Tuesday, April 30, 2019

the shape of songs: there's a lot more to stereo mixes than left and right channels

Wow, I haven't updated this blog in an extremely long time. My only excuse for the lag, really, is that I didn't want to post just to post. Instead, I wanted to give you, dear reader, content I actually cared about.

Anyway, enough excuses. I finally decided to sit down and actually write a new post and figured I'd talk about something I've done while listening to Beatles stereo mixes with headphones (the headphones part is important!) for a long time: tried to figure out the shape of the mixes.

The shape of the mixes?

To explain what the heck that means, let's start with the difference between stereo and mono mixes. For a mix to be mono means that all of the instruments come out of one channel, so you'd hear exactly the same thing if you only listened with the right headphone or the left headphone. If a mix is stereo, it means that the various tracks -- the drum track, vocal tracks, etc. -- are broken up over a few different channels, so you'll hear a few of them -- maybe only the drums, guitar, and one vocal track -- if you listen with one headphone, and the rest if you listen with the other.

Anyway, you might figure that the instruments are broken up in a sort of horizontal line. That's how people talk about stereo mixes, anyway. They'll say "the vocal tracks are in the left channel and the drum track is in the right." But that's not how all stereo mixes sound and it's definitely not how all Beatles stereo mixes sound. Herein lies an ingenious part of the Beatles' creativity that I haven't seen anyone else discuss.

Let's take an example that might help clarify what the heck I'm talking about. A great one is Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey. That mix is actually kind of on a diagonal! For reference, you can follow along by listening to the song:

The song starts out with the drums in the middle of the left channel. You should hear it right about at your ear's opening. The electric guitar starts out in the right channel, but it's near the top of the right channel, close to, say, the cartelidge of your right ear.

Then the vocals come in. John is basically on top of the left part of your skull, while another guitar track is in the right channel, but underneath where the first guitar was, closer to the opening of your right ear.

Notice that there really isn't anything going on in the upper right-hand quadrant (near the top of the right part of your skull). The mix is roughly on a diagonal!

Another great one is While My Guitar Gently Weeps. This one doesn't have a distinct shape, but is rather scattered across the field (which I imagine to look something like a semicircle).

So there you have it! The shape of Beatles songs. When it comes to the stereo vs mono debate, I'm typically a proponent of whatever mix the band actually worked on personally (and that means listening mostly to the mono mixes), but I have to say -- I've had ridiculous amounts of fun trying to figure out the shapes of these mono mixes. If you're as big of a nerd as I am, maybe you'll have some fun, too. Or maybe you'll back away from me slowly, completely freaked out. No worries if you do -- I completely understand.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

the (possibly) definitive guide to stereo vs. mono albums: introduction

At long last, I've come up with an idea for a new project! This is my first post in an album-by-album examination of the stereo vs. mono mixes of the core 13 studio albums.

For those who don't already know, all of the studio albums except for Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let it Be were originally recorded in mono. That means that all of the sound came out of one channel. That's in contrast to recording in stereo, where you might hear the drums in the right channel, and the lead guitar part in the left channel (that would correspond to the right and left headphones). Despite the fact that the band originally recorded all of those albums in mono, though, most people have only really heard the stereo mixes of the albums that the engineers made without the band. Stereo mixes were made alongside the mono mixes because stereo was a pretty hot new trend in the 1960s, and mono was considered sort of out of date.

Most people who aren't hardcore Beatles fans were totally unaware of the major differences between the stereo and mono mixes of these albums until 2009, when the albums got a total remastering and were released as stereo and mono boxsets. However, for whatever reason, Apple didn't release a boxset that reflects only the mixes the band authorized (that would mean mono mixes for everything but Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let it Be).

The remasters were done extremely well, but this project is going to examine the differences between the stereo and mono mixes as they're heard on vinyl. That means that I'm limited to what I have in my collection (and what I can track down at the UChicago radio station). I'll go through each album and explain what, in my opinion, you gain from listening to the original mixes.

Other places on the web have guides of this sort, but to my knowledge, no one has done this using the original vinyl pressings and with this kind of completeness.

I hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

10th anniversary tribute to george

I debated what to post on the 10th anniversary of George's death. I thought about discussing his legacy and why I think he's so underappreciated, but I think it's more appropriate to simply let his music and words speak for themselves. Somehow, I think that's what George would have preferred. So in that vein, I've collected here a sample of my favorite acoustic demos and words of wisdom from the songs. I hope you enjoy them and that, as a tribute to George, you take a moment today to stop what you're doing and smell some flowers. Maybe even plant a tree.

Let it Down
Hiding it all behind anything I see, should someone be looking at me.

Beware of Darkness
Beware of sadness. It can hit you, it can hurt you, make you sore and what is more, that is not what you are here for.

Run of the Mill
Everyone has choice when to or not to raise their voices. It you that decides which way you will turn.

All Things Must Pass
Sunrise doesn't last all morning. Cloudburst doesn't last all day. Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning. It's not always gonna be this grey.

Blow Away
I'd almost forgot, all I got to do is to love you. All I got to be is happy.

Isn't it a Pity
Isn't it a pity, isn't a shame, how we break each other's hearts and cause each other pain.

While my Guitar Gently Weeps
I don't know why nobody told you how to unfold your love. I don't know how someone controlled you. They bought and sold you.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

why do the beatles continue to be so popular?

Talk about a clich├ęd question, right?

However, since I haven't yet found a satisfying answer (and I'm not content with the typical fan response of "It's because their music is awesome, omgggg!!!111"), I'm going to take a crack at providing a--hopefully--more analytical answer.

First of all, I think it's important to point out that I wouldn't consider this question an interesting one if applied to any other band from the 60s or 70s. That's because the continued popularity of the Beatles--as measured according to any number of metrics, from album sales to number of instagram accounts devoted to the group--is at a level no other group from that era has attained. It's not interesting--to me at least--why people continue to listen to and buy Rolling Stones or Dylan records. The music is great, so why not? But the devotion to the Beatles remains at a level that isn't at all inevitable nearly 50 years after the band's breakup.

Second of all, it's important to point out that, at least for me, I don't think it comes down to nostalgia--at least not completely. After attending four McCartney concerts (three this summer, and one two years ago), I can attest to the fact that just about every age bracket was represented in the audience, and there were more than a few young people there without their baby boomer parents. For a perhaps more objective piece of evidence, take the fact that Urban Outfitters (a clothing company that explicitly caters to people 18-34 years old) has begun carrying Beatles t-shirts and Abbey Rd posters. The Beatles have suddenly become cool with hipsters.

So if it's not nostalgia, what is it? I believe it's the fact that the Beatles provide a comprehensive fan experience. That means that, while other artists provide great music and perhaps a few interesting interviews or even a film (The Last Waltz, anyone?), the Beatles provide the following:

1. A relatively large, but (most importantly) varied discography that is musically complex and innovative enough to remain interesting, even after hundreds of listens. Beyond the core 13 studio albums and 22 singles, fans can engage with the 6-disc Anthology series, the Live at the BBC collection, and a virtually endless supply of bootlegs and unofficially released albums, like the excellent Hamburg 1962 shows.

2. 5 feature-length films, which vary in quality, but which nevertheless remain interesting, even after hundreds of viewings (this is particularly true with A Hard Day's Night and Yellow Submarine).

3. Countless interviews, which are virtually all available on YouTube and which collectively provide hundreds of hours of footage. The wit the group possessed means that the interviews remain fresh and entertaining.

4. Thousands--dare I say even close to a million?--photos. This group was photographed more often than any other. Not only does that provide some measure of entertainment, but it provides artistically inclined fans with material for artwork. Indeed, the group has inspired a tremendous amount of beautiful artwork, from amateur drawings and photograph manipulations, to Cirque du Soleil.

5. A fascinating back story, which we have access to on a level unsurpassed by any other group. The story of the group's rise to fame, years in the spotlight, and famous breakup, is the stuff of Hollywood films. I can personally attest to how easy it is to get caught up in the romanticism of their early days in Hamburg, not to mention the twists and turns of their whirlwind 7 years at the top of the world.

These five elements provide, in a sense, a tremendous amount to do for a fan. The Beatles are to the fan experience like an advanced role playing game is for a video gamer. It's easy to spend hours playing one of those video games that involves exploring a world because there's just so much to do. You're much less likely to get bored than you would if you were playing Tetris.

But the final element that makes the Beatles so incredibly popular is, I believe, how unabashedly optimistic and life-affirming virtually everything they produced is. Of course there's a good deal of bitterness in their backstory, but when it comes down to the music, the interviews (for the most part), and the films, being a fan of this group means engaging with material that's bound to leave you happy.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, November 14, 2011

funny gifs

If nothing else, the internet has breathed new life into the hours upon hours of footage of the Beatles. One way it's done that is by allowing people to make gifs. Gifs are little video clips that play over and over again. Here are some of my favorites, with captions I feel are appropriate. :) I hope you enjoy them!


no one realized quite how aggressive mr. harrison could be.

some of us are just extra ... special.

others of us are just ... disturbed.

all things must pass: maturity in post-beatles solo work (part 1)

Jurgen Vollmer, one of the Germans whom John, George, Stu Sutcliffe, and Pete Best befriended in Hamburg during their stints playing nightclubs in 1960-62, once said that, due to his quiet demeanor, it was often easy to dismiss George Harrison. However, once you got to know him, it was quickly apparent that he possessed a certain maturity that the others lacked. Jurgen said that George looked you straight in the eye when speaking to you, and seemed genuinely interested in what you had to say.

What does examining John's and George's solo material through the lens of maturity tell us about them as artists?

I'm going to argue that George's solo material articulates its messages with more maturity and perspective than John's. However, in the interest of space, I'm only going to address John's output in this post. I'll save George's output for the next one.

Let me briefly address Paul's work, though, just to justify why I'm not including it in the overall analysis. I'd rather not compare Paul's work to George's and John's simply because I think the vast majority of Paul's work seeks a fundamentally different musical goal. Explaining that difference probably merits its own post, but for now I'll say that Paul's songs, with a few exceptions, simply aren't personal enough to evaluate according to the same criteria as George's or John's. The most explicitly personal McCartney song I can think of is "Here Today," his tribute to John. That's certainly a beautiful song, but one song isn't enough to go on. Much of the rest of his output involves stories or simple love songs. A lot of it is absolutely wonderful, but it's not particularly personal, at least not explicitly so.

Therefore, I think it's more appropriate to compare George's and John's catalogs. Both of them tended to write explicitly personal songs that arose from almost existential struggles. I'd characterize their songs almost as confessionals. However, there's a key difference in style between the two writers that, I think, suggests more maturity and nuance in George's work.

That difference comes down to the degree of subtlety. Take "Julia," for example. Anyone with any knowledge of John's past knows immediately that the song is about his mother, Julia. The lyrics are gorgeous and the song is haunting, but listening to it almost makes me uncomfortable because it's so explicitly about his struggles connecting with his dead mother.

For an even more uncomfortable experience, try "My Mummy's Dead." The track consists of John and an acoustic guitar, mixed so roughly that is sounds like a home demo. The lyrics are "my mummy's dead/I can't get it through my head/though it's been so many years/my mummy's dead/I can't explain/so much pain/I could never show it/my mummy's dead." As a listener, I almost feel as though I'm sitting in, uninvited, on John's therapy session with his psychologist.

Now why do I feel like this hyper-explicit, confessional music indicates some level of immaturity? It comes down to the function of an artist's output. An artist, I think, releases music because he/she wants to share something with his/her audience. Part of the reason that art is shared with the audience is, I think, to provide the audience with some product to which they can relate. However, by writing songs that are so explicitly personal, John sometimes made it difficult for his audience--at least in my case--to relate to his music. Even if I had a deceased parent, could I really relate to "Julia" or "My Mummy's Dead," when they don't seem to have been written at all for me? I think the expectation that we should purchase and enjoy songs clearly (I think) not written for us indicates some level of immaturity--or at least entitlement--on the part of the artist.

Now, none of this is to say that I don't enjoy John's solo material. I think much of it is absolutely gorgeous. However, I think the hyper-explicitly personal songs indicate some level of immaturity that George's music simply doesn't. I'll explain why I think George's solo material is more mature in the next post.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

what the beatles can teach us about how to revive the music industry

In the past decade or so (as far as I can tell), a lot of people have been fretting about the sorry state of the music industry. The internet spelled doom for record sales, and artists are now forced to tour almost constantly because it's virtually impossible to make a living off of record sales. But more than that, people have lamented the demise of high quality, but mainstream artists. Yes, there are countless incredibly talented artists out there right now (Andrew Bird, Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom, and Feist come to mind immediately), but none of those artists are on major record labels, so they enjoy relatively little exposure. Instead, the artists who top the Billboard 200 are, in large part, those who perform very safe, focus group-tested songs guaranteed to be chart toppers.

Now, one could say that this is because record labels have become so profit-driven that they're too risk averse to take a chance on an artist who might not be commercially palatable. I think there are two main problems with that theory: first, I don't believe that record labels are more profit-driven now than they were in the 60s or 70s when most of the best artists were on major record labels (Capitol's decision to reissue the Beatles' albums with different track listings was a clear ploy to make an extra buck or two) and second, the strategy they're employing now isn't guaranteed to make them more money than one in which they sign artists for their artistic merit alone.

Let's unpack that second criticism a little bit. Putting aside the argument that the best artists should get the most exposure, and so should be on major record labels, it just makes sense to me that record labels would sign artists based on their artistic merit, rather than on whether they can replicate a sound that has already been profitable. First of all, the output of the 60s and 70s showed nothing if not that most people appreciate objectively high quality music. The Beatles illustrate this more than perhaps any other group. Their music is some of the best ever written, and they remain popular among just about every demographic. How did they create that music? By taking artistic risks, which they were allowed to take by Parlophone and Capitol. Yes, they were unusually talented artists, but the fact of the matter is that the success of the Beatles suggests that if record labels simply signed artists based on their talent and allowed them to take artistic risks with their raw talent, chances are we'd see some of the most exciting music in decades.

You might now say that the most talented artists are on small, independent record labels, and there's nothing wrong with that. I love independent record labels as much as anyone else, but the reason I believe these artists would create even more exciting music if they were on major record labels is that a contract with a major record company would afford them the exposure to gain the popularity necessary to make enough money from tours to then put aside enough time to write and record their best material. Independent record labels simply don't have the resources to provide most of their artists with that kind of cost structure.

So my suggestion for the record industry is summed up as this: let artists be artists. Sign the best artists to major record labels, promote them so that they become popular at the beginning of their careers and can make enough money from a tour to then sit back and record in a careful way that allows them to make the best album possible. People know and appreciate good music when they hear it (the enduring popularity of not only the Beatles, but Motown in particular, is a testament to this fact), and those albums will sell. Record labels will be highly profitable and some of the best music being recorded will again be given the exposure it deserves.