The Satisfactions of Mono

Five years ago this spring, I started writing for WNEW.com, an online and HD relaunch of New York’s legendary album-rock radio station. It was a great gig—until it ended last spring, when I got an e-mail from a guy I’d never heard of telling me we were done effective the next day, without a word of thanks. (At least I got paid what they owed me, which isn’t always a sure thing when a client shuts down a project so abruptly.) The site stayed up until recently, but it’s gone now. I don’t have copies of everything I wrote for WNEW, but since I’ve got a lot of it, I’m going to start repeating the best of it at this blog every now and then, maybe expanded, maybe updated, and sometimes just as it ran.

Even now, when you hear the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” on the radio, you’re probably hearing it in mono. It was released that way originally in 1965—in fact, everything the Stones did prior to the Aftermath album in 1966 came out in mono first and electronically rechanneled stereo later. It was well into the 1970s before true stereo versions of the Stones’ early work was available. Not until the Stones’ catalog was re-released in 2002 did all of their early work finally appear in true stereo.

So anyway: I was researching the Stones’ mono and stereo history when I came across a posting at YouTube that appears to be a homemade stereo mix of Satisfaction. The user includes the following note: “Demand that Music Companies issue British Invasion, etc in Full STEREO & NOT in monaural . . . Don’t buy mono versions, etc !!!”

The YouTube guy, along with nearly everybody else, thinks of stereo as what music is “supposed” to sound like. Two discrete channels of audio piped through two speakers must be better than one. We get space and separation and depth and frequently an aesthetic experience that makes us go “wow.” But is it natural? Think about it. When we go to a concert, we don’t generally marvel at the separation. We don’t expect to hear one guitarist coming mainly out of the speakers on the left-hand side of the stage and the other on the right (although it would be possible to mix it that way). In fact, what we frequently get when we go to a concert is the same straight-up, sledgehammer wave of audio that came out of a transistor radio back in the day—louder yes, better fidelity too, but not much like the stereo sound we experience at home, in the car, or with our earbuds.

So the YouTube guy’s position is understandable, but it’s also wrong. 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?

So embrace mono already. It’s not a lesser format,  just a different one.

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6 responses

  1. Funny… I just downloaded a UK mono vinyl rip of the Stones’ ‘Between The Buttons’ LP not two hours ago. My sister had bought the US London mono edition back in ’67; I’d picked up the stereo LP in the cutouts back in the ’70s, but that copy turned out to be a re-wrapped defective record. I attempted to rip my sister’s original copy a year or two ago and immediately realized it was too worn. It’s great to hear “Connection” again the way it’s always sounded in my head.

    I was buying stereo LPs by 1966 unless my local store only had the mono in stock. That was the case with the first Buffalo Springfield album, as well as ‘Sgt. Peppers,’ which turned out to be godsends. It wasn’t until I began replacing my original Beatles LPs with new copies in 1970 that I heard ‘Peppers’ for the first time in stereo and found it… lacking. The mono mix had long been forgotten until I dusted it off around 2000, and that was when it really hit me how different the two mixes were. Haven’t listened to the stereo since then.

    Then there’s the matter of earworms: whenever songs pop into your head, do you ever consciously hear them in stereo? You can already guess my answer.

  2. I agree to a point. The great part about stereo is that when the music is split into 2 channels the instruments are clearer, more pronounced. You can hear things that you can’t in a mono mix because ther is less information per channel. This is more important and I believe is the goal of stereo.

    1. “You can hear things that you can’t in a mono mix because there is less information per channel.”

      There is no reason a dedicated mono mix can’t have every bit of information present in a stereo mix, and this is precisely why so much effort was put into making those mono mixes “pop” back in the day. Take the example of “Satisfaction” (ironically, that monophobic YouTuber had unwittingly posted a doctored *mono* take of the track, rather than the true stereo mix.) I found the West German ‘Hot Rocks I’ CD back in the late ’80s and was startled to hear the Stones’ signature hit in true stereo for the first time. I say “startled” for a several reasons: 1) The track was specifically designated “mono” on both the credits and the disc label; 2) I could clearly hear a piano that I’d never noticed before in the mono mix, and 3) the song sounded nothing like the familiar mono mix. That piano was not only audible, it had become one of the lead instruments, almost overpowering Keith’s guitar riff. Yes, the stereo mix revealed more instruments than the mono had, but that very same diffuse combination ultimately robbed the performance of its power, completely eviscerating the defiant anthem of a generation.

      As if that weren’t bad enough, the stereo mix didn’t fold down well at all to mono. I played it on the air a couple of times, and on a mono radio, it sounded like absolute mush. That piano was front row, center, where it clearly didn’t belong.

      Mono vs. stereo doesn’t really matter; what does is whether or not it’s a great-*sounding* mix. When heard in mono, instruments or voices panned hard to the left or right in a wide stereo soundstage end up at a lower volume than the information in the middle of both channels. In time, engineers and producers learned how to balance these elements within the stereo soundstage in a more natural way that wasn’t lost on AM or FM listeners with mono radios.

      One last thing to keep in mind: modern car radios gradually blend FM stereo to mono as the signal weakens, so even today, a tossed-off stereo mix shouldn’t always trump a great mono mix. The Motown ’60s catalog comes to mind.

      1. Nobody knows this stuff like our friend Yah Shure. Thank you sir.

  3. I don’t entirely share his opinion but here’s Pete Townshend interviewed in The Kids are Alright movie:

    Q: But wouldn’t you say a group like The Beatles have a certain musical quality?

    Pete Townshend: Oooh, that’s a tough question. Alright, actually, this afternoon, John (Entwistle) and I were listening to a stereo LP of The Beatles, in which the voices come out of the one side and the backing track came out of the other. And when you actually hear the backing tracks of The Beatles without their voices, they’re flippin’ lousy.

  4. I love stereo and usually prefer to hear songs that way with the caveat that it does sound like the mono mix. I recognize that in many cases, the mono single versions of many 1960s hits have more punch than their stereo counterparts, and I certainly enjoy those, too. We also know that several hit songs (such as “Creeque Alley”) had extra elements added to the mono mixes that are missing from the stereo mixes. It’s always popular to cite the early Beatles songs as examples of poor stereo mixes, but that vocals/instruments split happened only on the first two albums. Once you get to “A Hard Day’s Night,” the stereo mixes sound just dandy. But again, I’ll never put down mono. It all has its place as we enjoy all of that great music.

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