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.