Admit it. You’re flummoxed, fried out and forlorn. And it’s not because your baby left you. No, it’s because you woke up one day and realized you’re a record collector. With a serious problem. And not just the physical kind. It’s true that record collectors suffer from a host of very real problems – lack of social graces from dealing with heavy-handed and judgmental record clerks, bad breath from breathing in mold spores wafting up from water damaged records, plumbers crack (similar to the comic book collector variety), and a scoliosis-like malady called “crate-diggers hump” (not as sexy as it sounds) acquired from years of slouching, sagging and stooping over anything and anyone just to fat-finger a copy of that one record that makes your heart flutter, your spleen ache and your bowels tremble.
No, your current dilemma is a horse of a different color. Which version of your favorite records sound best? The mono or stereo copy? Which one should you buy? Should you buy both? Neither? Your mind is melting.
These days there’s something akin to “Mono Mania” going on in the world of record collecting. To many of us it’s quite welcome. Especially if we’re one of the poor bastards not old enough to have purchased The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society in mono when it came out and we don’t have enough cold, hard cash to buy a minty fresh original flip-back gatefold copy for $425. To us, a sealed mono reissue is just what the doctor ordered.
To others, this mono vs. stereo issue is as baffling as watching your grandmother cut chewing gum out of her dog’s hair. What’s with all these monophonic reissues? To a cynic it seems like it’s the well-orchestrated and profitable reissue of every single recording ever made in a unique mono mix. You’ve seen them poking out of record bins everywhere. They’re typically pressed on 180g vinyl, tucked gently into nice inner sleeves hidden within tip-on covers and created lovingly and painstakingly (note: these are words that usually mean “expensive”) using “the original mono mixes.” But are they better? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Sometimes they’re just different.
This next bit of quasi-intellectual, ponderous gibberish is purely subjective. More so than everything up to this point in this pointless essay. Back in the mid-1960s there were primarily three reasons for buying a mono recording when a stereo recording was also available: you had a hi-fi system with only one speaker (more common that you think), you were deaf in one ear like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (look it up) or you were a cheapskate (mono records cost about $1 less per album). Sometimes you were all three. Sad.
Why jump back to the mid-60s? Because that’s a period of time when record buyers had a real choice to make. In most cases you could amble into any record store in the world and buy a great sounding, thick pressing of your favorite record in mono or stereo. Sometimes fake stereo. More on that later. Before the mid-60s, stereo records were a bit of a crap-shoot if you were into rock, blues or jazz. They might sound goofy. With instruments and vocals haphazardly panned left or right. It took a while for engineers to figure out how to make the most of stereo, and at the same time artists were figuring out how they wanted their music to sound.
Classical music is a bit of an exception to this. Conventional wisdom is that stereo recordings of classical music tend to sound better earlier on. And as far as jazz goes, producers and engineers like Rudy Van Gelder, Orrin Keepnews, Creed Taylor and Teo Macero were also a bit of an exception. They got into stereo early on and figured out how to make stereo sound cool with very few microphones. You can read on and on about this (and should) from many sources that are far more expert on this topic than your lazy, stoop-shouldered author.
Speaking of jazz, the jazzbo’s tend believe that mono is best no matter what. Original 1950s and early 60s pressings of anything on Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, Impulse and Columbia are more valuable. And it’s true that these mono records often do sound best. To my ears they can sound louder, with clearer sounding instrumentation and, in the very best cases, the sound can seem to pounce out of the speakers. But how much better are they? I used to avoid stereo pressings of jazz records from the mid-60s and earlier. I was under the impression they were “fake stereo” created in dimly lit back rooms in order to jump on the stereo bandwagon. Some are. Some aren’t.
Let’s push on.
Stereo vs. mono. Which is best? It depends on the recording, the vinyl pressing and your personal taste. Sure, there are albums that everyone says are amazing in mono – the pre-1967 records by The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Pretty Things, etc. The list goes on and on. But there are recordings that sound more eventful and interesting in stereo (Interstellar Overdrive by Pink Floyd comes to mind). Rock records released between 1967 and 1970 tend to be the ones that are far more subjective. And you’ll find plenty of beard-scratching know-it-alls with strident opinions who’ll tell you what to think. Some of these guys are right. But many of them also live in their divorced mom’s basement and only emerge from their listening lair to attend a record fair or to run out to buy mom a carton of Benson & Hedges cigarettes. Occasionally, they come upstairs to rub their mother’s bunions.
People tend to crave the mono releases in part because they’re so rare. I know I’ve got my faves. I prefer the mono pressing of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles because (to me) it sounds more like a rock band and less like studio frippery. But the songs themselves are not that different. It’s not like hearing the record in mono for the first time could convince you that the stereo record you’ve been listening to your whole life sounds like a Jim Nabors Christmas album. Sometimes the performances are different or mixed peculiarly (the mono mixes of Don’t Pass Me By and Helter Skelter from the Beatles White Album come to mind).
For the purposes of this stupefyingly silly essay, I went back and did some side-by-side listening tests to confirm all my preconceived notions of what I like and don’t like in some hallmark recordings yanked from the overloaded racks in my fantastically disorganized music room. Stereo vs. mono. Which is it?
The Who Sell Out (US mono reissue vs. Japanese stereo reissue):
From memory I thought I preferred the stereo pressing of this. Armenia City In The Sky is a fave of mine and I thought stereo was the only way to hear this tune. Wrong. Not by a crazy wide blah in my case but wrong still. The mono pressing sounded heavier and punchier yet still retained the fun frippery of the studio trickery baked into the tapes on this record. Mono wins.
The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (Japanese stereo reissue vs. UK mono reissue):
I already tipped my hand on this one. As a kid I only heard the stereo copy. Loved it. No issues whatsoever. But, ever since hearing the mono copy of this record in college (several semesters ago) I became a monomaniac. Fact is, this might be the very first record where I became convinced of the majesty of mono. Mono wins.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced” (Reissues of US stereo, US mono and British mono pressings):
Ok, read anything about this record and the experts will tell you the British mono pressing is the only one worthy of a spin on your turntable. I don’t own an original mono pressing. Who’s got that kind of dough or good fortune? I DO own a mono British reissue. A US mono reissue. A few stereo copies including a stereo reissue (the double LP Hendrix Family version) I used for this test for a couple reasons (it’s readily available at record stores and my copy was also readily available). To my ears the stereo copy is the clearest, coolest sounding and has effective panning and the sort of soundstage tomfoolery that makes stereo fun. To me it’s the best-est. Stereo wins.
Bob Dylan “Bringing It All Back Home” (US stereo original vs. US mono original):
Here’s another one that the professional listeners with hyper-tuned ears say should ONLY be heard in mono. I remembered liking the mono best years ago. Then I listened today. I compared a mono original to a stereo original. The mono copy was snagged by me only a couple years ago. It had been (mis)priced by someone at a national used bookstore chain. The price was too good to turn down and the record is so clean I sold my mono reissue. The stereo copy I got from my wife’s uncle who owned about 300 records. 290 of those were Irish music except for a few Greenwich Village favorites like Dylan, Baez, Seeger et.al. Despite being a well-loved copy with plenty of tiny hairline scratches and marks, I prefer the stereo copy. To my ears it’s the opposite of what I said about The Who Sellout. In this case, I thought the stereo had more punch. Stereo wins.
Horace Silver “Blowin’ The Blues Away” (US mono original vs. US stereo reissue):
Ok, one of these is a pricey collectible and the other isn’t. Bet you can guess which is which. I fully expected the expensive mono original pressing to blow away the 70s “black b” pressing. And it is better. Louder. Hotter sounding instruments. In some cases Blue Mitchell’s trumpet is positively piercing. Right up into the red in the mix (God bless Rudy Van Gelder). Same way with Junior Cook’s sax. But, the stereo reissue from the 70s is not bad at all. Nice and punchy. It’s a real stereo recording too. Nothing fake about it. Rudy Van Gelder recorded this session in stereo and mono in 1959 and he’s one of the few cats who knew what he was doing in the late 50s. Make no mistake, the mono is better. But if I found these two records cozied up together in a bin at my local record shop and the mono OG was $150 and the stereo reissue was $10 I’d buy the stereo copy in a heartbeat and spend the rest of the money on elocution lessons so I could sound smarter. Mono wins.
Note: I’ve found that most of these “black b” Blue Notes sound pretty good. I also love corduroy and canned beer so take that with a grain of salt.
Bottom line? It turns out the ears are the best test. Of course. Do YOU like how the record sounds? That’s what matters most. I prefer some mono records and some stereo pressings. I’ve even dabbled in fake stereo from time to time. Just to feel naughty. I happen to love some records that have been “electronically re-recorded to simulate stereo.” After all, in many ways, life is a simulation. I can’t say I love tons of fake stereo records but I do love a few. In fact there are a few country music titles that fall into this sadly maligned category that I hold dear to my heart.
Here’s the insidious thing. Record collectors often have mono and stereo copies of their favorites. Sometimes the really sick bastards have multiple copies of pressings from all over the world. These people should be celebrated or pilloried. I’m not sure which. Perhaps a little bit of both?
Records. In the end I feel like we’re living and breathing in the promises and perils of records at the same time. Plumbing the depths of the dollar bin and scaling the heights of a pricey wall of collectibles. Sometimes all on one dirty, dimly lit Saturday afternoon. And I loathe hyperbole. Sort of.
Mono. Stereo. Both. Indeed.