Stereo vs. Mono LP Mixes
Original article posted to rec.music.beatles on November 4, 1999. I rewrote this article on March 21, 2004, and again on August 15, 2004. The latter instance was prompted by the emailed comments of Martin Melucci, who was very informative and gave me the link to the Alan Kozinn interview with George Martin. Thanks, Martin!
On 04 Nov 1999 15:06:22 GMT, firstname.lastname@example.org (F Everyone) wrote:
I hear a lot about the superiority of the Beatles mono mixes? Is this the case? What makes them so much better? Where can they be found, if they are to be found! Thanks for answering such a dumb question!
“Records, man, that was the thing.” - Paul
When the four Beatles were young teenagers in Liverpool they all fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll music around the same time - 1956, Elvis Presley’s ‘magic year.’ That summer, 45rpm records - those round, black, grooved pieces of plastic that you played in stacks on any phonograph you could find - went from obscure dust-collectors under the parents’ hi-fi to the coveted objects of teenage longing ... and, once obtained, the currency of musical hipsterdom. The young Beatles all took records very seriously, with collections that they knew from back to front, and by the time they were playing together regularly in the bars of Liverpool and Hamburg they had become ardent connoisseurs, eager emulators, and very opinionated critics of as many 45rpm “singles” as they could lay their hands on.
Because the Beatles worshipped records so much, they naturally wanted to make their own. And when that miracle actually came to pass - beginning with their first real recording session in June of 1962 - they were eager to learn as much as possible as quickly as they could. Their golden chance with George Martin and Parlophone had been hard won and long in coming, and they weren’t going to give it anything but maximum effort. Happily, they also had the talent to back it up. In fact, what nobody knew at the time was that the Beatles would prove to have a tremendous natural aptitude for the recording studio. This mysterious land of microphones and echo chambers, which has cowed so many artists into submissiveness (and therefore dullness) then and now, was like a spark to the Beatles. One that developed quite soon into a raging fire. The Beatles, it turned out, were natural recording studio geniuses.
This combination - caring tremendously about their sound, and being naturally gifted at the process of recording - goes a long way to explaining why the Beatles’ records were so well-produced right from the start. But even back in 1964 any Beatle fan who wanted to hear at home what the Beatles heard in the studio faced a few interesting challenges. In those days the concept that an album of pop music was a work of art not to be tampered with by anyone but the artist simply didn’t exist. Instead, pop/rock music was ‘product’ - located on about the same cultural level as comic books. This product was regularly churned out by hopeful yet indifferently-talented artists, then fed into a gigantic distribution machine to emerge in repackages and collections produced at the seeming whim of record company executives all over the globe. In the Beatles’ case records came out in America, Canada, England, Europe and Australia with different covers, different track orders, different numbers of songs, and, in some cases, different mixes entirely.
Today it’s even worse, as with the advent of new formats and the persistence of old ones the Beatles’ recordings are available in a seemingly bewildering variety of forms. What’s worth listening to? There are, for example, the original albums and singles on vinyl (when you can find them). There are the CD versions of same. Then there are the “remixed” CD versions which have become popular lately. And then there are, in some cases, Dolby surround-sound DVDs, which have different instruments and voices coming from no less than five independent speaker-sources. Finally, even if one is a “purist” and confines one’s self strictly to listening to the original vinyl LPs and 45s, one has to confront the fact that there are stereo and mono mixes of the same songs, and significant differences between those that were released in the UK and those released in the rest of the world at the same time.
What on earth is a beginning Beatle listener to do?
Here’s my advice.
Don’t get hung up on formats in the beginning. Beatle music is timeless and wonderful, and the format you first hear it in is not, repeat not, important. The amazing thing about Beatle records is that you could hear them through a tin can and they’d probably still sound good. Don’t get me wrong: by all means hear them in as good a setting as you can manage - and if the choice is between hearing them in some weird format or not hearing them at all, in God’s name, hear them. They’re the best band that ever existed. But no format, now or in the future, will hinder or help that fact. With the Beatles, if you’re not an aficionado, format is relatively unimportant.
Having said that, however ... I realize this isn’t what some people want to hear. What about the great mono versus stereo debate? What about alternate mixes? What about alternate takes?
Isn’t there a superior way to hear Beatle records?
Yes, there is. But to explain what I mean requires a bit of history. If you’re interested, read on.
* * *
If the Beatles could have recorded their songs in glorious 24-track stereo from the very beginning of their career they would have jumped at the chance to do so. Nothing was more important to them than writing good songs and making good records. But multitrack technology simply didn’t exist in recording studios in 1962. Instead, the common machinery employed was almost comic by today’s standards: a modest array of microphones on the studio floor, connected by cable to a simple four- or six-channel mixer in the booth, which in turn routed the sound to the heads of a nearby two-track tape recorder. Compared to current studios this equipment was primitive in the extreme; in fact, you could significantly improve on a 1962-era recording studio with about $500 worth of home 4-track equipment today. But it’s all they had, and as the record shows - or I should say, the records show - the artists and engineers and producers of the time were still able to achieve some fabulous results with it.
The recording machines in place at Abbey Road when the Beatles first arrived are what are known as ‘twin-track’ machines, which is just another way of saying two-track. In two track recording, the half-inch-wide reel-to-reel tape passing over the recording head is separated by electronics into two “tracks,” each of which is capable of holding an independent sound, but which (because they’re part of the same physical tape) will play back in synch. In the early days of recording, this meant that an important decision had to be made at the outset of each new recording project. The producer had to decide how he was going to use these two tracks.
One way to use them was to employ them as halves of a stereo “image.” The plus side to this was that stereo sounded wonderful; the down side was that it required a near-perfect performance from the artist being taped. In the case of a pop group, this would mean that the musicians would have to set up their instruments on the studio floor, run through a number once or twice for levels, and then, upon rolling tape and a “slate” being called by the engineer (“Twist and Shout, take one”), play and sing just as if they were on a live stage. The result would be fed via microphones and cables and the mixing console straight onto the twin track tape, with the left ”side” of the stereo on track one and the right ”side” on track two. In the end, you had a stereo record, ready to be pressed.
The only problem with this technique, as I’ve said, was that it relied heavily on the artist’s ability to be very technically disciplined, producing a near-perfect sound on each and every take. In 1962 at EMI, it was recognized that certain types of music were better suited to this recording method than others. The set-up-and-play method was mostly confined to orchestras and operas, where under the hand of a conductor such control was possible. During classical sessions at Abbey Road, the orchestra would come in and seat themselves in Studio Two, microphones would be deployed, and then the musicians would play while the resulting sound was captured in stereo on the two-track machine. When the session was over the tape was effectively ready to be pressed straight onto record. This made both artists and accountants very happy.
Pop and rock, however, were another matter.
Discipline has never been the acme of pop music. Then and now, popular music producers - whether making jazz, rock, folk, dixieland, or other recordings - recognize that spontaneity and a certain amount of chaos are critical to making an exciting, successful record. Unfortunately, the set-up-and-play method doesn’t always favor anarchy very well. Musicians hit bad notes. Amplifiers start to buzz halfway through a song. Perhaps most troublesome was the fact that rock and pop groups could be very idiosyncratic ensembles. EMI engineers in those days were trained in the palette of the orchestra: violins, oboes, classical singing voices. The new guitar groups coming along presented them with a whole new set of unfamiliar challenges. They might have five singers or one, acoustic guitars or electric, male or female lead vocals. What was a producer to do? How to avoid making critical mistakes?
Perhaps the most acute problem of all was that of achieving balance. The balance between a group’s instruments and its vocals, which makes a record sound natural to the ear, also gave pop music’s pioneering producers more than a few of their earliest grey hairs. Beat groups didn’t play in muted tones like orchestras: they were loud and brash, with crashing drums and amplified guitars. It wasn’t always possible to tell if you were getting a good recording or not, simply because your ears began ringing and, after an hour or so, you failed to notice the feedback. Times like this producers sought desperately for flexibility in the recording process, rather than straight-to-stereo simplicity. They looked for ways to postpone - until the next day, or the next week - the decision about a beat group’s final recorded balance. It gave them what they called “fresh ears.”
Fortunately, there was a simple way to achieve this flexibility. It lay in employing the twin-track machines not for the purposes of stereo, but as simple multitrack recorders. In other words, by employing the twin concept of track “separation“ and “overdubs,” you could do a lot to avoid the producer’s nightmare: having a bunch of useless tapes which needed to be redone from scratch.
When the Beatles showed up at Abbey Road to start making records the process, then, went like this:
As the last step in the chain, a day or two after all of this recording energy and effort was expended, George Martin and Norman Smith - sans the Beatles - would hold a mixing session, where they’d create a ‘master tape’ for use by the EMI pressing department (or for shipping overseas). The ‘master tape’ was created by having a twin-track machine set to record, while Martin and Smith played back the Beatles’ session tapes on another machine nearby. During this process the final level of the instruments, vocals and overdubs would be decided, plus whether or not to add any echo or reverb. In the case of LPs, ‘mastering’ sessions could take more than a day, as each song received its final polish. Then, if the tape were not being shipped overseas, it would enter the production phase by being turned over to the EMI pressing department, where in the ensuing days a lacquer master would be cut from the tape. From this, molds would created and shipped to factories, LPs and 45s would be pressed and put into sleeves, and at last, stacks of brand-new records would be shipped to stores and radio stations around the UK and, on ‘release day,’ unveiled to the general public.
And that, to put it very simply, is how Beatle records were made for the next five or six years, with only one major difference. After the tremendous success of the Please Please Me album in Britain in 1963, the Beatles - so concerned, as ever, with their sound - began to attend mixing sessions personally. On the Please Please Me LP and the singles “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me” it is the mixing ears of George Martin and Norman Smith - working alone - that are responsible for what you hear. From then on, however, the Beatles themselves are present, and by the time of A Hard Day’s Night they can be said to dominate the process.
* * * * *
Okay, back to stereo vs. mono.
Right from the very beginning there was a gap between the Beatles and those who sold their records for them, and this gap, among other things, took the form of a debate over stereo vs. mono. The Beatles themselves, you could say, worked and thought in mono. In the environs of EMI the studio which the Beatles used most often had only a single playback speaker on the wall. The Beatles grew used to this arrangement, and since their LPs and 45s were being released in mono anyway, they even embraced it. During the recording and mastering phases of all their early singles and albums, the Beatles made many judgments about their music based on hearing it coming out of a single speaker.
To certain American and British record distributors, however, this was old fashioned nonsense. While the Beatles might know how to make music, the reasoning went, the distributors knew more about what sold. And in their eyes, stereo sold. By mid-1964 when America and the world were swooning at the Beatles’ feet, the cry went out for stereo mixes of their songs. EMI turned these requests over to George Martin and Norman Smith, who complied as best they could.
The problem was the master tapes themselves. Martin, Smith and the Beatles had never recorded these with the intention of releasing them in stereo. And while by the time of A Hard Day’s Night the group were using new four-track machines, there wasn’t much that could be done about the early records. Finally Martin threw up his hands and did the only thing possible. He made a stereo master tape with the vocals on one side, the instruments on the other, and reverb in the middle to blend the two. He shipped out the result.
The distributors were ecstatic. The Beatles were indifferent.
For the Beatles the decision to remain for years in the mono camp was partly technical, partly artistic, and partly social. Their largest concern always was the quality of their music, but a close second was the experience of their audience. The Beatles wanted to make records that their fans could enjoy. And in their eyes, stereo did nothing to enhance that enjoyment. In England in the early 1960s, most teenagers didn’t have remotely enough money to afford the kind of wood-grained cabinet-console hi-fi that mom and dad owned. The kids listened to to 45 singles that were played back on cheap portable record players ... or they listened to AM radio. Both were, and for years would remain, mono.
Beyond this, working in true stereo the way the Beatles wanted to simply wasn’t possible through most of the 1960s. By the time of A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, for example, EMI had taken delivery of several new four-track machines, but that remained the state of the art for the next several years. And four tracks is far short of the number necessary to create what we might think of as a “modern” recording - with stereo drums, stereo instruments and stereo voices. Since early stereo attempts tended to sound clumsy and primitive, the Beatles gave up on the format until better times arrived. It wasn’t until 1968, when they began using eight-track machines, that they began giving real attention to stereo.
In the Beatles’ minds, we should remember, it was always more important for a record to be musically good than for it to be compatible with some new, gimmicky format. The Beatles had been raised on mono. All their early records were mono. The radio they listened to was mono. And so it’s natural that, as they began recording, mono remained their chief form of public expression. From 1962 until 1968 the Beatles would record their songs, create mono masters with George Martin plus either Norman Smith (1962-65) or Geoff Emerick (1966-67), and then go off on tour or holiday, leaving the stereo mixes to be done solely under Martin’s supervision. Stereo tapes were often couriered to Capitol in New York without the Beatles ever hearing them at all.
And this is why, today, there is a great mono-versus-stereo debate among Beatle fans. On the one hand you have people claiming that the stereo versions of Beatle records - which allow you to pick out separate tracks more easily, and generally seem to have a more modern ‘presence’ than the mono records - are superior. On the other, there are those claiming that mono mixes - which represent the sound that the Beatles themselves cared about more - are the only way to go.
What do I think? I think the choice is yours and it revolves around this question:
What do you want to hear?
* * *
For historical authenticity there’s nothing like the original UK mono records. While it is true that the Beatles would have loved to record and mix their early stuff in stereo, the fact is they didn’t. So, instead, they pushed mono to the limit. The Beatles poured heart & soul into their mono mixes, and it is not generally known that they made all sorts of decisions about their songs - not just treble and bass but also key decisions like what instruments to have where, and how loud - based on what you could hear out of that single EMI speaker. At the same time, they also deftly used the limitations of mono to hide certain bits of recording sleight-of-hand which, in stereo, become more apparent. In mono it was easier to bury bits of hiss, or slightly rough track-joins, and that’s exactly what they did.
The result of all this is a listening experience that, while not modern in the conventional sense, is still wonderful and enthralling. When you listen to Beatle CDs in their mono versions you begin to appreciate these remarkable records in a whole new way. Probably my favorite example of this is Sgt. Pepper which, against all instinct, is simply fabulous in mono. Part of the reason for this seems to be that in the mono version you don’t spend your time chasing sounds from ear to ear, so you can relax instead and concentrate on the music. But also it’s obvious in the first ten minutes that the mono mix of Pepper is - as has often been noted - very different from the stereo. Instruments have different balances, and sometimes even different sounds. There’s a whole effect in the segue from “Good Morning” to “A Day In The Life” that isn’t part of any stereo version that I’ve ever heard - and I used to own a vinyl LP of Pepper that was pressed (in Canada) in 1970, just three years after it was released. Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ engineer in 1967, confirms what our ears tell us here. He says: “The only real version of Sgt. Pepper is the mono version. There are all sorts of little tricks and effects in there that aren’t in the stereo at all.” For years I was aware of this quote, but used to discount it. “Ahhh ... how different could it be?” I thought. Now I know. A lot.
But there’s a problem with Beatle mixes on CD, and it’s this. When EMI decided to remix all of the Beatles’ albums for CD in the early 1990s it was decided that time had not been kind to the original master recordings, and that, as a result, new master mixes would have to be made. Because of this, when you buy a Beatle CD today what you’re hearing is a re-creation of the original mix that was done back in the 1960s, but not the original mix itself. It’s a small point, because in most cases the new mixes have been done remarkably well. But for true purists, it’s a significant point nonetheless.
For true purists, the only way to experience the Beatles’ music is to track down the original UK vinyl records, and then play them on a turntable. Fair enough. In my humble opinion, however, that’s too much work - and not really necessary to enjoy this tremendous band. For the rest of the world, then, I recommend the current Beatle CDs. I applaud the first ones being in mono, and I think Martin and EMI did a wonderful job bringing the whole collection to the digital format. If you get a chance someday, listen to Pepper in mono - I think you’ll find it surprising. But otherwise, the CD canon is just fine.
(For a marvelous interview with George Martin conducted by Alan Kozinn of the New York Times on this subject, click here.)
* * * * *
And here’s my last word on this subject:
I’m willing to concede that, to modern ears, particularly youthful ones, mono probably sounds pretty dated. Hell, nobody uses mono anymore, and certainly no new CDs are done that way. And it just might be that, for a whole new generation of potential Beatle fans, mono is simply too funky to get around. It’s a real obstacle to enjoying the music.
If that’s the case, then I say to hell with tradition. The Beatles are too good to pass up just because of a stupid format issue. If 5-channel DVDs and “remixed” 24-bit CDs help bring new fans to this most amazing of bands, then more power to them. Personally, I like the old versions better, probably because that’s what I’m used to as much as anything else. But am I going to argue with spreading the word any way it can be spread? Not on your life.