The Beatles are back! On vinyl, at least.
In a nod to rabid fans and the resurgence of old-school discs, Apple Corps and EMI are releasing all of the Fab Four's original studio albums (1963-1970), plus the U.S.-originated Magical Mystery Tour and a Past Masters singles collection, on 180-gram audiophile vinyl. They arrive Tuesday.
The albums, which include the original artwork, are available individually ($19.99 for single LPs, $29.99 for doubles) as well as in a limited-edition 14-disc package ($399.99). The boxed set includes a 252-page book by radio producer Kevin Howlett on the sessions, which "showcase the tremendous joy and energy of a band that was essentially playing live in the studio."
But coming on the heels of a Grammy-winning series of remastered CDs in 2009, why bother with vinyl?
"There's something comforting in the impreciseness of the (analog) medium that produces a more open and airy sound," says Sean Magee, the Abbey Road engineer who spent the better part of a year on the project. "A lot of modern CDs are engineered for loud. We went with clean."
A growing segment of music fans are appreciating vinyl's merits, as evidenced by surging sales (up 40% in 2011 to a still-small $3.9 million) and the reopening of record-pressing plants, says Robert Harley, editor of audiophile journal The Absolute Sound.
"Vinyl is exploding partly because the sound quality is noticeably more natural, but also because younger buyers realize that you can start a conversation over your record collection but not so much over MP3s," he says.
Beatles scholar Martin Lewis says the new release offers fans visual as well as sonic bliss. "The magnificence of the photos and artwork that graced these albums are lost on 5-inch (CD) squares," he says, noting that the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band disc will come with its original sleeve inserts. "They're works of art as striking as the music inside."
Lewis adds that listening on vinyl also requires listeners to hear songs in the order the artists intended: "None of that was incidental; everything the Beatles did was for a reason."
Among the vinyl release highlights are a 24-page color book tucked inside Mystery Tour (which bumps its price to $24.99) and the double-sided photo montage/lyric sheet and four solo color photos that come with The Beatles (commonly known as 1968's groundbreaking White Album).
"Anything Beatles is in high demand by their fans, folks who want every German import," says Andy Greene, associate editor at Rolling Stone. "But these sort of releases are for that small minority of people who still pay for albums" as opposed to streaming music subscriptions.
And for that hardcore crew, more Beatles treasure is being dug up. Engineer Magee is midway through a transferring the band's mono recordings to vinyl. "Up until The White Album, the guys were focusing all their creative energy on what their songs sounded like in mono," he says. "So they're just awesome."
But that's still not the holy grail. "That would be a DVD release of the movie Let It Be," Lewis says of the breakup-era artifact. "We're still waiting on that one."