The Beatles In Mono
What's The Difference?
As a teenager, the word "mono" struck fear in the hearts of most of the kids I knew.
"Mono" was short for "mononucleosis," also known as the "kissing disease." It was a mysterious kind of condition that sent you packing off to bed in a kind of semi-stupor for a couple of months and pretty much guaranteed that your social life would be a bust for some time to come.
Of course, "mono" has another meaning. In the recording industry, "mono" is a classification of sound and refers to a particular way that music is recorded.
Mono (Monaural or monophonic sound reproduction) is done mostly with one microphone and only one speaker is required to listen to the sound. Mono packs the audio in a single channel, often centered in the "sound field." In other words, when you hear music recorded in mono, it comes at you in a single stream of sound — the vocals, drums, bass, guitars, horns, strings, well, everything comes at you mixed into one channel. Everyone hears the very same signal and at the same sound level. If you listen to a mono recording through a headset, everything seems to be happening on the top of your head and there are no extraneous sounds distinctly on the right or left ear.
Mono's kissing cousin (mind the pun) is stereo, another classification of sound that also refers to a particular way that music is recorded.
Stereo (or Stereophonic sound) is the reproduction of sound using two or more independent audio channels in a way that creates the impression of sound heard from various directions, as in natural hearing. Stereo recording is done with two or more special microphones. The stereo effect is achieved by careful placement of microphone receiving different sound pressure levels accordingly. Even the speakers in your home need to have the capability to produce the stereo and they also need to be positioned carefully. These sound systems have two or more independent audio signal channels. The signals have a specific level and phase relationship to each other so that when played back through a suitable reproduction system, you will experience the illusion of having the band or orchestra performing right in front of you.
When listening to stereo on headphones, some sound seems to stream from one side of the head while other sounds seem to stream from the other side of the head, and there is a whole miscellany of sounds coming from every part of your head as a whole. Some "cute" effects, like the aeroplane taking off in "Back In The U.S.S.R.," even create the sensation of sound traveling over your head from one ear to the other. Cool? Well, hell yeah, despite the fact that today's audiophile snobbery dismisses it as a gimmick.
Unlike mono recordings, which are fairly inexpensive, stereo recording is much more costly and requires a skilled sound engineer to capture a well-mixed stereo sound.
The norm for stereo recording is two channels, but some recordings like The Who's Quadrophenia boast of four channel stereo. Each channel comes at you from a separate speaker, two in front of you and two behind you, much like what we now know as surround sound. Four is by no means a limit to stereo. A recording could have hundreds of channels, but there is no stereo equipment available for the average household to handle all those channels, unless we had professional mixing boards to blend all those separate channels and we filled our homes with hundreds of speakers.
Until the 1940s, mono sound recording was popular and most of the recording was done in mono even though the two-channel audio system (i.e., stereo) was demonstrated by Clément Ader as early as 1881. At that time, however, creating stereo was no easy feat. The technology of the late 19th century simply did not make the use of stereo financially viable.
With the advent of magnetic tapes, the use of stereo sound became easier. In the 1960s, albums were released as both monaural LPs and stereo LPs because people still had their old mono players and the radio stations were mostly AM and broadcast in a single channel. Similarly movies were released in both versions because some theaters were equipped with stereo speakers systems and some were not.
By the end of the 1960s, stereo was pretty much the norm. People became so fascinated with the separate sounds coming from their left and right speakers that some recording companies, notably Capitol Records, began taking monaural recordings and splitting the single channel into two, then reprocessing them as "enhanced stereo." These were not true stereo recordings, but became known as Duophonic recordings.
On occasion, artists deliberately used fake stereo for artistic effect. Fake stereo is also used because sometimes elements of a mono mix cannot be reproduced for a stereo remix. The Beatles used this effect in the song, "I Am The Walrus." The first portion of the song is true stereo but switches to fake stereo at about the two-minute mark for the remainder of the song because the song includes live radio feeds from a BBC broadcast of King Lear that were inserted directly into the mono mix of the song and could not be replicated for the stereo mix. Later remixes of the song, such as that included in the Love soundtrack album, are in true stereo for the complete song.
Similarly, the mono mix of the song, "Only A Northern Song," featured sound effects which were made during the mixing process and were difficult to be replicated for a stereo remix, so the song was released in fake stereo in the 1969 album Yellow Submarine Soundtrack. However, the 1999 album Yellow Submarine Songtrack features a full stereo remix of the song. The 2009 remaster of Yellow Submarine restores "Only A Northern Song" to its original mono mix because, presumably, enhanced stereo has fallen out of favour.
"Duophonic" was used as a trade name for the process by Capitol Records for re-releases of mono recordings from June, 1961 through the 1970s. Capitol employed this technique in order to increase their inventory of stereo LPs, to satisfy retailer demand for more stereo content, and help promote the sale of stereo receivers and turntables. For nearly ten years, Capitol used the banner "DUOPHONIC — For Stereo Phonographs Only" to differentiate their true stereo LPs from the Duophonic LPs.
The process was used for some of their biggest releases, including a variety of albums by The Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra. Over the years however, some Duophonic tapes were confused with true stereo recordings in Capitol Records' vaults, and wound up getting "accidentally" reissued on CD throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Capitol reissued some of The Beatles' Duophonic mixes on The Capitol Albums, Volume 1 and The Capitol Albums, Volume 2, in 2004 and 2006, respectively. More information on The Capitol Albums is available in another two feature stories: THE CAPITOL ALBUMS VOL 1 and THE CAPITOL ALBUMS VOL 2.
Some Beatles' fans were disappointed when the recent The US Albums Box Set included tracks from the 2009 The Beatles (The Original Studio Recordings) remastered sets and were not true to the original Capitol recordings. Instead of maintaining the originally processed Duophonic "stereo" sound, The US Albums Box Set provided true stereo recordings.
Well, enough blah-blah-blah about the science of all this. Here's a practical demonstration:
First, you'll need your headphones or earbuds or whatever it is you use to listen to music without freaking out the neighbours.
Now, plug one end of those babies into your ears and the other end into whatever you're reading this on. If you get this step wrong, just reverse ends.
Here is The Beatles's song, "If I Needed Someone," from the album Rubber Soul, recorded in mono. Notice how all the sound seems to be in a somewhat tight band on top of your head. The lead guitar section, over the "Ahhhhs," is in the middle mix as well.
If I Needed Someone
Now here is the same song, "If I Needed Someone," in stereo. Notice how the song has a broader dimension that seems to wrap right around your head and maybe even down to your shoulders. If you have your headphones on correctly, the beat of a tambourine should be most prevalent on the left side. Most noticably, the lead guitar section shifts to the right.
If I Needed Someone
Finally, here is "If I Needed Someone" in its original 1965 Capitol Records Duophonic version. You still get a broader dimension of sound than that in the mono version, but not quite the same as the stereo version. That tambourine that was right down on the left side in the stereo version is somewhat more central to the mix, but that lead guitar section drops almost to the bottom of the right.
If I Needed Someone
What's the point of all this? Well, Apple Records' release of The Beatles in Mono Vinyl Box Set has some people wondering just that — what's the point?
Here is what the official press release offers:
The Beatles in mono: This is how most listeners first heard the group in the 1960s, when mono was the predominant audio format. Up until 1968, each Beatles album was given a unique mono and stereo mix, but the group always regarded the mono as primary.
Quite frankly, I can't remember if my first Beatles' albums were in mono or stereo. To be honest, I probably couldn't have cared less. I just loved the songs. How it got to my eardrums was pretty much irrelevant.
Still, times change, and yes, I suppose I am now a more discerning listener than I was back in the 60s. If Apple Records says that I first heard The Beatles in mono, well, who am I to argue? Whether or not I prefer mono sound in the year 2014 is completely another question. I suppose my best answer to that might be to use an analogy to television. Take away my HD-TV and stick me in front of a snowy 13 inch black-and-white set from the 50s, with tin foil wrapped around the rabbit ears, and I would lose interest in that television fairly quickly. Everything retro isn't better ... simple.
Still, I am no standard for music appreciation. Some people are purists and want what was, not what can be. So a collection of monaural vinyl Beatles' records will surely arouse much interest. Many of those same people probably can't wait for the albums to develop those "hisses" and "pops" that were synonymous with listening to vinyl records way back when. Yes, there is something nostalgic and even romantic about traveling back in time. What I remember is having to get out of my easy chair to flip the record over. Pain in the butt ...
The new box set includes 11 vinyl records:
[Individual links are for separate albums, available outside the box set.]
You'll quickly notice that Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let It Be are missing from the set. These three albums were originally recorded only in stereo, so no mono master tapes exist for these albums.
Mono Masters is a three-album compilation of songs not found on the other albums, songs released only as singles or on an EP, typically what you would find on the previous stereo compilation Past Masters.
So now, you're an expert and can decide for yourself if you want to buy the new box set.
What's that? Still not sure? Maybe the video promo from Apple will help you decide:
The Beatles in Mono Vinyl Box Set is available from Amazon .
© The Beatles On Abbey Road — Posted here on June 23, 2014.