Beach Boys: Surfing in Stereo

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Lost in the sauce amidst 2012's 50th Anniversary tour and reunion album hoopla was a reissue series of much of The Beach Boys' catalog on HDCD encoded CDs.  Presented in quazi-deluxe mini LP sleeves, some feature newly minted stereo mixes -- not just remastering -- of titles that had never been presented as such.

Early Beach Boys albums were originally mixed in mono, yet their record label created/issued faux stereo versions by employing extreme equalisation (ie. bass sounds to one speaker, treble to the other). These discs were sold as "Duophonic" to an unsuspecting public eager for new product in the then-emerging stereo format.

Fast forward, the advent of modern mixing on a computer has enabled The Beach Boys to go back to the early multi-track masters -- and various submixes made along the way -- and line up all the elements in order to make true, first generation stereo mixes. Pet Sounds was the first, done in the mid '90s. If you want to read more about this, follow this link to a forum where someone transcribed the text of my 1996 EQ Magazine cover feature on the making of Pet Sounds in Stereo. http://goo.gl/JfSpF (you'll need to scroll down a bit to find the piece). 

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"Good Vibrations" (on Smiley Smile) was apparently made a bit differently employing new technology from an Irish PhD who was able to extract individual instruments from the mono master mix -- as key individual elements had been lost over the years -- to create a new stereo mix. Its pretty cool.

I've generally happy with these new CDs of seminal Beach Boys recordings. They sound pretty full and clean -- they are likely of a lower generational quality than the original mono mixes. There is some digital edge audible, but not terribly so. They'll sound great in the car! And I suspect we'll soon see the label put them out as proper LPs or high resolution download.

Beach Boys Today fares well and sounds much better than the old Duophonic, so much so that I am trading in my pristine 80s/90s Japanese LP pressing. Summer Days (and Summer Nights!) shines with nice sound stage and punchy instruments played by The Wrecking Crew. The vocals are lush, and tracks like "You're So Good To Me" and mega hit "California Girls" sound particularly awesome! The instrumental "Summer Means New Love" shimmers with the feel of the studio coming through the speakers.

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By the time of 1967's Smiley Smile -- an attempt to salvage and re-record songs from the aborted SMiLE sessions -- the band had it's own recording gear installed in Brian Wilson's house, so the album has a distinctive, made-in-the-living-room DIY sort of presence about it. On the original LP mono mix, the music sounded murky; the 1990 CD issue (pairing Smiley Smile with 1968's Wild Honey) sounds arguably cleaner than the LP.  The new mono remaster included on these new reissues sounds quite a bit better still, with more high end and overall presence -- further reducing the murky flavor. You can really hear the difference on instrumental tracks like "Fall Break And Back To Winter," with its subtle mix of odd percussion, bells, muted harmonies, ominous deep voices and chiming bells and such.

Smiley Smile was never really issued in stereo as far as I know -- albums that were marked stereo back in the day were, again, reprocessed Duophonic styled fake stereo.  Thus, finally hearing the whole album in tue stereo is a real treat!  This new stereo the mix is much brighter and -- frankly -- more fun to listen to!

"Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations" -- made during the SMiLE sessions -- of course sound great (especially the aforementioned new stereo mix). But its those weird and moody non SMiLE tracks like "Little Pad" and "With Me Tonight" which open up beautifully on Smiley Smile in stereo, making this CD essential.  The trippy "Wind Chimes" is even more haunting in stereo, especially the reverb-drenched "Whispering Bells" fade out portion at the end. And as much as I love the original SMiLE version of "Wonderful," there is something special about this version done on a church organ instead of harpsichord -- especially the eeerie choruses sung by what sounds like young children.

My only real nit on these reissues has to do with the packaging: the two-disc gatefolds are wasted space and as only one CD was needed (easily fitting stereo & mono mixes on a single disc). The paper insert, reproducing album art and track listings already on the outer package, are fairly useless. They probably could've charged a couple bucks less per disc making each a single disc mini album styled package. If you have the 1990 two-fers, you already own a very good informational booklet that describes most of what you need to know about the album -- so don't toss your old CDs just yet!

That said, I picked these up at Best Buy for very fair $10 each and for that price its a fair deal all things considered -- it is about the music, ultimately.

So, spruce up your collection with some early gems that benefit greatly from the stereo presentation. Surf's up!


Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com.  He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com

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