The Beauty of Mono: Part Two

Something strange happened to me the other day. I had been listening to recordings that were in Mono for a couple of hours. Then I listened to a “normal” Stereo track by the same artist.

It was horrible.

It was like the song I was listening to was this very nice little house. And then it exploded. There was a window flying around to my left side. A door to my right. For some reason the roof was now under my feet.

It was like I was having a god damn stroke or something. Nothing made sense anymore. My perceptions were all over the place. My little brain was just screaming “what’s going on? I don’t understand!”

I had to rip my headphones off. Seriously.

Stereo is f*cked.

Back at the end of September, I wrote a post about trying to figure out why people listen to Mono recordings. At the end of that article I confessed that although recordings made before 1970 were great in Mono, the trade-offs against Stereo might still not be worth it.

But, those early recordings. The ones from the early-Sixties, especially. The more I listen to Mono, the more I have become a convert. A true believer.

For those of you didn’t read that other post on Mono, you should. Basically, Mono was the predominant way of recording until the late-Sixties or early-Seventies when Stereo took over as the new norm.

The advantage of stereo is that it creates a (fake) three-dimensional sound stage. It’s also the way pretty much everybody grew up with. The way things just sounded.

Because of that, to the unfamiliar ear, Mono just sounds like one of your speakers shorted out. It’s simply not the way we expect recordings to sound.

To which I say, it’s time to get over it.

Most of those early and mid-Sixties recordings are far better in their original Mono form. They are more organic and natural sounding. They are more cohesive and sound more “solid.” All of which makes sense when you realize that this was the way they were originally intended to sound. The Mono mix was everything.

The Beatles, for instance, are said to have spent all their time on the MONO mixes of REVOLVER and SGT. PEPPER”S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. PINK FLOYD were also rumored to have been completely perplexed by the infamous, weird panning put into the Stereo mix of PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN after the Mono mix was done.

Early Stereo mixes were just a trashy gimmick to sell more records. They were an afterthought. Less about the music and more about what cool tricks Stereo provided.

Think of 3D movies. It’s fun for a while but it always seems forced. “Oh, look, the dragon is flying right at our heads.” And then you get a headache. Same deal.

Honestly, if I was rich, I would go out and buy vinyl copies of several thousand dollars worth of Mono LPs, right now. Sadly, I’m not rich which pains me in more ways than you know.

So, what’s a newly converted Mono lover supposed to do?

Stream.

No, it’s not the same. An Aretha Franklin recording from 1966 should be listened to in Mono and on vinyl. Preferably on a sound system worth more than my car. But alas, that is just not the reality in which most of us live.

Instead, I have been driven to streaming on TIDAL (the Hi-Fi plan), listening to headphones plugged directly into my Mac laptop. Not ideal. But still good enough to appreciate the beauty of a great Mono recording.

You should give it a try. Which is really why I wrote this post. See the Error of Your Ways! Convert Now to the Church of Mono!

Wait, that sounded really bad. But you get the idea. I think a lot more people would appreciate Mono if they understood what is was, why it was often better and where they could listen to it.

To get you started, here’s a few noteworthy Mono recordings I found on Tidal. I’m not sure what they have on Spotify, Amazon, Deezer or whatever. But they have to have something in Mono right?

ARETHA FRANKLIN: I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVED YOU (MONO)

You’ll never want to listen to “Never Loved A Man” any other way after hearing it like this. The Mono recording from 1967 lets you hear all the subtlety and nuance in her voice. Much of which got lost in the more bombastic stereo mixes. A slight intonation there. A slight inflection there.

The is just so much going on. So much emotion from that singular voice.

And the whole album is just so great. Aside from “Never Loved A Man…” you’ve got songs on it like “Respect,” “Do Right Woman…,” “Dr. Feelgood” and Aretha’s version of ” A Change is Gonna Come.”

If you listen to this in Mono and still don’t get it, I probably can’t help you.

OTIS REDDING: OTIS BLUE (MONO)

It’s hard to think of another vocalist, male or female, who can pack so much pain and yearning in his voice. This Mono recording brings all of that out in spades.

“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” might bring a damn tear to your eye.

Aside from that track you’ve got “Ole Man River” and “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” Not to mention Redding’s own versions of “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Respect” and even the Stones “Satisfaction.”

It’s a classic album that should be heard the way it was meant to be heard. In Mono.

THE ROLLING STONES: THE SINGLES COLLECTION

This was my gateway drug. As mentioned in that other post, it was this collection of classic Stone’s Singles released in Mono that made me want to figure out what the deal was.

I’ll try not to repeat myself too much but there is a very strong case to be made that those Stereo renditions you grew up with of songs like “Paint it Black,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown,” and “Play with Fire” were crap. Seriously.

Listen to the original Mono versions with an open mind. Everything about these songs is better in Mono. They are more cohesive. More naturalistic. The recordings actually make sense instead of sounding like something randomly distributed across the sound stage.

Look, I get it. Stereo is hard to give up. But if you want to know what these songs are really like, listen to the Mono versions, not the afterthought, “look Ma’, it’s Stereo!” versions you have been force-fed your whole life.

OTHER CONTENDERS:

I’m still very much in the process of tracking down good Mono recordings. But here’s a few more good ones I have found so far…

THE KINKS: THE KINKS ANTHOLOGY: There are some really nice Mono tracks in this collection. Songs like “Nothin’ in the World Will Stop Me Worryin’ About That Girl,” “Something Better Beginning” and “Tired of Waiting for You” become far more emotional in Mono. It’s also a reminder that Ray Davies was one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

THE YARDBIRDS: ROGER THE ENGINEER (MONO): This is the1966 Mono LP of the Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds. The Mono recording makes it far easier to understand what made the Yardbirds so different from all those other early British Invasion bands. It wasn’t just a trio of gifted guitarists that made them special, it was the whole band.

THE BEATLES: REVOLVER and SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (MONO): There are a lot of music geeks that swear these albums should never be listened to any other way. Given that the Beatles did give the Mono mixes the lion’s share of their attentions, they might be onto something. Honestly, this one is still hard for me. I always think of the Stereo versions of these albums in my head. But I’m guessing, given time, I will see them at least equal, if not superior to, the Stereo album mixes that I have been part of my life for so long.

THE SUPREMES: WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO? (MONO): Motown sounds great in Mono. Pretty much all of it. The songs have this incredible energy that just gets lost in the Stereo mixes. Listen to this album and you’ll see what I mean. Aside from the title track, you’ve got hits like ” “Baby Love,” “Run, Run, Run” and “Come See About Me” on it. Pure pop brilliance. The vocals by Diana Ross and Co. aren’t too shabby either.

MORE TO EXPLORE: This is a work in progress for me. I am actively trying to track down good Mono recordings of The Animals, early Pink Floyd, The Who, Marvin Gaye and more Motown. There is so much out there. I’ve just got to find it. Somewhere…

IF YOU HAVE ANY RECORDINGS THAT ARE MUSTS IN MONO PLEASE TELL ME! Use the comments box below. Or DM me. Or carrier pigeon. Whatever. Same goes for anyone that knows of a good comprehensive list of great Mono LPs somewhere.

Alright, I’ve done my part. The rest is on you.

May your Mono explorations be fruitful and your music listening inspiring.