Old School Mono

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I’d like to call your attention to a comment from reader Douglas, as part of the weekend’s discussion of the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice”: “In this day of Super Dolby-Digital Plus-Remastered from the Original Remaster reissues, is it possible that some bands just f-ing sound best in Old School Mono (TM)?”

F yeah.

Years ago I was doing some research at YouTube and came across a homemade stereo mix of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” which was famously heard only in mono for the first 30-plus years of its existence. The YouTuber who posted it included the following note: “Demand that Music Companies issue British Invasion, etc in Full STEREO & NOT in monaural . . . Don’t buy mono versions, etc !!!”

This person was guilty of a fairly common prejudice: that mono is stereo’s unsophisticated cousin, and that stereo is a “true” reproduction of music where mono is not. But we think that’s true only because stereo is what we know best. In the early days of recording, there was a debate between people who thought the goal of recording should be exact reproduction of what a listener would hear sitting in the concert hall and those who believed recording could and should enhance the listening experience. The debate was going on long before stereo came on the scene in the late 1950s. Our modern-day preference for stereo basically means that the enhancers won the debate.

A few years ago, I wrote this:

As we were reminded when the Beatles’ catalog was re-released in mono, it was the mono mixes that were slaved over in the studio. The stereo mixes were secondary. (Listen to early Beatles music in stereo—how often do you hear vocals on one side and instruments on the other? That’s the quick and easy way to create a stereo effect.) And if George Martin and the boys had considered mono inferior to stereo, it’s doubtful that the Beatles would have continued to release albums in mono right up until the end of their time together. Sgt. Pepper was intended to show what could be accomplished in the studio. Why would it have been released in mono if mono was merely an inferior copy of a better stereo original?

Mono mixing is an art, and mono mixes can be works of art, as we have chronicled here again and again over the years. And when you go to a live concert, the sound you get isn’t widely separated stereo sound—it’s something much closer to mono.

Mono isn’t inferior, it’s just different.

Stereo recording has been a thing for 60 years now, and I get the sense that it’s become so “normal” today that a lot of producers don’t think about it, the way fish don’t know they’re wet. A lot of today’s mainstream country is mastered to be intensely loud with practically no dynamics. Separation doesn’t matter much in that firehouse of sound. (Connoisseurs understand that mono doesn’t have to be loud; neither does it need to destroy dynamics.) In pop music, the loudness wars seem to have eased in recent years, which leaves more room for stereo to expand the soundscape, but there’s not much creative use of left and right. Maybe stuff flying around the soundscape is disorienting for earbud listeners, I don’t know. One thing I do know: stereo can certainly increase the effect of echo. Every other young pop singer is emoting from inside an empty water tank now, which is sometimes a hard listen for a geezer such as I, weaned on the dry, flat style of production and recording that dominated the 1970s.

The way we listen has always affected the way we make musical art, going back to the early 20th century debates about what recording should do. Think of how the development of the 45RPM record and the portable radio made kids into tastemakers; how the console stereo of the 1950s opened up a market for lush instrumental music; about the symbiotic relationship between sophisticated stereo gear and certain popular styles in the 70s; how the Walkman contributed to the DIY musical culture of the 80s; and how the modern marketplace has been affected by earbuds and streaming. There’s never been a time when we could cleanly separate what we were listening to from the things we were using to listen to it. But just as stereo wasn’t intrinsically better than mono, each succeeding innovation isn’t necessarily an improvement on what came before.

So yeah, some bands (and many of their songs) just f-ing sound best in Old School Mono.

14 thoughts on “Old School Mono

  1. Back in the early days of “file sharing”, I happened across (for research purposes only) two versions of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man”. Each sounded just a bit different, and at the time I couldn’t figure out what the difference was. It wasn’t until many, many years later that I discovered one was mono and one was stereo. The mono recording was just a bit better, so yeah, I get it.

  2. Yah Shure

    “And when you go to a live concert, the sound you get isn’t widely separated stereo sound—it’s something much closer to mono.”

    It wouldn’t surprise me if live concerts that were not being commercially recorded, were mixed to mono as a means of making sure someone sitting on the far left of the stage wasn’t missing out on the drums being directed primarily to those seated far right. As a wedding DJ, frequent commenter John Gallagher would tell you that hearing the music properly balanced from any spot within the reception venue is of far more importance than playing “Satisfaction” in stereo (in which case half of the audience would think the piano is the song’s primary driving force, instead of Keith’s patented riff.)

    “Solitary Man” is a case study in itself, with at least three mixes in circulation. Neil re-recorded his vocals for the stereo, which also explains why it sounds different than the mono.

    IMO, the genre *made* for mono was ’60s garage rock. So many classics of the genre were cut in studios that didn’t even have stereo capabilities, so they made the most out of what jb rightfully called the art of mono mixing. As a result, the rock attitude came barreling through, leaving no doubt who was in charge. Imagine hearing the Litter’s “Action Woman” in stereo; that snarling put-down of Miss High And Mighty would be reduced to sounding comparatively polite. And like “Satisfaction”, that burn-the-house-down guitar intro would’ve been escorted to the far left or right of the primitive stereo sound stage. If that’s anyone’s idea of garage rock, they might as well park the GTO in their dining room.

  3. T.

    When I watch bands in a live setting, I hear them in Mono. I know the bass player is over on the left, and the piano is on the right, but I hear a block of sound. Stereo records sound weird to me. Mono is king because it presents the sound as a mountain. The old Big Band records of the 40’s far outclass the later re-recorded Stereo versions. A good Mono record is a testament to the skill of the sound engineers. Mono HITS. Stereo WANDERS IN.

  4. David

    David Byrne, in his great book “How Music Works,” makes a similar point about how the space in which musicians perform their music influences and affects the sound and composition of that music. If you are performing in a giant church, your music will end up sounding one way; in a punk rock club, another way; in a hockey rink, another way, etc…. As such, musicians react by modifying their writing and sound to conform to the venues in which they anticipate performing, which then leads to different musical styles, as certain types of venues predominate at certain times.

  5. Alvaro Leos

    Um, is it OK if I admit I like those 60’s wide stereo mixes? Yeah, I know they’re not what the artist intended and were done by bored engineers who probably didn’t even like the music. But that doesn’t mean they’re not enjoyable. For example, the stereo mixes of “Satisfaction” if you take out the left channel turn the old warhorse into a supercool. moody track. It’s fun to break out rhythm guitar from the lead, or acoustic from electric. And I love on jazz records (which typically were soloist on one channel and rhythm section on the other) being able to crank up the solo without blowing out my speakers.

  6. mikehagerty

    Like Yah Shure and T, I can’t honestly say I’m hearing stereo at most live concerts. Acoustic ones where I’m close to the stage, yes. A symphony with tympanis on the left and violins on the right, if I’m sixth row center, sure.

    I suspect Yah Shure may be right that a lot, if not all of them, are mixed for mono so that all parts of the hall/arena/whatever get the same sound.

    In the early days (damn, I’m old), they told us that to get the full effect, we needed to sit six feet from our speakers with our speakers six feet apart. But that’s unnatural behavior. If the audio system is in the family room, playing music while you’re going around the house doing your chores, could you really tell most of the time whether it’s stereo or not? With headphones or earbuds, sure. In cars, yeah.

  7. mackdaddyg

    I must admit I was a member of the “stereo is always better than mono” cult for a long time. I remember buying the Young Rascals double disc Rhino set back in the early 90s, only to return it when I found out that a lot of the tracks were in mono. Dumb ol’ me just didn’t get it back then.

    Nowadays I have a fondness for both. A great stereo mix is a wonder to behold, but a great mono mix will knock your socks off if you’re not careful. The first version of Love’s Da Capo that I ever owned was in mono. The stereo mix sounds great, but I still love the mono mix even more.

    I’ve been hoping for years that someone with more initiative and knowledge than me would create a website to discuss the differences in mono and stereo mixes. A lot of mono mixes are fold downs, but there are quite a few that have some bells and whistles that you don’t hear in the stereo mix, and I’d love to know more about that in general.

    1. Yah Shure

      No whistles, but here are the bells you don’t hear in the stereo mix, between 2:29 and 2:41 on the mono single mix of Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show”:

      Some of the commenters point out other mono vs. stereo mix differences on this single: Neil double-tracks the second verse with an added harmony vocal that isn’t on the stereo, and the horns during the mono’s final chorus are pretty much AWOL elsewhere in stereo.

      It isn’t as evident on the video clip, since YT’s proprietary audio compresses the sound somewhat, but the “Brother Love’s” mono single has a surprising amount of dynamic range. When the choruses kick in, so does the volume, as though the revival audience has leapt to its feet and is singing their souls – and soles – off.

      The other surprise arrives at 3:09, where the track just begins to fade. On the stereo mix, it continues to do so, but on the mono 45, the action snaps right back to attention with the background singers’ “ALL-LAY, ALL-LAYs” and continues full blast for another 10+ seconds before fading out for good.

      The overall impact is that the mono mix puts you right in the middle of the tent. That might explain why Brother Love’s caravan never preached on Billboard’s stodgier MOR chart at the time.

      And speaking of Love’s Da Capo: once you’ve spun the original mono “7 & 7 Is” Elektra 45, you might as well declare “game over” and turn off the lights. That’s one of the greatest mono vs. stereo demos there is.

      If you want to investigate the under-the-hood differences between mono and stereo and single and album versions, you can’t go wrong with the Pat Downey’s Top 40 Music On CD sites’ forum. While the primary focus is on top 40 hits, the bottom 60 and beyond are equally ripe for discussion:

      http://www.top40musiconcd.com/forum

      Or if that looks too disturbing (and it is, really), just stay tuned to thjkoc.

      1. mackdaddyg

        Yah shure, it’s always a pleasure to read your posts. I found a 45 of Brother Love a few years ago, and it was SUCH a pleasant surprise to hear the difference! And yes, you’re right. Nothing can touch the mono version of 7 and 7 is….especially that explosion!

    2. JP

      As a Rascals fan, I must say that their early records had some SLOPPY stereo mixes. “Good Lovin'” must have fooled a lot of people into thinking either a speaker was busted, or they needed a new needle.

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