The Beauty of Mono: Part One

For years I’ve wondered who still buys Mono recordings. I could only imagine that it was a group, a very, very…very small group of music geeks that just felt proud to have their obscure, little, secret versions of classic songs. It was proof that you were a serious uber-fanatic and knew more about music than your average slob. It was like getting a PHD in music geekdom.

But now I have seen the light…

Let me step back a second before I get all into this. There are many people out there that don’t even know what a Mono recording is. Why would they? Stereo has been around for over fifty years. It’s the only way most of us have listened to music our entire lives.

To most of us, not knowing about Mono is like not knowing about Cuneiform and parchment. Cunei what now? (Old ways of writing). Trivia not directly relevant to everyday life.

So, let’s start with a brief explanation of Cuneiform, I mean Mono. Simply put, it’s music mixed for ONE speaker (hence the name). Stereo is mixed for TWO speakers and in a very special way.

In a Stereo mix, each speaker will have separate information going to each one. Stereo, provides a “bigger,” more three-dimensional, sound. For instance, it can recreate the sound of the bass to the left, the vocalist in the center and the lead guitar to the right.

Mono, on the other hand, sends both speakers identical information. The result is a much smaller “sound stage” located right between the two speakers. Instead of the instruments being split and sent to different, audibly identifiable, locations like the above example, they are one big chunk of sound located in the same place.

Still with me? Feel insulted that I just explained something so basic? Well, screw you, it had to be done. Without understanding those fundamentals this post would make no sense. Besides, now you know what Cuneiform is and can impress all those people you’re trying to date.

I’ll get into the hows and whys of it in a second. But this is what happens when you listen to a good mono recording versus the stereo mix you grew up with.The first is a sense of something being very wrong.

Listening to a Mono mix of a song you already know is kind of a “what the fuck?” moment. Everything feels so tiny and flat. Kind of like the difference between watching a movie at an IMAX theater versus watching it on your phone. It’s that jarring. It sounds like one of the speakers shorted out. It’s small, flat. Just “old” sounding, and not in a good way.

Which is why when I accidentally bought a Mono version of an Otis Redding LP off of Amazon once, I got really pissed off. In fact, that mistake, and a Mono version of a Kinks album I already had, were the only two Mono recordings in my collection. And I rarely listened to either.

Which is why you should never listen to a Mono recording ever.

Kidding. Just kidding. No, I’m just trying to be clear here. I completely understand why most people don’t embrace Mono. But, that’s exactly why I’m hoping you’ll believe me when I tell you that there are some Mono mixes of things you should really seek out if you’re a music fan. Really. Early Stones, for instance.

This is what happens, or at least what happens to me, when I put on the Mono version of an old Stones song. I sit. I listen. I then try to adjust to the fact that the music feels “wrong.” It’s just not the same song I grew up with. And it’s so damn “small” sounding, no matter how loud I turn it up.

But I keep listening. Slowly I start to notice that the sound is far more balanced. When I listen to “Let’s Spend the Night Together” I don’t hear Mick and his back up band. He is one element of many.

I sense the power of the guitars propelling the song forward. The funky, catchy bass. And that piano. That beautiful, beautiful piano. It’s all there. But one solid thing. One solid, catchy as shit rock song.

There’s also an immediacy and naturalism that’s just not there usually. I can picture these guys in a studio doing this. Joking around. Playing as I watch.

And, blessed be the audio Gods, the painful, almost comical part of the song I am used to, the multipart vocal “Dee” “Dee” “Deeeeeeeeeee” which never sounded right to me in the version of the song I grew up with suddenly, almost magically, feels to be an integral part of the song instead of the sound of the Stones drunk and goofing off.

“Ruby Tuesday,” “Paint It Black,” “Play with Fire,” “19th Nervous Breakdown…” They all sound so balanced, cohesive…whole. It is a revelation. THIS is the way these songs were always supposed to sound!

Like I keep saying, there are some very good reasons for that. This music was originally recorded in Mono. Which means two things. The first is that you are hearing the music as the artist originally intended and how their fans back in 1965, or whenever, first heard it. The second is the stereo mixes of them were done after the fact. And it shows.

Early Stereo mixes involved going back to the Mono master and trying to separate the tracks. In a modern recording, the tracks are recorded one by one in most cases. The drums separate. The vocals separate. The guitars separate. This gives the producer and engineer the freedom to manipulate them individually.

Not so in a Mono mix. There are huge chunks of many musical things going on all at once. Drums, vocals, guitars are sometimes all on one track. Separating them out to create Stereo is just not going to work well. (Watch the video of the Stones’ Producer explain it at the end of this piece).

As importantly, even if the instrument tracks were easy to separate, the question is “should they be?” Sure, it’s cool to have the vocals center and the guitar to the right, whatever. But it’s the musical equivalent of deconstructing food.

Instead of your cake being served as cake you will instead get little ramekins of its components: plain cake in one, frosting in one, filling in one, etc. That is what a Stereo mix really is. A live song deconstructed and served to you in a bunch of little pieces for your brain to reassemble.

Early Stereo mixes, in particular, tend to be rubbish. They are done after the fact, with elements not designed for the process and treated as an afterthought of gimmick. Of course, there are exceptions but the sad fact is when it come to many early classic rock recordings, we have all been duped.

Which is why it’s so painful to admit this. In spite of knowing this. Experiencing this first hand. It’s going to be hard not to continue to listen to those very same, ridiculous, stereo mixes, regardless. At least most of the time. They are what I grew up with. Rightly or wrongly, they are what I know to be the songs.

More importantly, the way Stereo provides such an improved musical sound stage is exceptional. That three-dimensional sound. Yes, it was a gimmick. But it’s one that works in spades.

But at least I feel like I get it. I finally get the geeks now. Those that pay hundreds of dollars for vinyl sets of Mono recordings of LPs they already own. Those that find it almost impossible to listen to the more familiar, popular stereo mixes of songs because they know they are the shoddy bastard children of the originals.

I get it. And I will try. I will try to put all those previous experiences and expectations out of my head and listen to more songs in Mono, they way they were intended to be. And I will appreciate how much better and different they are. How much more cohesive, natural and balanced….

But why do they sound so “tiny?”

A lifetime’s worth of habits are hard to overcome.