capitol. When he left to found Mobile Fidelity, one of his first projects was Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," also recorded at EMI; it became the first major contemporary audiophile release on the market (and still the most successful). "It was the first time I went into the EMI archive," Belkin recalls. "From there, 'Abbey Road' became our first Beatles audiophile release."
Since then Mobile Fidelity has released individual audiophile versions of "The White Album" and "Magical Mystery Tour." "The Collection," available this week and encompassing the 13 group albums, was originally limited to 5,000 sets, but these were snapped up before they were even officially offered to retailers. Mobile Fidelity now plans to press an additional 5,000 sets. Says Belkin, "The retailers are telling us we can't stop."
The company plans to continue releasing one Beatles album a year, though the covers will be different (in "The Collection," they consist of photos of the safety cans and logs of each original master; the real covers are contained in the artbook). There is space in the box for two more albums. One of the few criticisms leveled at "The Collection" so far has been that, by limiting it to full albums made by the Beatles, some of the great songs released only as singles or on EPs are excluded (including "Hey Jude," "Lady Madonna," "The Inner Light," "Don't Let Me Down," "Ballad of John and Yoko," "Paperback Writer," "Day Tripper," "Rain" and "Revolution"). According to Belkin, "We wanted to do a rarities album but it's a very complex job, and we couldn't get it done in time for release."
Though Mobile Fidelity has built up credibility over the last five years -- they've never lost or damaged an original master -- EMI was understandably nervous about the project; it marked the first time the Beatles masters had left the EMI archive. Belkin himself wound up as a courier: "We were very careful, building special metal boxes to ensure protection of the tapes from whatever elements might be on the outside, like something Superman would have stored kryptonite in. We'd hand-carry one box at a time from Abbey Road to the plane to our facility." Mobile Fidelity kept the masters for a couple of months, sending the refrigerated lacquers to Japan where the albums were cut. "They'd process them and send back test pressings; we didn't return the masters until we knew we had a go."
The albums were half-speed mastered chronologically, and the quality of the earliest originals was a surprise for those involved. "They were immaculate," Belkin said. "We had been concerned, but when we heard 'Please Please Me,' it was magic, a moving experience for those of us who had been involved with and were familiar with the work of the Beatles."
There were still some noticeable problems, particularly tape hiss on the earlier sets. "We toyed with some filtering systems," Belkin says, "but our view was that it's like an imperfect painting only because the canvas wasn't perfect, not because of the artists' work.
"Even EMI rarely used the original masters as we have," he points out. "Most companies use safety masters or copies of safety masters so that there are inherent losses and differences by virtue of fact that they're not using the original true source material. And with half-speed mastering, you get more information in terms of what is on the tape than you do with real time."
Listening to "The Collection," one senses the evolving studio technology affecting what the Beatles are doing, and their growing confidence and expertise in dealing with that technology. One also appreciates the growing synergism with George Martin, whose book, "All You Need Is Ears" (humbly subtitled "the story of the man who created the Beatles") can serve as a fascinating adjunct to "The Collection." Belkin points out that "Martin brought a breadth of musicality that clearly gave the production a lush edge, a depth and feeling that coincided with the evolution of the group. I mean, strings on 'Please Please Me' would have been awfully misplaced." In the book, recently reprinted in paperback, Martin goes into detail about the studio process.
On "The Collection" one can clearly sense the individual contributions of each Beatle: The elegant guitar figures running under the ballads, the layered sounds of the rockers, the feisty percussion patterns jumping from Ringo's spartan drum kit. One reawakens to tightly pieced harmonies that are strident one moment, sweet the next. There's a renewed brightness to the innovative use of strings on "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby," the first Beatles recording on which they played no instruments.
"Sgt. Pepper," which sounds sonically empty despite its innovations, becomes fresh again; even "The White Album," which had a lot of muddy parts, comes across with a cleaned-up crispness, with the bass heightened and more edge on strings. The exceptions are the two soundtrack albums, "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help," but there was often less care taken on film tracks.
A listener following the studio tracks through the years begins to discover increasingly elaborate patterns: The EMI recordings became a palette on which the Beatles blended instrumental colors and electronic techniques. They invited old instruments into a new arena: the baroque piccolo trumpet on "Penny Lane," the sitar and tamboura on "Within You Without You," and much more. There were the experiments only money could buy, including the massive 45-second chord at the end of "A Day in the Life" using half a symphony orchestra and all four Beatles and Martin bunching chords on three pianos: On standard pressings, it sounds like a gigantic piano chord; "The Collection" wrings out every last harmonic drop. If The Beatles' next project, "The White Album," was a sonic road map complete with potholes, overlooks and wrong turns, "Abbey Road," their best-selling album, served as a sensational studio epitaph, a hint of what might have come from unraveling threads wound tight one last time.
Hearing these albums in such quality reproduction is almost a revisionist audio experience. The American pressings were inferior. For one thing, they were made from second or third generation copies of EMI masters. And once those tapes got to Capitol/Hollywood, they were mastered in real time and further altered with echo and reverb (particularly the earlier sets). But that's what most Americans grew up with.
Almost as bad, the American pressings were substantially different from the British ones. It wasn't until "Sgt. Pepper," the Beatles' eighth album, that U.K. and U.S.A. pressings matched up. And the British albums had more songs; by filling the gaps they themselves made with compilations, Capitol got more albums out of the Beatles. In some cases, it wasn't a crucial alteration, though the American "Help" had all sorts of weak orchestral filler, dropping seven songs from the British version, including "Yesterday."
It did make a difference by the time the Beatles got to "Rubber Soul" and started heeding Bob Dylan's admonition to put more effort into their lyrics. By then there was a definite thematic, if not conceptual, context; Beatles albums became a source of singles rather than a frame for them, but Americans ended up waiting six months for "Drive My Car," "Nowhere Man," "What Goes On" and "If I Needed Someone."
All the American marketing indiscretions are resolved in this collection, though Mobile Fidelity uses the American configuration for "Magical Mystery Tour." There are 192 Beatles songs on these discs, and almost every one of them can elicit a powerful personal or collective remembrance of things past. For a generation that grew up with Lovely Rita and Mr. Kite, Michelle, the Nowhere Man, Eleanor Rigby and Julia, "The Beatles Collection" may well be the perfect cup of chamomile tea.