Stereo is over (if you want it)

I recently gave in and bought a boxed set of albums by The Beatles. After much thought, I bought the mono boxed set.

Although modern stereo had been invented by Alan Blumlein in 1931 — including stereo microphones and stereo microgroove vinyl records — in the 1960s it was still a novelty, particularly for pop music which was generally heard via mono AM radio. Until Abbey Road in 1969, all of The Beatles’ albums were recorded and mixed in mono. The band would then leave the studio, and it would generally be up to George Martin and EMI’s engineers to come up with workable stereo versions without the band’s creative input. Generally this was done in a rush, too — for example, Sergeant Pepper took three weeks to mix in mono, but the stereo version was assembled in three days.

As The Beatles became more experimental in their approach and started using the studio as an instrument, the mono and stereo mixes began to diverge. Often the mono versions of a song have effects which are missing or different in the stereo — sometimes because an effect couldn’t be replicated in stereo, sometimes because the engineers didn’t know exactly what the intention was, and sometimes because something was simply overlooked in the hurry to assemble the stereo mix.

Another issue is that the “stereo” 60s mixes are often really individual mono parts panned to different parts of the stereo image — drums on the left channel (say), vocals in the middle, guitars on the right. This separation of elements can make a song sound very different. For example, a backing vocal chorus which is subtle and understated in a mono mix can suddenly become far too noticeable when it’s isolated to its own part of a stereo sound stage.

Even knowing all this, listening to the mono versions of the albums I knew was often a surprise. Recently I got together with a friend who is also a Beatles geek, and we spent an afternoon comparing mono and stereo versions of songs — at the end of which she was convinced that she needed to get the mono set.

There are lots of places where you can read about the painstaking remastering process of the boxed sets, including the use of authentic 1972 EQ units, so I won’t go into that. Similarly, there are sites with very detailed descriptions of the mechanical differences between mixes, so I’m not going to attempt that either. Instead, I want to give a few examples of songs which are compellingly better to listen to in mono, and explain why.

You’ll notice I start with “Rubber Soul”. Earlier than that, the differences were mainly down to the different feel of mono vs isolated stereo elements. In addition, I’m not a big fan of The Beatles’ early pop phase; in fact I might not have bought the first four albums at all if the mono albums were available individually. To me, the band got interesting around the time of “Rubber Soul”, when they started to become a studio band — and that’s also when the differences between mono and stereo versions of their songs started to become noticeable.

Exposição: The Beatles Exhibition
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“The Word”, from “Rubber Soul”

The stereo version has extreme stereo separation between the two parts of the vocal harmony, which makes for a horrible gimmicky sound that detracts from the actual lyrics, as well as making them sound disconnected from the non-harmonized parts. While it’s still not one of my favorite tracks, it’s a hell of a lot better in mono.

“I’m Only Sleeping”, from “Revolver”

John Lennon hated the sound of his own voice, and anything that could be done to disguise it would generally make him happier with the end result. Typically this meant dubbing two copies of his vocals to thicken up the sound. Being lazy, Lennon hated having to record two good takes of everything. So starting with “Revolver”, The Beatles used a technique called Automatic (or Artificial) Double Tracking, or ADT. George Martin would run off a copy of a single vocal take. The two copies would then be played simultaneously on two tape machines. Since there was no way to perfectly synchronize two analog tape decks, and since the tape speed tended to fluctuate slightly anyway, this would produce a thickened vocal with interesting phasing effects.

On “I’m Only Sleeping”, the ADT on the vocals gives them a dreamlike quality. The guitars are also given the same treatment, making the whole song sound like the thoughts of a half-awake Lennon. On the stereo version, however, the two mono vocal copies are panned to slightly different parts of the stereo image. This successfully makes the stereo sound fuller and wider, but it makes most of the dreamlike phasing disappear.

George Harrison spent 5 hours learning to play several of the song’s guitar parts backwards. In the mono mix, these were carefully mixed in, in time and on the beat — just backwards. On the stereo mix, it’s pretty obvious that a lot less care was taken, and the transitions to reverse are often quite jarring.

“I Want To Tell You”, from “Revolver”

One of the best parts of the song is the impatient and obsessive piano lead. On the stereo mix, this is off on the left side and fairly quiet. On the mono mix, it’s louder and insistent and seems to be dragging the vocals into continuing.

“Got To Get You Into My Life”, from “Revolver”

In stereo, the brass sounds quite thin and (dare I say it) cheesy off to the right. In mono, an extra overdub was used to thicken it up so it can stand up to McCartney’s raw vocals. Meanwhile, the anemic drums that lurk on the left of the stereo are pounding and heavy on the mono version. Once the guitar comes in on the stereo mix, McCartney’s vocals suddenly drop in volume and the guitar is overly loud. The volume is more consistent in mono.

Overall, the mono version of the song is much more raw and energetic than the stereo. Or as I put it when I listened to the first chorus in mono for the first time, “Wow!”.

“Tomorrow Never Knows”, from “Revolver”

Again, the ADT works better for the mood of the song in mono. The sound effects are different in mono and stereo; the same noises repeat noticeably (one might even say “annoyingly”) in the stereo version. In mono there’s more variation in playback speed, and no single noise outstays its welcome to quite the same extent, and the effects actually sound like they have some relation to the vocals.

Also, the fadeout is smoother, something which is often the case with the mono mixes.

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“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, from “Sgt. Pepper’s”

In stereo, the vocals from “cellophane flowers” onwards sound thinner, and the second verse sounds downright raw. In mono, there’s audible ADT phasing right from the start, before Lennon’s voice splits in two (one tape deck’s speed being slightly changed), and then from the first chorus onwards there’s extensive ADT throughout to give everything the dreamlike sound it was supposed to have.

“She’s Leaving Home”, from “Sgt. Pepper’s”

If you’ve ever thought this song sounded a little ponderous, there’s a good reason: the stereo version is the wrong speed. There are also some sloppy edits in the stereo version, and the reverb on the vocals is missing.

“Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite”, from “Sgt. Pepper’s”

While there’s nothing particularly wrong with the stereo mix of this song, the mono version goes completely nuts during the instrumental breaks, with speed variations and intentional tape noises that are missing from the stereo. It’s supposed to be a mad hallucinatory circus act, and the mono does a much better job of expressing that, even if the stereo version does end with more reverb.

“Sgt. Pepper’s… reprise”, from “Sgt. Pepper’s”

The stereo version sounds like an anemic echo of the first track, rather than a crescendo — whereas the mono is louder and more insistent than the first track, and actually builds up into the final track of the album. It’s also crossmixed more in mono, whereas in stereo the two tracks are pretty clearly separated.

“Strawberry Fields” from “Magical Mystery Tour”

Magical Mystery Tour was the first Beatles album to have a genuine stereo mix (as opposed to mono elements panned across a stereo image), so with it and The White Album the differences tend to be more of a toss-up and not such a clear win for mono.

That said, I prefer my Mellotron central to the track and not relegated to a corner, and the mono version of this track sounds smoother and warmer, with more audibility given to the reversed elements.

“All You Need Is Love” from “Magical Mystery Tour”

Again, a smoother and warmer mix in mono, with more ADT on the vocals and guitar solo. Also, the mono is 8 seconds longer with a better fadeout.

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“Across The Universe”

John’s favorite of his own songs, with backing vocals from two female vocalists adding a very subtle shimmer, rather than the rather cheesy choir added by Phil Spector.

“Back in the USSR” from “The Beatles”

I always thought the plane noises on the stereo version were grating and didn’t sound quite right. When I finally heard the mono, well, end of problem. The music also continues under the final plane noise in mono, rather than the track ending in a roar and a squeal.

“Don’t Pass Me By” from “The Beatles”

Again, the stereo version is slower than the mono. Good news if you’re not a fan of Ringo’s singing.

“Helter Skelter” from “The Beatles”

The stereo version is almost a minute longer, but the separated instrumental elements mean it’s just not as claustrophobic and powerful. In stereo the guitar is off to the left during the chorus and sounds thin, whereas in mono it takes over the track.

I must admit, though, I miss not hearing Ringo shout “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”

“Happiness is a Warm Gun” from “The Beatles”

In mono, there’s laughter at the end of the track, as if to say “Well, that got a bit heavy didn’t it? Let’s lighten it up with a song Paul sang to his dog…”

In conclusion, I agree with George Martin, who said “You’ve never really heard Sgt Pepper until you’ve heard it in mono.” The mono version of “Revolver” is also clearly superior. I think I have a slight preference for mono for “The Beatles” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, but I wouldn’t make a fuss about it.