Some Great Mono Recordings

I wrote an article for the latest issue of The Loop Magazine about the pleasures of listening to mono recordings. Not just records pressed in one track, but more specifically those made at the dawn of the stereo era, when mono mixes were still the first end products of sound engineers. In many cases, the stereo mixes of the same records sound contrived, full of effects; the mono mixes sound more honest, closer to what the artists wanted the music to sound like.

The following is a selection of some great mono recordings. Some are mono mixes of records you may know in stereo, others are just good quality mono recordings, so you can hear how real one track can sound. (You can listen to sound samples on Amazon or the iTunes Store, using the links below, to hear some of what I’m discussing.)

The best place to start is with three box sets released in recent years, focusing on three great artists and their original mono recordings in newly remastered versions.

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Bob Dylan – The Original Mono Recordings (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) includes the original mono mixes of Dylan’s first eight albums, including such essential discs as Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. There are many differences between the mono and stereo mixes, notably in panning effects (having instruments mostly or entirely on one channel). As the liner notes to this set point out, these are the albums “as most people heard them, as they were expected to be heard, as and most often they were meant to be heard: in mono.”

An I mention in my article, Desolation Row, from the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, is one of the most marked examples of a difference between the two mixes. 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.

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A recent box set of Miles Davis – The Original Mono Recordings (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) shows how Miles’ first nine Columbia albums sound in their original mixes. His first album for the label boasted “Guaranteed High Fidelity in ‘360’ Hemispheric Sound.” Several paragraphs in the liner notes discuss the recording and manufacturing process, including the mention of “strategically placed wide-range microphones.” Recording engineer George Avakian said, “Mono featured less audio trickery and fewer audio distractions so you can actually hear the musical conversation between Miles and the other musicians as it occurred in the studio.”

As I wrote in my article, “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.”

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Finally, a good example of the difference between mono and stereo mixes can be heard on The Beatles in Mono. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Because of the many panning effects – for example, the voice is on the right channel and the drums on the left channel – the early Beatles stereo mixes sound like gimmicks designed to highlight two-channel audio. Not all of their stereo mixes have these panning effects, but many of them do, and the punch of the early Beatles songs comes through much better in mono.

Some other albums worth hearing in mono.

If you like jazz, you are most likely familiar with The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out. Take Five, the third track on the album, is one of the best known jazz tracks of all time. With just two chords, in a 5/4 time signature, it’s an unexpected hit. The track starts with drums on the left, piano on the right, and the bass and solo instruments mostly in the center. But listen to the mono version: there’s none of that panning trickery to distract you from the music. The musicians are playing together, not on separate channels. The drums and piano are less prominent, but they should be. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, arguably the pop group’s best album, produced by Brian Wilson, but strongly influenced by Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” This isn’t my favorite music, but hearing the difference between the two mixes is eye- or ear-opening. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store)

Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in mono in 1967. While their early psychedelic music sounds like it was written for panning stereo effects, the mono mix actually sounds more psychedelic. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) Listen to Astronomy Domine or Interstellar Overdrive to hear how the lush sound of early Pink Floyd sounds in mono. You may not find this preferable, but it’s interesting.

The early Rolling Stones albums were released in mono, and there’s some confusion as to when they stopped mixing for mono and started producing “fold down” mono mixes; this is the process of simply taking the existing stereo mix and making a single track version of it by copying it to a mono tape. The consensus seems to be that all the albums up to the 1968 Aftermath were original mono mixes, but some think that Sympathy for the Devil, on the 1968 Beggars Banquet (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), was originally mixed in mono. It’s interesting to compare that song on the two versions; the hard-to-find mono mix has less stereo trickery with the drums and percussion centered and Jagger’s voice is more prominent. And No Expectations, in mono, has much more of the old blues sound they’re trying to emulate. I’d love to see a box set of early Stones albums in their original mono mixes.

And let me mention a few notable classical recordings in mono that sound great. There’s not the same issue of mono vs. stereo mixes, but with classical music it’s much more about microphone placement and mixing down from what was often three-track recordings.

Glenn Gould’s groundbreaking 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations features excellent piano sound. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) Wilhelm Kempff’s recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, made between 1951 and 1956 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), have wonderful sound as well. The Vegh Quartet recording of Beethoven’s string quartets in 1952, and the sound of this set is excellent. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) Nathan Milstein’s recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin is another fine recording with great presence and clear sound. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store)

There are hundreds of excellent mono recordings of jazz and classical music from the pre-stereo era, and it would be a shame to miss out on them just because they’re in mono. Have a listen to some one-track music, and you may find that two tracks isn’t always better.

Read this article to learn how to rip CDs in mono using iTunes.