Thursday, 29 November 2012

Stereo vs mono

With the recent reissue of the Beatles stereo catalog on vinyl and the mono versions being prepared as we speak, i thought it'd an ideal time to discuss the difference between stereo and mono vinyl.

It is still quite common for vinyl collectors to see both mono and stereo copies of the same albums among the racks as they shop. In a lot of cases, the mono versions of some albums sell for a substantial amount more than the stereo versions of the same LP. The question many modern listeners ask is what's the difference and which is better?

As far as what's better, well that's a matter of opinion.

The fact that two different recordings exist of certain vintage albums is more of an indication of the state of technology at the time. For a while the only tape available to record on was one track tape. By the time the Beatles recorded Revolver the recording was done on 4 track tape. Different sounds could be added to different tracks; and each track could be sent to either the left or right speaker depending on what the engineer wanted. By the time tape was discontinued in recording studios in the early parts of the 21st century, you could get up to 128-track tapes. These days, with computers and digital audio workstations, you get an unlimited amount of tracks. The only limit is in what the computer and its processor can handle.

The one track tape provided one sound source. On a two speaker sound system the same sound is output by both speakers equally. Multi-track tape could create stereo, which allows different sounds to be spread across both speakers. However, it required studio engineers to make two masters of every album - one mono and one stereo, and thus twice the work. This is one of the reasons that stereo records were more expensive than their mono counterparts.

From the advent of the LP in 1948, mono was the standard as that was all that was available. Stereo was available in the late 1950's but it caused massive confusion among music fans. Stereo records could not be played on mono players as half the sound in the record grooves wasn't picked up. You had to have a stereo technician rewire your tonearm in order to play the stereo record properly on a mono system. So it was during this time that records were issued in two versions - one stereo and one mono.

Plus, some early stereo mixes sound ridiculous. Some stereo mixes (such as on Cat's Squirrel" from the first Cream LP in 1966) had long passages where all the sound is playing in the right channel for over 30 seconds before any sound comes out of the left speaker! Granted, these were the days before headphones, so you'll often find instruments in one channel, voices in the other in stereo records of this vintage. This makes for interesting listening, but it can be frustrating. Other times it's drums to the left, bass to the right, which also makes for a disparate listen.

At the same time, the vinyl 7-inch single and 7-inch 45RPM EP were kept in mono all the time. Singles were regarded as cheap and disposable, and as such there was no need to release two different versions. Of course, stereo mixes of singles were made, but were not released unless on a stereo LP.

In 1969, stereo LPs were regarded as the standard, and the mono LP was done away with altogether. The last version of a Beatles album to be issued in Mono was the "Yellow Submarine" Original Soundtrack LP. Singles were still released in mono until the mid-1970s, largely because Radio was still broadcasting in mono on both the AM and FM bands.

When stereo became the norm, it also became commonplace for record labels to re-issue their old mono tracks on records adjusted with a "fake" stereo, which involved either adding stereo reverb or splitting up the frequency ranges in each channel: pumping up the bass in the left channel while cutting the bass and boosting the treble in the right. It sounds positively awful and you'd be advised to steer clear of anything that says "Electronically enhanced to simulate stereo"

A lot of purists claim that the mono mixes often sound fatter and meatier than their stereo counterparts. I tend to agree, however I find that some mono recordings are recorded very "hot", to the point of tape saturation. They're mixed in such a way to cram in as much sound as possible into a narrow bandwidth and as such can sound as they they have less clarity in the mix. Instruments can get lost in a mix in this environment. For this reason I can't stand the 1960s era works of Phil Spector.

At least with stereo, the music has room to breathe across a broad sound spectrum. After all, I have two ears, I like to use them both at once. Even if some of the early stereo mixes are ridiculous, I find good stereo mixes a lot of fun. I like being able to isolate certain instruments in each channel, and in some cases, the stereo mixes will show up mixing and mastering errors.

(Homework: manipulate the balance knob of your Hi-Fi system to find the mastering error in the stereo mix of "Eleanor Rigby" on the Beatles "Revolver" LP).


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