Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mono, Stereo and All Those Things In Between

I didn't buy the mono super-limited edition Beatles recordings, even though I fully agree with those who say the mono mixes are superior (or at least, more authentic). I just couldn't justify the expense, and instead bought a few of the stereo recordings cheap. Of course with some of those 35-minute albums, EMI could easily have put both the mono and stereo mixes on one CD, but that would have been generous to the consumer and therefore forbidden by the code of record-company morality.

Anyway, I'm one who grew up listening to a lot of recordings from the late '50s and '60s -- more classical and Broadway than pop, but because my father bought most of his LPs in the late '50s, '60s and early '70s, that's where my listening habits were formed. Dad bought most of his LPs in stereo, because he was mostly a classical collector, and classical had converted to stereo almost completely by the '60s: there were still mono versions being released, but most of the producers had stopped paying attention to anything but the stereo mix, and buyers of classical LPs knew that the stereo was the "real" version. So those LPs had stereo mixes that were designed to appeal to the audiophile who wanted the concert-hall illusion: the idea was to provide the feeling that you were listening to an orchestra spread across your living room, and could pick out the position of every instrumental section or singer. Here's the start of the 1959 recording, Wagner's Rheingold, that helped define the way classical collectors liked their stereo to be mixed:

Then the show-music recordings were in a mix of real stereo and fake stereo: the mix was clearly genuine stereo, in that you could hear the orchestra spread across the stereo stage, but much of the mix -- and especially the voices -- was sort of mono-style. Either the voices would be bunched together in the middle or they'd be split between the extremes of the two speakers. If you listen to a Columbia cast album, you'll notice that when there are two singers, they're always singing to each other from opposite ends of the room; on the original cast album of The Sound of Music, in "My Favorite Things," Maria is on the extreme left and the Mother Superior is on the extreme right. (No political commentary intended.) I think this was sort of a combination of the mixing in the classical and jazz departments; at Columbia, classically-oriented Goddard Lieberson produced all the recordings, but his chief assistant, in charge of the mixing and post-production, was jazz producer Teo Macero, who liked extreme right-left contrasts. So here again is the mix for "Thinking" from Do I Hear a Waltz (by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim), sung by two characters who are supposed to be at a table together.

And then finally you have the recordings that were mixed in stereo that was really "triple mono." This is where pop acts like the Beatles come in. The stereo mixes of most of their recordings, as you probably know, are really just mono split in three, with one set of sounds on the left, another in the middle and another on the left. But even after they started mixing in real stereo, they did exactly the same thing. You can tell "Here Comes the Sun" is a true stereo recording because the sounds aren't as bisected as they were on the earlier recordings (there's more of a sense of space) and there are some "panning" effects. But it's still got the guitar on the extreme left, and the voices on the extreme right, an arrangement that makes no physical sense if you think of a recording as a representation of a performance. (Since George is playing the guitar on the left side of your living room but singing on the right.) Of course it's not supposed to be representative of a performance, so the issue doesn't come up, but that's the '60s way of stereo mixing in pop, whether for real or after the fact: put one thing on the right, and another on the left, and maybe the drums in the middle, and call it a day. It's not supposed to give the illusion of people in a place playing instruments and singing -- and it shouldn't.


Steve said...

The book of The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions confirms what you say. Stereo was a low priority for Beatles sessions pretty much until "Abby Road." Studio documents tell of hours spent slaving over the mono mix of one of their earlier albums, while all of a half-hour was spent on the stereo. Remember, the primary medium for pop music in the 60's was AM radio. FM was for Mancini and Wagner.

Rob G. said...

Stereo was pretty much a low priority for every "pop" act until the late 60s. Example: the Velvet Underground worked a day and a half on the mono mix of their first. The stereo got the time left over on that last day.

It's a shame (or maybe it's all part of the plan) that EMI/Apple Corp/whoever have sold the public on the idea of the mono mixes of the Beatles being definitive, which I don't disagree with, and then only made them available in an extremely overpriced, limited edition box. And then they wonder why people download music illegally.

Good article though. Explains things pretty clearly.

Bill Peschel said...

Just FYI, Capitol released "The Beatles, The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1" that consists of four early albums. Each CD has both the mono and stereo mixes.

I just checked over at Amazon a review by James Perlman (it's the topmost one) of the boxed set that seems to give a considered view of which mixes to get. Unfortunately, the verdict was mono for most, but stereo for some. (His conclusion: "Your core, oddly enough, should be the mono box set. Augment this with the stereo Hard Day's Night, The Beatles For Sale, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles, Abbey Road, Let It Be and stereo Past Masters.")

But of the two, I'd probably pop for the mono set. I've listened to Sgt. Pepper and "Roll Over Beethoven" on earphones, and the stereo mixes were so terrible as you suggest that it was painful, and I'm generally not that interested in the mono/stereo debate. The sound of drums banging away entirely on one side, and a singer entirely on the other was vastly irritating.

Graham Powell said...

The most extreme split I've heard in a song from that era was Cream's "I Feel Free". All the instruments are crammed into the far right, while the vocals fill the left and range into the center. It sounds almost schizophrenic in headphones.

Chris L. said...

It's worth remembering that EMI was very rigid and conservative during most of the Beatles' tenure there, to the extent that the Abbey Road studio engineers actually wore white lab coats. As a result, they were way behind other studios and record companies with the use of stereo. Most notoriously, they still only had 4-track stereo during the early White Album sessions, even though pretty much all the indie London studios had 8-track. After learning that EMI had an 8-track console but were holding off on installing it, The Beatles actually coerced the engineers into breaking into the chief engineer's office and dragging the 8-track console into the studio.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

It's worth remembering that EMI was very rigid and conservative during most of the Beatles' tenure there.

Not only in pop. EMI took so long to record in stereo that they were doing mono-only classical recordings as late as 1958, by which time every other company was using stereo for all their classical recording. (Apparently EMI didn't bother to get a lot of stereo equipment, which meant that some of their crews in Paris and elsewhere were not given the capacity to record in stereo.)