Bit by Bit: The Beatles White Album on Vinyl – Now on CD!

Posted: February 23, 2010 in Bit by Bit (Digital Audio), music
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I hate buying the same album twice. Three times is definitely too much. But that is exactly what I’ve done with the Beatles White Album.

Why would anyone do such a thing? To illuminate, let me first say that I purchased the vinyl version not long after it was released in the late 60s. As you can imagine, overuse and abuse wore down the grooves and scratched the surface, until it contained more snap, crackle and pop than a family-size cereal box.

When I finally acquired a CD player in the late 80s, I had little hesitation in replacing some of the better loved, but well worn, vinyl releases in my collection. CDs were hot items, as portable as cassettes but much better sounding. No matter how many times you played them, they would sound the same as the first time, they would last forever. There’s a topic for another day. My point is, I bought into CDs big time, and I replaced the White Album with a version that sounded fresh compared to the decrepit one I was replacing.

When the Beatles released the re-mastered versions of their albums last year, I was curious to know whether there would be a noticeable difference, and reluctant to spend any more money on the same album. But when I saw it at Tesco’s for half of what the pre-re-mastered version cost at HMV, my curiosity got the better of me.

I took it home and played it through my stereo/home recording system, which includes a Fireface 400 DA converter and a pair of Tannoy active speakers. Results may vary depending on your system, but my impression was that you would need to have damaged your hearing more than I have over the years not to appreciate the difference that re-mastering made. To me, it was as stark as the difference between 2D and 3D, leaving the older CD sounding rather flat and lifeless.

The first thing I noticed was that you can really hear, and easily distinguish the instruments, especially in the mid range. This is despite the fact that there is loads going on, and was already permanently bounced around a mere 8 tracks and mixed before the mastering came along. For example, the tinny piano that was fighting for attention in “Back in the U.S.S.R.” now has breathing space, and sounds much more natural. Each guitar part is distinct in “Dear Prudence”. On “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, the hand claps toward the beginning of the song nearly took my head off, not because they were over loud (which they weren’t) but because they were so clear and sharp. Each track brought similar revelations, and I felt like I was listening to the album for the first time.

The second thing I noticed was how the album felt. What I mean is, there is a certain “ahhh” factor of smooth richness that analog (vinyl) recordings had naturally and digital (CD) does not, although there now seems to be the technology and experience to make the latter sound very much like the former. The re-mastered White Album puts the “Ahhh” back in the album. After all these years, Apple has finally released a digital version that sounds as good as the original. Maybe better, since I don’t recall the bass coming out quite that prominently in Helter Skelter, for example.

Verdict: If you’re wondering whether it’s worth upgrading to the re-mastered version, the answer is an emphatic yes. My ears are impressed, my wallet is not.

The downside of this exercise is that it has alerted my ears to the fact that I now own a great number of substandard sounding albums that need to be replaced…again, only this time in the same, if updated, format. The Beatles are only the latest in a long line of artists who have released re-mastered versions of their old vinyl albums on CD, a good few years after they were originally released on CD. I think I’ll be looking into the history of the vinyl to CD transition in the near future to try and understand how this happened.

Those of you who mostly listen to downloaded tracks are probably wondering why you should care about an old workhorse such as CD. Aren’t these being phased out someday soon? Hopefully not, because compared to most commercially available MP3 or MP4 files, CD is the new vinyl. That is, sonically superior. And there is no technical reason why this should be true. In fact, there are some web sites providing a much better download alternative to more popular and successful sites, and that is another topic I’ll get to soon. But for now, if you want a wide selection of good quality recordings, you’re better off with CDs than downloads.

  1. Great article, thanks for the share. Blog bookmarked 🙂

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