The Shapiro Files

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beatles in Stereo or Mono?

After treading the "music geek" waters with my recent Paul McCartney posting, I figured I might as well take the plunge and take on a full-out Beatles-related topic.

Over the years, I've occasionally read pieces from rock critics and music historians who claim that the only "real" way to hear the Beatles is in mono. The usual explanation for this preference is that unlike many of their contemporaries, The Beatles actually did entirely different mixes for mono and stereo releases. The more common process was simply doing a stereo mix, then combining it into a single channel to create a mono version. The Beatles, on the other hand, produced completely separate "from-scratch" mixes for each format. As a result, there are countless differences between the two mixes--many are fairly subtle, some quite substantial.

Also, since mono was still the more common format through most of the 60s, The Beatles were mainly only interested in the mono versions of their releases. Thus, the band members tended to be there only for mono mixing sessions. They'd then let George Martin and his engineers deal with the stereo mixes later without attending any of those subsequent sessions. This meant that a great deal more time and attention was spent on the mono mixes, which also implies that they are the true "Beatles-approved" mixes.

Even though I've been long aware of this history, I only had limited exposure to Beatles mono mixes until recently. Their first four albums were released in mono when first put out on CD in the 80s, but the rest of the CD releases were in stereo only. Years earlier, when my brother and I first became Beatles fanatics (I was probably in fifth or sixth grade at the time), we managed to get a few mono pressings of their albums on vinyl LP at a used record store. But I wasn't then a critical enough listener to really make an assessment of their merit relative to their stereo counterparts. But at long last, thanks to the re-release of the entire Beatles catalog on CD in both stereo and mono late last year, I have finally had the opportunity see if all the mono-hype was warranted.

Please Please Me (1962) and With the Beatles (1963)

Mono or Stereo? Mono

I'm lumping these two albums together since they are both two sides of the same aural coin. Both were very quickly recorded, mostly live-in-the-studio with limited overdubs, using two-track tape. Given the limitations of working with only two tracks, George Martin never intended for these albums to be released in anything but mono. Rather, he used the two tracks to help him balance the instruments on one track and the vocals on the other. He then combined the two into a single mono mix. However, unbeknownst to him, the company big-wigs got their hands on the two-track tapes and put out stereo pressings of these albums. The result were albums where all of the instruments come out of one speaker and all the vocals out of the other. While it's kind of cool to be able to hear only the instruments or just the voices by turning the balance knob on your stereo, aesthetically a mix of this sort is just, well, wrong. As a result, the mono releases really are the true way to hear these albums. The instrument/vocal balance is perfect and the obvious energy behind the performances come through in a way that get lost when everything is so dramatically split apart left/right in stereo.

A Hard Days Night (1963)

Mono or Stereo? Both

If there was one major point of contention I had with the initial Beatles CD releases in the 80s, it was that George Martin, in his understandable anxiousness to release the groups' first two albums in only mono for their first appearance on CD, somehow managed to lump the next two albums in with the same mono-only request. This had boggled my mind then and continues to do so today. After Please Please Me and With the Beatles, the band started recording on four-track tape. The result was that they were able to do proper stereo mixes (vocals in the center, instruments spread out to both left and right channels) for the first time. The resultant mixes were still a little bit on the primitive side, but the overall balance was very good and the stereo panning allowed for more detail to come through. I had loved my stereo vinyl LPs of these albums and was bitterly disappointed when I could only enjoy them in mono after I transitioned to CD. But after over 20 years, this major mistake was finally rectified when both mixes were released last year.

The funny thing is despite missing the stereo mixes for so long, I actually found both the mono and stereo mixes to be equal for Hard Days Night. The mono mix is probably a little better balanced, with tighter drums and bass, but the stereo mix is nice and full as well. It even has a funny little mixing mistake, with the wrong McCartney harmony vocal mixed into the last section of "If I Fell" where his voice cracks at the end of the phrase "was in vain." In fact, it was errors like these that demonstrate how much less attention went in to the stereo mixes at that point. But it's a fun mistake that always makes me smile when I hear it.

Beatles for Sale (1964)

Mono or Stereo: Stereo

With each album the band put out, they added increasingly more overdubs and layers of harmonies. As a result, I've always found the mono mix of this album to be too cluttered. The stereo mix, on the other hand, really opens up the soundscape (the whole point of stereo, naturally) and it's much easier to pick out individual instruments and voices. After so many years of waiting, I am thrilled to finally have this album in stereo on CD.

Help! (1965)

Mono or Stereo: Stereo

The mono mix of this great album definitely has its charms and I especially like that John's vocals on the title track are a little different than the stereo mix. But overall, this albums just sounds better in stereo. The guitars are crisper and the vocals clearer. A great stereo highlight of many is "I've Just Seen a Face" with its immersive acoustic guitars spread across the channels.

Rubber Soul (1965)

Mono or Stereo: Mono

After extolling the virtues of the previous two albums in stereo, it might seem strange that I give the nod to Rubber Soul's mono mix. However, by this point in their career, the Beatles' albums were getting increasingly richer and complex--all of which required more tracks. Although they were still working with four-track recorders, they were able to add more tracks through a process called bouncing. The downside of this process was that even more instruments and/or vocals had to be squeezed onto shared tracks. The result was that the original 1966 stereo mix of Rubber Soul had a fair amount of the instruments-on-one-side and vocals-on-the-other-side quality of their first two albums' stereo mixes. After releasing three proper stereo mixes, this was an unfortunate return to a more rudimentary approach to stereo. Thus it's for this reason that the mono mix of this album is much better balanced with the overall sound much punchier and powerful. I should note that George Martin even went through the trouble of doing a new stereo mix of this album in 1987 for its first CD release to try to correct the original mix. It could have potentially been an improvement over the original 1965 stereo mix, but was marred by the type of compressed, tinny sound that was very common in the 80s when digital recording and mixing was still relatively new and bitrates were low.

Revolver (1966)

Mono or Stereo: Both

This was the album that marked the arrival of sound engineer Geoff Emerick to the Beatles' story. It's hard to overstate his enormous contribution to the band through what is arguably their most creative period. He was young and eager to please and did things with microphone placement and effects processors that no one had done before. As a result, Revolver sounds great in both mono and stereo. The usual four-track limitations still resulted in some too-wide stereo panning, but at least the vocals were mostly back in the center and the overall balance is consistently good. There's also a fun little stereo mixing mistake on "Eleanor Rigby" that I've noticed for years but only recently learned exactly what caused it. At the beginning of the first verse, Paul's voice on the first couple of syllables of the word "Eleanor" is in both speakers and then abruptly shifts to just one side for the remainder of the verse. As it turns out, this happens because the ADT (Automatic Double Tracking) effect used on the opening "Ah, look at all the lonely people" refrain was accidentally kept on for those couple of syllables before it was turned off for the rest of the verse. It's just one of those random accidents that again demonstrates how less attention was paid to stereo mixes.

The mono mix probably has more powerful drums and bass and the brass on "Got to Get You Into My Life" is especially powerful. But overall I enjoy both mixes equally.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Mono or Stereo: Mono

I was absolutely shocked to discover that everything I've heard over the years about the mono mix of Sgt. Pepper was true. This album truly does rock harder in mono. The level balance and equalization of all the instruments is just perfect. Everything is exactly right in mono. The stereo mix definitely tries to be more psychedelically trippy in stereo with all its panning effects, but the overall album is less punchy and aurally uneven. You can tell that mistakes were made along the way with various instrument levels not always in balance or things like there not being enough phaser/flanger effect applied to John's voice in "Lucy in the Sky." There is even a pretty dramatic difference in the speed of "She's Leaving Home," which is faster in mono. The only song that arguably works better in stereo is "A Day in the Life" because of all the aforementioned stereo panning effects. If there was ever song that would benefit from sounds frequently moving left-to-right, this would definitely be the one. But unless you're listening to the album with headphones on, the mono mix really is better. Believe me, I'm as surprised as anyone.

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Mono or Stereo: Both

Much like Sgt. Pepper, the balance is generally better in mono. Songs like "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Hello Goodbye" are particularly powerful in their mono incarnations. On the other hand, songs like "Strawberry Fields" and "I Am the Walrus" are more immersive in stereo. So I call it a draw. I like both mixes equally.

The Beatles [a.k.a. The White Album] (1968)

Mono or Stereo: Stereo

The Beatles' famous self-titled double-album was the first one in which George Martin and team were able to get their hands on eight-track recording equipment. Although it wasn't used for all the tracks on the album, you can definitely hear the difference in general. The stereo panning is still fairly wide at times, but somehow less harsh. I'm guessing at this point, stereo was getting so common that the recording professionals across the industry were simply getting more adept at creating solid, well-balanced stereo mixes. And again, they had the luxury of more tracks in several cases. Plus, a baroque album like The White Album simply benefits from the expanded sound field that stereo affords. Whether it's the honkey-tonk piano jumping out of one channel in "Rocky Racoon" or the beautifully-recorded orchestra and choir in "Good Night" encompassing both channels, stereo just suits this album so well. That's not to say that there aren't pleasures to be had in the mono mix (I especially like the extra emphasis the pig sound effects in "Piggies" get in mono), but the stereo mix is less cluttered and full of surprises. Plus, the experimental sound collage "Revolution 9" makes no sense in mono. In fact, "Revolution 9" is one of the few times when the group actually did was most of the industry did, which was mix only in stereo, then bounce down to a single track for mono release.

Non-Album Singles

Through their entire recording career, The Beatles released countless non-album singles, including all their biggest hits such as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Hey Jude." Since I've gone on long enough, I'll only say that "Paperback Writer" rocks harder and has a much more effective echo effect in the mono mix. It's flip-side, "Rain," also benefits from a much better balance and sharper equalization in the mono mix. Many of the group's other singles have similar differences.

Other than the Yellow Submarine film soundtrack in 1968, which was never released with mono-specific mixes (although the recent CD release include a few first-time mono releases from the album), the group's post-White Album albums were released in stereo only. So this is where my comparisons end.

In just a small handful of years, The Beatles went from recording in a world where mono ruled to a world in which stereo was now the new standard. As a result of this transition, for the past 40 years, most people have only been familiar with the band's stereo releases. But as I hope is clear from this commentary, the mono mixes are frequently the better mixes. So as all those Beatles purists have been saying for years, you really haven't heard the Beatles until you've heard them in mono. Who knew?


  • Wow! Well done, and very enlightening! Thanks for sharing this!

    By Anonymous Michael L. P. (appropriate final initials, eh?), at 7/10/2010 12:07 PM  

  • Excellent!

    By Anonymous Dan Shapiro, at 8/05/2010 7:49 PM  

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