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September 8, 2009

CD review: The Beatles remasters sound clearer, crisper than ever

the beatlesIt's about time.

Finally, more than 20 years after they were first released as CDs, the Beatles' studio albums are getting a much-needed digital touch-up.

The 14 remastered U.K. albums (starting with "Please Please Me" and ending with the compilation "Past Masters") spanning the career of the biggest band in Western music are long overdue.

The original CD releases, which came out in 1987, sound OK, given the technology at the time. But the remasters -- a stereo boxed set, a mono boxed set and 14 individual CDs will all be released tomorrow -- sound noticeably better, and at best, breathtaking.

If you're an average fan who already has all the Beatles' albums on CD, it's a little hard to justify buying them all again just for better sound quality. If you're a Beatle-maniac, an audiophile or a fan looking to expand your Beatles collection, the remasters are must-haves. ...

For audiophiles: The bottom end, from Ringo's drumming to Paul's bass, has more heft. There's extra oomph on the bass drum in "Mother Nature's Son," and the strings on George's masterpiece, "Within You Without You" slink like never before.

the beatlesNuances like guitar strings being plucked and once-buried harmonies are suddenly, stunningly audible. Remember Paul's fiery solo on "Taxman?" It really sizzles here. And orchestral arrangements on songs such as "Eleanor Rigby" and "Something" sound bigger and bolder than ever before.

This is also the CD stereo debut of the first four albums, which sound remarkably fresh, given that they're almost 50 years old.

For Beatle-maniacs: Each of the CDs comes with long-overdue expanded booklets, featuring liner notes and rare photographs. Why didn't all of the 1987 pressings have these? Also, each disc (except "Past Masters") has a mini-documentary (several minutes, on average) with voice-overs, photos and some video about the making of the album.

For average fans: It took a team of EMI engineers four years to finish the remasters. Their work paid off. These albums are clearer and crisper than ever. The analog hiss is gone, but its warmth, depth and richness remain.

Listening to these CDs, my index finger was almost always on the skip button, but I couldn't press it. I was stuck between the urge to finish listening to one song and the need to see what the next track had in store.

As of now, there is no news on potential Beatles digital releases. It's also sad to think these gorgeous remasters will most likely be lost on my generation -- a generation that's largely content with poor quality mp3s. But there are plenty of audiophiles and Beatle-maniacs who will snap up the re-issues. For them, it will be quite a treat.

(Photos from Baltimore Sun archives)


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Posted by Sam Sessa at 12:38 PM | | Comments (51)
        

Comments

I don't know if you have ever had the chance to listen to the vinyl versions of the Beatle albums that were produced by Mobile Fidelity in the 80's (1/2 speed mastered, from original tapes, etc) but for sure those albums sounded better than the old cd's. Anytime I showed them to anybody, they would immediately agree, even those who were skeptical of vinyl. That said, do these remasters catch up to or surpass those albums? Also,do you know whether these remasters will be released on vinyl?

BA Ray, I've listened to the original vinyl Beatles albums (thanks, dad) but I don't think I've heard the 80s records.

I will say, the remastered CDs sound just as good as -- if not better -- than the original records.

Also, I haven't heard anything from EMI about vinyl releases, but I'll ask them and see. I doubt it.

Thanks...but nit-picking, it is Paul's fuzzy solo on Taxman...

Sam - "Taxman" was indeed a Harrison composition but McCartney played the guitar solo.

Are you saying we won't be able to load the songs from these CD's into our iTunes? Thanks.

The problem with comparing different editions is placebo effect which is _a clearly audible, strong effect_. The only valid comparison in this regime (namely, good overall quality) is a double-blind test. Recall that in double-blind tests people are unable to tell the difference between a clean audio path and a path containing 10 (ten) A/D, D/A back-and-forth conversions piled back to back. In your vinyl test all that was needed to "convince" was to play the vinyl a bit louder.

BigMike & Gene,

Ha! I knew I wouldn't be able to make it all the way through the Beatles' entire discography without attributing something to the wrong person. I fixed the review. Thanks for the heads up.

Jan -- what?

I tested a few of the remasters against the original CD issues on the same stereo system at the same volume level and the difference was remarkable.

"it's annoying that you can't rip music from the remastered albums to your computer or burn copies."

Uhh... *annoying*?

If there's a word of truth to that claim, I'll be getting a refund immediately tomorrow. A CD that cannot be played on an iPod is useless.

Daniel and PB,

Let me clarify -- I'm not sure about iTunes, but you can definitely rip the music and burn it, or simply play it on a computer or iPod. That stumped me the first time, but I have updated the review after fiddling with it again. You just have to close the DVD program that automatically pops up, open an application like Windows Media Player (or, presumably, iTunes) and go from there.

Phew, thanks for clarifying... wouldn't have been able to sleep tonight! :)

Doesn't compressing them into mp3's kind of ruin them?

Owl Meat Gravy: If you're using Itunes, you can change your importing preferences so that the files are not as compressed. Try setting to "Apple Lossless" for best results. But, truth be told, to the average, non-audiophile ear, importing the tracks at 320 kpbs will also do fairly nicely.

Yeah it does quite as bit as well as cause a lot of top end loss.

I am skeptical at this point. I really wanna know how brutally the tracks were compressed, without dynamic range alot of beatles songs will become lacklustre.

"A CD that cannot be played on an iPod is useless." - No it isn't.

If you rip them in the Apple Lossless format, they'll be huge files but will sound perfect. Otherwise, just change your setting in iTunes to rip it at 320 kbps. That won't reduce the quality enough to keep you from enjoying the remastered-ness of it all.

@Owl Meat Gravy:

Aye, indeed, compressing to MP3 will kinda lose the effect. However, that's not anywhere near as bad here, as iTunes users normally convert their music to MP4/AAC for iPod usage, and that's FAR superior to MP3s.

You still lose a bit, but I have to say that the remasters are that good, you'll still notice the difference easily.

Interesting that the early singles were recorded in mono and most of us listened to the stuff on AM radio. My first Beatles song was "I Wanna Hold your Hand" at the age of 9 on a church bus headed for Vernon's Roller Rink in Oella. The fact that the girls were going nuts, combined with the fact that I had never heard such a glorius sound, told me this was something special - and all on an AM radio.

Vinyl issues on everything are supposed to be coming - cut as of right now (9-8) no date announced.
At the stores I work with in Seattle, we've been able to get British versions on LP regularly from the old masters of Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour, and Abbey Road. 'Unfortinately, all hideously expensive. I hope EMI is more fair with the pricing of the upcoming issues.

They doubled up on the lyrics on the white album remaster

I am 58 and was about 12 when the Beatles hit the US. I had some of the old first few albums and they WERE in STEREO. I remember it was a very sharply divided soundfield, just drums and guitar on one side and mostly voices on the other. But played together it sounded really good! Go figure! I even had 33 rpm EP singles with four Beatles songs each - in stereo. I still think the Beatles first LP "Meet The Beatles" and second LP "Something New" are among their best.

Steve Andrews, thanks for the info about the vinyl releases. Please keep us posted.

Steve68, interesting. I hadn't noticed. Are you sure?

James, you're right -- I believe the first few records were made available in stereo and mono. But when they released them in 1987 as CDs, they were only available in mono. This is the CD debut of the albums in stereo.

The Beatles almost played M&T Bank Stadium, but John and George couldn't make it.

As an "audiophile" and one who has studied The Beatles on record, THE best sounding versions of the albums have always been the original UK vinyl pressings, whether they be in stereo or mono (Capital Records, which produced all US pressings including the Apple releases, fiddled with EQ and reverb and lowered the audio quality.). Original UKs (not later issues or reissues) have tremendous presence, bass and fullness in the midrange. Mono have been the preferred pressings for most until "Abbey Road" as the mono mixes were carefully considered and made first, then the stereo were later generated.

The Mobile Fidelity vinyl issues, done ostensibly for the audiophile market, used extremely quiet vinyl and have great frequency extension, but used a notorious equalization, boosting the bass and treble frequencies at the great expense of the midrange, which no longer sounded natural and relaxed the way the original UK issues sounded. Comparing the MOFI issues to others, you notice that lack of acoustic guitar body resonance, for example.

The first CD issues in 1987 sound thin and harsh, not nearly as good as original UK releases. These new CD releases, according to real high-fidelity enthusiasts, now closely rival the original UK releases and in a few ways, better them. The thunderous bass you may read about in these are present in a quality UK original LP, but a single original UK LP copy can now command 3-figure prices on EBay. This makes the CD sets quite reasonable if you're looking for great sounding Beatles albums.

The original albums, in their best forms, were always good sounding records. The first one, :"Please, Please Me" was very minimally miked (meaning the boys were all in the same room and few mikes were used), so it has a directness that later, multi-miked, multi-taped sessions don't have.

As for those who listen to music on IPods, well, you can download music in non-compressed formats, such as .wav files or Apple Lossless. You'll get fewer tunes on your IPod, but the music will have a life that just isn't there when very compressed versions are used. Even with .mp3 compression, the option is there to use less compression in the process of downloading. The less compressed, the more dynamics and color the music will have.

I think Michael Jackson is still alive and this is just a ruse to help him pay his legal bills...

So...when is "The Rutles" re-issue being re-released on laser disc?

I do intend to buy some of these as I don't have everything on CD

BUT

I am concerned with issues of remixing. Independent of cleaner, sharper sound* do these remain faithful to the original approved releases or have they been remixed to current fashions of mixing, the audio sonic equivalent of colorizing.

The first four albums were not intended to be mixed in stereo which is why the original stereo mixes have the voices on one side, and the instruments on the other. None of these early stereo mixes weren’t done by George Martin & the Beatles or approved by them. They didn’t particularly care because stereo wasn’t then the standard for popular recordings and a relatively small part of sales. Singles were originally the main thing and radio didn't broadcast in stereo, yet.

By the way these albums were primarily recorded on two and three track machines.
They got involved with mixing in stereo big sometime starting when they were recording Rubber Soul or Revolver.**

Lennon really hated how EMI remixed the songs on the 1976 compilation album “Rock 'n' Roll Music”. George Martin wasn’t too pleased with it either.

When “Yellow Submarine Songtrack” came out a lot of people were really unhappy with how these tracks were remixed, some radically. Maybe they were approved by Macca and Ringo (and Harrison?)but they weren't true the original releases ok’d by Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starkey, and George Martin in the mid sixties.
I’m one of the people who find McCartney’s “Let It Be…Naked” to be positively devoid of any enthusiasm compared to Phil Spector’s mix of “Let It Be”.

Incidentally, every regular issued Beatle album up to and including The Beatles (AKA The White Album) were released in mono and several of mono songs are different performances to their stereo counterpart.

* EMI engineers tried at one point to clean up Lennon’s distorted guitar on Revolution, only to find that’s how Lennon deliberately recorded it on the multitracks.

** Robert Freeman photographed all the Beatle album covers starting with
“With The Beatles”
http://www.stevesbeatles.com/cds/album-covers/with_the_beatles.jpg
to the unused cover for “Revolver”
http://meyokoillustrations.blogspot.com/2009/02/beatles-album-cover-by-patrick.html


I'm holding out for when Oasis remasters their entire discography in 10 years or so. Can't wait for the Redwalls remaster too

I think the remix for the Yellow Submarine Songtrack from 1999 is the best sounding version of any Beatles songs. I have digitized versions of the MFSL vinyls from the early 80's and I must say I'm not too impressed, though it does have better bass than the 87 CD's (which I have all of, save for Past Masters and the original Yellow Submarine, as I already had the '99 release).

As long as these aren't squashed dynamically and subjected to the Loudness Wars, I'll be picking some of these up...probably for now Past Masters and Abbey Road (my favorite album) but I'll get all of them in the years down the road. It only took me 6-7 years to eventually get all the '87 releases on CD :P (iwas in middle/high school at the time, so I didn't have money)

1) the previous comment was unintentially issued as "Anonymous | September 9, 2009 11:56 AM"

2) I don't have a problem with remixes per se but when their substituted for the original mixes, it's rather like the new Coke and Coke Classic controversy.

If they want add some to the end of the album or as separate release identified as such, fine but discontinuing and replacing the original mixes after forty plus years as being the beloved and expected standard as to what people like about The Beatles in the first place is revisionist and dishonest.

I'm totaly buying the box set and putting it on my ipod. but why not be ok with itunees selling the beatiles. Apple corp, the music company would make a killing that way, I know the zune has them, so why not let apple have them? Becuase, they don't care about thoose millions of dollars, or the fact that cds are old school now.

I honestly don't hear that much improvement between the 80's releases and those of 2009. Sorry to be contrary, but I just don't.

Who beneifits? if it's Paul, Ringo and John and George,s families I'm good. If it's Jackson's group or some super corproation I'll pass. I haven't heard that Paul or Ringo where much involved with this project. I think they had some involvment with the xbox/wii games. I saw it at Beatle Fest in Chicago and It looked cool. I'm 50 but would like to take a shot at the drums. Could be great fun.

I personally loved the Yellow Submarine remix/remaster that came out about ten years ago. Eleanor Rigby, Nowhere Man, and Sgt. Pepper's were my favorites on that one. The sound wasn't as split up, and it added a new dynamic to the overall presentation of the guys' music. I like the idea of "updating" the sound.

I have the MFSL gold compact discs. I mainly got them because I had always wanted to have stereo versions of the first four albums, because the Capitol releases of the mono versions just sounded like crap. Then again, I cannot stand mono recordings. If it;s the only way to hear a song, then it's okay. The Who's "Magic Bus" in mono is actually excellent, for example. Sometimes, mono gives that necessary punch that stereo mixes can't. After listening to the MFSL gold CD's, I made it a point to never go back to listening to the Beatles' mono albums. There are some things you can hear on the mono versions that aren't on the stereo ones. "Please Please Me" has one part where they eff up some lyrics and John (laughing) quickly recovers. Can't hear that in mono!

Enough of my rant. Today, I'm gonna go buy the new ones and be a typical audiophile, and listen for all the nicks and dings and solid thumps the rest of the music listening populace could care less about; at least I'll be listening to the greatest rock music ever written, performed, and recorded.

Personally, I think that discussing ripping a brand new release while still reviewing the cd's is a bit of a shame.
What's this about? How to rip cd's?
I thought we were talking about listening to remastered Beatles gems.

Jason Nedbalek,

If you think the mastering on the mono releases of the first albums is wanting in sound quality, fine but basically any stereo issue of the first four albums is meddling and fraudulent to their original intention on how they wanted them to sound.
Phil Spector and Brian Wilson originally made mono mixes* because it gave them absolute control on how they wanted people to hear them, that they would always sound the same where ever you where in between the speakers, if you had a stereo set up. A lot of albums from the seventies forward have basically an enhanced mono mixes so they would sound good on the radio. New mixes, whether first time stereo or revised stereo makes, after the fact, the remix engineer one of the artist and maybe not with the artist consent, i.e. Lennon was quite vocal about Capitol screwed around with the EQ on their first release of the early Beatle recordings to make them sound “warmer”.

Avoiding listening to anything just because it’s in mono comes across as snobbish.
Some mono recordings are alternate performances, which are sometimes regarded as superior to the stereo one.
I am guilty of being a purest as I often want to hear the music as it was first released because that was the intended way it was meant to be heard. The original mix has to really below par for me not listen it at least occasional like The Elton John Band‘s* live performance of “I Saw Her Standing There” with John Lennon, which is extraordinarily murky compared to any succeeding release.

* subsequent stereo mixes were concessions to later popular taste and sales incentive as part of a new marketing campaign.

** This was the B side of “Philadelphia Freedom” and both sides were originally label checked as The Elton John Band.

I never liked the fake stereo split of having mainly voices on one channel and the instruments on the other channel. And now with the controversy of mono vs. stereo CDs and whether the remasters are up to snuff, I'm in a bit of a quandary. HELP!

I do not care for the dated "stereo" sound of the 1960's, where the drums and bass are on one side, and the vocals and other instruments on the other. This sounds lopsided and dated.

What would really bring The Beatles catalog into the 21st Century would be to remix the albums according to current mixing standards; with the drums, bass, and most of the vocals being mixed in the middle, and the other instruments panned to the left or right accordingly. This would not be a mono mix, but rather a balanced mix.

The full sonic spectrum of sound is lost by having the most rhythmically driving instruments (drums and bass) on one side of the speakers, and does not sound balanced between the right and left speakers.

If The Beatles had the technology of today to work with back then, they would have mixed all of their albums in this way, as do all bands today. So, why not remix their albums like this? It makes no sense to keep them mixed the same way when it could sound so much better.

Dan,

The mixes you are referring to aren't actually stereo, they are the two separate tracks that were meant to be mixed together to create a mono master.

Some multitrack may not exist. EMI’s policy in the sixties was to re-use the multitrack for new recordings sessions after the master mix was made, which often was only a mono one. The Beatles very quickly became exempt to this policy but the multitrack for “She Loves You” hasn’t been located in decades and presumed to have been re-used for another recording session, there may be others.

The Beatles aren't 21st Century and largely should be honored for being of a different time and what the did then without meddling because it has endured and is still appreciated as is.

But like in the Sixties, when they created electronically enhanced recordings to simulate stereo effect from mono recordings made for the benefit of people who owned stereo equipment, if it will increase sales and they can do it, they will, that doesn’t mean they should and given the history of CD, endlessly.

Not to be a nit picker, but the Beatles recorded the first album 'Please Please Me' on BTR3 "Twin Track" machines. It was intended to be, and was released, in both mono and stereo. EMI session records show that George Martin did the mixing on Feb 25 1963, although the Beatles were not present. They continued using the BTR3 until October 17th when they switched to Telefunken T9U and M10 four track machines. These were replaced in 1965 by Studer J-37 four tracks. The only songs in 1963 recorded on four track machines were 'This Boy' and 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' which were on a single record. All of the second album 'With The Beatles' was still recorded on the BTR3's. All the first four albums were mixed for both stereo and mono with George Martin present. It's true George Martin is not a fan of the early albums in stereo because of the separation of the vocals and instruments, but he recorded them that way so the mono mix would be easier to balance. Starting with 'Help' in 1965 albums were recorded on the Studer J-37 four track. They finally got 3M eight tracks about halfway through the sessions for 'The White Album' in 1968. Only about 10 of the songs on that album were done in full 8 track. After that it was the 3M's.

As to remixing the "Twin Track" sessions for a modern stereo sound, it can't be done with out a lot of digital filters as Giles Martin had to do for Rock Band, and its my understanding that you lose some things in the process. The machines only had two tracks, and so there is no way to separate the instruments out in the soundfield. They might be able to widen things a little, but then you are getting close to the mono mix.

the White Album sounds as if it were remastered by someone who was raised on IPOD stereo-type bland,even seperation,having never heard neither the original vinyl nor the 1st or 2nd gen CD transfers.Maybe the mono box set offers the truest representation of how The Beatles intended their music to be heard.
The best example,which I noticed right away,was at the end of "...USSR",the plane sound trails off in one channel as the guitar notes bringing in "Dear Prudence" drift in on the opposite channel.It reminded me of what I loved about The Beatles,that their genius extended beyond their song wrinting,with all the sounds heard on "Sgt.Pepper's",and other albums.
On this new version,one song stops cold,and another begins.
What genius thought they needed to correct some huge mistake by seperating those sounds?Someone w/out a clue!!!
Geo.Martin was a master of spacial manipulation,making for a more listener-interactive experience by puting some things ,or"events" in different channels,instead of every thing,or sound,being equally divided by left and right channels,which is how anyone under 35 is used to hearing music...very stale,very sterile!!!

What a joke. If you want to hear what The Beatles are supposed to sound like, buy the original vinyl albums. Done deal.

Johnnycat, if there's anything I've learned from this post, it's not that simple.

johnnycat,
If you really want to hear what The Beatles sound like, you can borrow my time machine.

RTS,

I concede to your greater depth of history.

I find it curious that EMI (Electric & Music Industries, Ltd.) were behind RCA in installing eight track machines. The Monkees switched over to them while recording “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” according to Rhino’s CD re-issue liner notes. That album was released November 1967, about a year before the release of “The Beatles”(aka The White Album)

According to wikipedia entry on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”(1976) on updating the “twin track” mixes;

“This album is described as "troubled" by Beatles' producer George Martin in his autobiography, as he was asked by the head of Capitol at the time to approve the tapes they intended to use, and he was "appalled" because they were some of the early twin-track mono tapes they had made and were going to be transferred to stereo for the issue. Instead of approving the album as it was presented to him, Martin filtered and remixed every track on the album. On the older tracks, "Twist And Shout", "I Saw Her Standing There", "I Wanna Be Your Man", "Boys" and "Roll Over Beethoven", Martin reversed the stereo, brought the vocal track away from the edge into the centre, and added a slight echo for a more modern sound.[2] Some of the song editing is not clean, for example, you can hear the opening notes of the song "Dear Prudence" following the track "Back in the USSR."

By the way, this album released immediately after their EMI contract expired, without The Beatles’ consent and they weren’t pleased.

BeatleJazr2392,

I don’t think just getting the mono box would completely answer the question.
Just about every major band in the sixties started to take their stereophonic mixes very seriously by 1966 at the latest. The Beach Boys were the major exception and were activity behind the curve by Brian Wilson’s choice.


Johnny cat,

Just where does one find new/clean copies of all sixteen original albums as released by Parlophone in England at affordable cost? Any suggestions?

From some people, the point moot. I know people who can’t tell the difference in quality between vinyl, cassette, and CD, if their listening to clean copie/transfers.

Anonymous | September 15, 2009 11:41 entry AM is mine

Sam and Anonymous, I don't think you'd have to buy British-released LP's to do the trick. I'd think the USA-released Capitol and Apple would do fine. Original Beatles vinyl is very reasonably priced because they were presses by the hundreds of thousands. Why most people think records are worth a fortune is beyond me. Truth is, most LP records are not worth much at all unless they are odd exceptions of rarity. None of the music ever made by The Beatles on vinyl LP's or 45's is out of reach of the average consumer.

We try again,
Anonymous | September 15, 2009 11:41 AM entry is mine

Does anyone know how the Millenium Remaster CD set in mono and stereo stacks up against the new Beatles releases or any releases (including vinyl) for that matter? Thanks...

Barnes and Noble is running an awesome deal on the 16 remasters - buy all at once and save over 100 bucks. They sound great.

What has been great about these remasters is that I'm back to listening to music like I used to. Relishing the whole album. The most pronounced and positive difference in the sound quality I've noticed so far is in the pre-65 albums. You hear so much more. They have much more depth and range than the 87 CDs.
So here's my tip for listening to any of the new remasters. Put them on an Ipod in Apple Lossless or AIFF (full size), get a really good pair of headphones, turn out the lights...get ready to smile. It's unbelievable.

Having for years the Something New LP and cassette I always thought the stereo mix was quite good so I bought the remastered Hard Days Night in stereo and it kicks ass! however the stereo on the original Meet the Beatles LP is awful so I would not buy the remastered With The Beatles.The new Yellow Submarine is pointless to buy while the 1999 Yellow Submarine Soundtrack is still available and is a great sounding and also a good first choice for novice Beatle fans.

Hi to all
I am just suggested you to hear the Michael Jackson's rip music in earlier 1985. That music is rocks in the world.


Hi I would like some information on the Vernon's Roller Rink that was located in Oella please contact me Thank you cathy

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at erik.maza@baltsun.com. Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.
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