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)?”
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.