I sit at my desk, listening to Miles Davis playing ’Round Midnight, from his 1957 album ’Round About Midnight. The sound is crystal clear, with each instrument balanced against the rhythm section, as Miles shares the lead with John Coltrane on tenor sax. I’m listening to the original mono mix of this album, and it sounds like the musicians are in my room.
Around 3 minutes into the song, when Coltrane’s sax takes a solo, the mono mix has a cool, smooth sound; the stereo mix feels harsher, with reverb and artificial space trying to fill the stereo soundscape. The mono sounds real; the stereo sounds contrived.
This is the case for many albums from the 1950s and 1960s, produced before stereo became the norm. When I want to listen to Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, I’m more likely to queue up the mono mix of the album; the way most people heard it when it was released. And if I listen to The Beatles’ Revolver, it’s the one-channel version that grabs me more than the stereo mix. And have you ever listened to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in the original mono? It’s a different experience from the two-channel version.
In a time of surround sound, why would anyone want to go back to one channel? Home theater systems offer 5.1, 7.1 and even 9.1 systems, with the plethora of speakers and wires needed to reproduce this sound. Since most recordings today are recorded on at least 32 tracks, it’s easy to manipulate this music and spread it across the soundscape. But does it sound real? Or is it a creation of an audio engineer?
Back to Basics
For the Miles Davis album I mentioned at the beginning of this article – as for many jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s – mono was the finished product. The mono mix had to allow each instrument in his quintet to come through in a single channel; listening to it today, you can hear how successful it was. This is one of nine Miles Davis albums on Columbia Records recently re-released in their original mono versions. On each of these – including the iconic Kind of Blue – you hear a relaxed sound that doesn’t try to manipulate the music. There’s no attempt to create an illusion of instrument placement; just the music in one plane. And it sounds great.
Several high-profile mono box sets have been released in recent years. The Miles Davis is the most recent, but two other important sets are Bob Dylan’s Original Mono Recordings and The Beatles in Mono. The Dylan set includes his first eight albums, “as most people heard them, as they were expected to be heard, and as most often they were meant to be heard: in mono.” As mono recordings represented the majority of sales, the stereo mixes were often rushed out as an afterthought. As engineer Guy Massey says about The Beatles’ early stereo mixes, “The mono was always The Mix. On Pepper they spent three weeks mixing that, and the stereo was done in three days.”
You can hear the differences clearly in certain songs on Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. For example, in Desolation Row, the mono mix has Dylan’s voice front and center, with the acoustic guitar behind him. But in stereo, that guitar is set mostly on the right channel, and stands out both in volume and in position, distracting a bit from Dylan’s poetry, especially when heard on headphones.
Like A Rolling Stone, the first track on Highway 61 Revisited does benefit from stereo, though. Al Kooper’s signature organ riffs come through more clearly, and the electric band, at a higher volume on the stereo mix, has more punch. But go back to the early albums, such as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, or the 1967 John Wesley Harding, and there’s no real benefit in listening to Dylan singing with an acoustic guitar in stereo. The mono mixes sound more honest.
It’s a bit different with The Beatles. The stereo versions of their albums – all but three of which, Abbey Road, Let it Be and Yellow Submarine, were originally released in mono – can be jarring, because George Martin used panning effects on Them. This is where the vocals are on one track and instruments on another.
Listen to I Saw Her Standing There, the first song of Please Please Me. The vocals are on the right channel, and some of the drums and other instruments on the left. Hold Me Tight on With the Beatles has all the vocals on the right and a vague rhythm track mixed on the left and center. Not all of the early songs used this effect, but even as late as Strawberry Fields Forever (from the 1967 Magical Mystery Tour) the drums are on the left channel, with the vocals in the center. A Day in the Life (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) also has vocals mostly on the right channel.
Listening to The Beatles’ early albums, it’s hard to deny that the mono mixes have more character. The stereo mixes have gimmicks; they seem to be designed to show off stereo effects rather than to make the music sound good.
Listening in Mono
If you’re like me, you may have spent a fair amount of time setting up your speakers to get the best sound and separation. My living room speakers are on stands, slightly angled, and set up so the sweet spot – the point where the stereo image converges – is in the center of the room. Of course, this only works ideally when I’m the only person listening to music; otherwise, with two people, that sweet spot is between them.
You can listen to mono music on a stereo – with two speakers – but you’ll have the same problem with that sweet spot. In fact, it may be more pronounced with mono recordings; there’s no music on the different channels to give space to the soundscape. And listening to mono recordings on headphones can be tiring. The sweet spot is there, right in the middle of your head, but you have no space at all.
The best way to listen to mono recordings is to use just one speaker. The sound will flow around you, reflect off the walls, floor and ceiling, and will develop its own space. Try it. Find a mono album – you probably have at least one – and put it on your stereo. Unplug one of the speakers, and move the other in front of you. Close your eyes and listen to the glorious one-channel sound wafting over your body.
Is One Channel Enough?
I’m not some sort of luddite suggesting a return to one-channel recording. While some recordings can be made in mono using today’s technology and sound great, I’m not suggesting that artists go that route. I merely want to look back to a time when the mono mix was carefully crafted to provide a rich, full sound with no trickery, and the stereo mixes were afterthoughts. There’s a certain “yum” factor when you listen to the music the way the artists and producers intended it to sound, and it’s a shame to miss out on it.
It’s especially interesting if you’re a fan of, say, Bob Dylan or The Beatles. Or to listen to any of the hundreds of great jazz albums from the 1950s and early 1960s, in the early days of stereo. You may hear familiar music in a way you hadn’t expected.
This article was originally published in issue 19 of The Loop Magazine.
- The original mono mix of Kind of Blue has been lost, and the version in this set is a mixdown from the original three-track tape. See http://www.analogplanet.com/content/miles-davis-kind-blue-monophonic-reissue-sonylegacy-analog-planet-exclusive. ↩
- See http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct09/articles/beatlesremasters.htm. ↩
- If you have a Sonos system, I’d recommend using a PLAY:5. This speaker contains five drivers – a woofer, two mid-range and two tweeters. It provides excellent sound for mono recordings, and has a solid low end. ↩
- Several artists have done just that. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication is mostly in mono; there are some stereo effects added to it. The same is the case with Portishead’s Dummy. And Bruce Springsteen recorded two tracks on Born to Run in mono: Backstreets and She’s the One. And occasional artists record something in mono to try and achieve a vintage sound: John Mellencamp did this with No Better than This, and Charlie Hunter recorded Pucker in mono. ↩