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What's the Deal With All Those Beatles Pressings?

By Jeff Bellin

I mean, there are US pressings, UK pressings, Japanese pressings, German pressings, originals, reissues, etc. The choices are not only mind-boggling to the uninitiated, but can start a lot of arguments in the process.
I started to explore this topic recently after reading from and talking with a number of sources that the Beatles' reissues from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs were terrible (and I had FIVE of them). Why? Mobile Fidelity allegedly boosted the bass and treble frequencies in order to make the recordings sound more pleasing to one of the executives (who supposedly had some hearing loss!). I have owned many of the MoFi recordings for many years without paying too much attention. On top of that, I didn't really own a reveling audio system until a couple of years ago. Since I was just starting to 'get back' into The Beatles and upgrade my copies, I thought that this would be a good time to explore this issue for myself.
First off, I want to say that they're certainly collectors out there who have a far more exhaustive selection of Beatles pressings than I do. Some of my conclusions are based on associative reasoning as well as my conversations with others. While I am trying to trust my ears on this one, I don't want to have to reinvent the wheel entirely.
After talking with many "experts," I concluded these generalities: The Beatles' mono recordings are more desirable than their stereo counterparts, and the best of all the versions is a tossup between original UK pressings and the Japanese red vinyl mono series (put out in the early 80's). All of the US recordings are junk for a couple of reasons, one being that reverb was added to them (for some reason) and the other being that either they contained less songs than the UK versions, or they contained filler (as in the case of "Help!," for instance.
If you have heard the recordings of many of their early to mid-output albums in stereo, you'll know that stereo spread was mostly extreme. Most voices and instruments are in either the left or tight channel with not much in-between. Not only does the mono version present a more coherent image of their performance, but also allegedly, The Beatles themselves helped with the mono mix. The stereo mix was later dashed off without them. Still, I think that this is more a personal preference, as I have heard both versions of the same album and have experienced equal enjoyment. Something to said for both versions. There is one album, however, which I have yet to hear in mono and have a great desire to do this. That album is "Sgt. Pepper's.." which George Martin, himself, has been quoted as saying that if you haven't heard a mono "Pepper," you haven't heard the album at all.

My Journey

My first step on the journey was a Japanese red vinyl mono of "A Hard Day's Night." This was quite an ear opening experience. Unlike the Mobile Fidelity Recordings I was used to, this recording was warm, clear, smooth, and liquid. I'd almost describe it as tubey (as though listened through tube amplification). I hadn't listened to any of my US pressings in many years, but I threw on the table (after a careful cleaning) my 1st pressing US copy of the same album (with the typo "I Cry Instead" printed on the back). I could listen to it for no more than a minute. It had so much reverb added that it sounded like it could have been recorded in the old Boston Garden (Believe me, the acoustics in the old Garden were bad. When the national anthem was played, people of EVERY country stood up.)
Next up was a mint German stereo copy I purchased of "With the Beatles." Curiously, the recording sounded like the boys had recorded in another room…..with a blanket over their speakers. Really laid back and somewhat muffled. Soon after, I was able to pick up a 1st pressing UK mono of the same album. This copy was clearly well played as some of the sheen was missing, but there were no scratches or scuffs. The vinyl was also very heavy, approaching the 180 gm stuff.
In an almost complete contrast to the German pressings, this one was bright and extremely dynamic. Vinyl was a bit noisier, but when George plucked a string, I heard and felt it. I kep going back and forth between the two pressings. I noticed that my toes were uncontrollably tapping when playing the UK pressings, but with the same song on the German, my toes were quite still. One version allowed the music to really move me; the other, not at all. Interesting, eh?
What I have eventually discovered is that each country's pressings seem to have their own distinct attributes. I got a German Odeon "Magical Mystery Tour" with the last three songs in true stereo. Yes, the last three songs are a vast improvement over any other stereo version (all other countries' pressings used an enhanced stereo derived from the mono) and the album is worth it just for those three cuts. On the other hand, all the other cuts pale in comparison to an UK or Japanese stereo because the German pressing sounds comparatively dull and laid back.
Next up, I picked up an UK 2nd pressing "Help!) in stereo. I already had an 80's Japanese reissue to compare it to (one of the EAS series). Again, this experience confirmed my hypothesis that each country tends to impose attributes on the album. The UK pressings was snappier, brighter, while the Japanese was smoother, more liquid, even perhaps a bit rolled off in the high end. Which was better? I think it's personal preference here. Both are very good in their own ways, just balanced a bit differently.
I tried a Japanese red vinyl mono "Revolver" up against an 80's UK stereo reissue. Very close here. The red vinyl mono was clearly more extended in the bass. This is where the UK reissues tend to come up short. However, the UK was still quite nicely balanced and the stereo revealed certain counter-melodies that the mono version tended to mask. Both were pretty dynamic.
During the whole process, I managed to pull out and listen to my Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab pressings of "Please Please Me," "Beatles For Sale," "Rubber Soul," "Magical Mystery Tour," and "Abbey Road." I will say that the half-speed mastering process does do some wonderful things. It really opens up the mid-range where vocals tend to lie; therefore harmonies and solo vocals are more detailed, cleaner and distinct as a bell. Unlike traditional releases, MoFi did not limit the frequency extremes nor the dynamics, so the recordings can sound incredibly alive. This series had tremendous potential. It literally could have been THE series of The Beatles to own.
Unfortunately, by boosting the bass and high end, the recordings ten to sound, overall, boomy and way too bright, in fact, sometimes quite harsh. "Abbey Road" and "Magical Mystery Tour" are largely unlistenable to me. "Rubber Soul" has benefits that equal the negatives and so does "Please Please Me." On certain cuts of "Please Please Me," John sounds like he is right in my living room. I don't have that experience with an UK mono. The complex vocal harmonies on such songs as "The Word" on "Rubber Soul" are wonderful due to the half-speed mastering process. Overall, however, the recordings sound more like a CD than a good analog copy. While there is clarity to the mid-range, it lacks the fullness, richness, and lushness of a good analog recording. Again, this is due to the bass and high-end boosts.
If you want an excellent example of a really good half-speed mastering job of a Beatles album, look for the Pro-use "Abbey Road" from Japan. I wish they had done all of the Beatles' albums up this way.
Bottom Line
All in all, IMHO, you can't go too wrong with any of the UK or Japanese pressings. The UK recordings tend to be a bit brighter and dynamic than the Japanese recordings, while the Japanese pressings sound more lush and liquid, perhaps more clear, certainly with the quietest vinyl.
Some of these countries' releases are VERY costly. Right now, the UK original pressings (1st three pressings) and the Japanese red vinyl mono pressings are the most desirable and hence, the most expensive by far. The cost depends on the album, with "Sgt.' Pepper's" being the most desirable. Expect to spend over $150 on a mint mono copy. On the other hand, "Beatles for Sale" is probably the least desirable and this album can be had for about $50.
Next in desirability are the Japanese 'OR' and 'AP' series. Both are stereo and are considered to be better than the EAS series putout in the 80's. I have not heard an 'OR' or 'AP,' but I understand that they are a bit more dynamic sounding than the EAS. I can personally say, however, that the EAS series is quite respectable. The going rate for the 'EAS' series is much more respectable. In the local record shops around the Boston area, a mint 'EAS' pressing can be had for between $15 - 30. On the web, however, prices are between $30 - 70.
The bottom line, here, is how much do you want to spend? Personally, you can complete your collection of Beatles' albums very reasonably with Parlophone reissues or Japanese stereo EAS series, if you shop around for $20-25 per record. Go ahead and experiment by splurging on your favorite album by getting either an original UK pressing or one of the higher priced Japanese pressings. These are classics anyway, and prices are only going higher.
By the way, I am posting an interesting website. It illustrates the various original pressings and reissues of all their albums. This will help you identify the pressing at which you are looking.

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