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March 27, 2013 12:14 PM   Subscribe

The Beatles in mono, the Beatles in stereo: an album by album comparison.

Here's part 2. We discussed stereo versus mono at length when the remasters came out in 2009.
posted by Iridic (42 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
All I know is that I love Ringo's drums on "Strawberry Fields Forever." When I listen in mono, it sounds like he's right in front of me. When I listen in stereo, he's way the hell over on my left. Mono is the clear winner.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:26 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mono is the clear winner.

Maybe on that track and on some others; but what strikes me listening to this is how uneven the differences are. There are plenty where it seems to me that the stereo mix is, to my ear, indubitably the better one (take "The Night Before" from Help, for just one example at random). I don't really think the oft repeated claim that the mono mix was the only one they really cared about holds up. I just think that they caught different things in the different mixes.

There is definitely something weird about the Beatles stereo mixes--and something that persists even in the late albums--which is their penchant for extreme channel separation: all the vocals over here, all the instruments over there. It makes them less than ideal candidates for listening on headphones. But I don't usually find it too problematic when listening in a well set-up room.
posted by yoink at 12:32 PM on March 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


What yoink said. Even as a kid listening to their stereo recordings I remember thinking "Why did they do that?". Nobody, save reggae artists that just liked to occasionally mess with you, was recording stereo in that way. It always felt like a mistake, so the mono releases made total sense to me when they happened.

that said, i've never listened to them. sorry ringo, i've moved on. it's all skrillex all the time here.
posted by mcstayinskool at 12:38 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Every so often I'll hear a classic Beatles or Beatles-era tune on the speakers at a grocery store or someplace, and half the instruments or voices are just straight-up missing because they've only got one channel of the stereo mix hooked up. They sure loved to pan things hard left or right. Makes my eyes cross when I try to listen to it on headphones. I guess they were still playing with the technique to see what's possible and what works.

Modern stereo mixing is usually much more subtle - a particular part might be just a little bit louder on the left, and the right channel has a slight reverb on it, which combines to make it sound like it's coming from the left, but it's still pretty intelligible even if you've only got one earbud in.
posted by echo target at 12:41 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Every so often I'll hear a classic Beatles or Beatles-era tune on the speakers at a grocery store or someplace, and half the instruments or voices are just straight-up missing because they've only got one channel of the stereo mix hooked up.

"A Day in the Life" is one of the better examples of this. I'm pretty sure the McCartney vocals are pushed all to one side, so if that channel isn't playing, there's a long stretch in the middle with just the bouncy piano thing that just keeps going and going until the second half of Lennon's "Ahhh ahhh ahhhhhhh" slowly fades in. And then the cacophonous stuff at the very end keeps whipping back and forth between channels, which is more than a little disorienting.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:49 PM on March 27, 2013


which is their penchant for extreme channel separation

That's a problem with the majority of stereo mixes from the 60s, not just the Beatles. Headphones weren't a popular method of listening to music, so to really show off that you had the stereo mix, you wanted something that panned stuff hard to each channel.

I discovered this the hard way with a car stereo I wired up incorrectly in a truck, I had both right channels on the two speakers. Until I played a Beatles tape on it, I never noticed I had it wired wrong (suddenly there's no vocals on half a song). Certainly a different way to listen to their catalog.
posted by inthe80s at 12:49 PM on March 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


I remember years ago my mom listening to Elvis on an old stereo that had a broken speaker - some of the songs ended up being really funny! Like, it would just be the band playing, and then out of nowhere the backup singers crooning "fuuuzzy tree"
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:49 PM on March 27, 2013 [10 favorites]


The exaggerated stereo is more or less a consequence of the fact that they were recording with four-track tape. When you only have a small number of tracks and you need to record more, you use a technique called "bouncing" where you mix two tracks into one. In order to preserve a stereo mix when bouncing, you'd have to record four tracks into two... except that they only had a four-track deck...

It makes for a very dramatic sound. I wouldn't change it for the world.

By the way, if you even vaguely interested in how the Beatles put things together, you should see the awesome documentary about the making of Sgt. Pepper's, it'll blow your mind.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:49 PM on March 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


I can deal with distinct separation as long as the drums are dead center. Anytime the drums are even slightly left or right in the mix, I have a hard time listening.
posted by davebush at 12:51 PM on March 27, 2013


Next y'all will be saying that movies are better in 2D.

(I guess this is all about whether to listen to music in 0D or 1D...)
posted by edheil at 12:59 PM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


They sure loved to pan things hard left or right.

I'm sure this got mentioned in the old thread, but the band basically stayed in the studio for mono mixing then left the stereo mix to George Martin and whomever his second was at the time. I don't think it was 'that's the one they cared about' as much as 'ugh, you do the mix that no one's going to hear, George.'

For me a lot of preferences come down to how I grew up listening to the records - US versions in stereo. My first few listens to the mono versions were as mind-fucking as hearing 'Ultra Rare Trax' or whatever for the first time.

I eagerly anticipate the mono vinyl box (as long as Rainbo doesn't press it, of course - otherwise UK imports here I come).
posted by mintcake! at 12:59 PM on March 27, 2013


US versions in stereo

Also because the rainbow Capitol is the sexiest record label ever. But I digress.
posted by mintcake! at 1:03 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Seriously the stereo from albums from that era is often completely brutal if you've got headphoens on, just completely isolating shit in the far left and right, because it wasn't designed for headphones, it was designed for speakers.

Some music players can switch on a "headphone crossfeed effect" that mitigates the problem.
posted by edheil at 1:03 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the past I had access to surround mixes of Some of Your Favorite Albums, and two things killed me.

One is that mixers (who were generally not the super-talented original stereo mixers) would just move stuff way the hell around—sometimes even splitting tracks into bands of frequencies so that the high part of the bass is in the left speaker and the low part is centered, with a tiny weird bit in the right surround. It's just weird.

The other is that the new surround mixes would be pretty much completely unlike the stereo mixes. They'd make new arrangements with the original stems, sometimes with the wrong instruments in places that ruined the arc of a song, sometimes with tempos that wouldn't match!
posted by infinitewindow at 1:04 PM on March 27, 2013


Interestingly, I've found that the stereo mix throughout Magical Mystery Tour album has some nice touches. They're still playing with the basic right/left separation, but you can hear them playing with the rudimentary soundstage. Especially under headphones, instruments and voices are pretty deliberately located in various positions across the width of the stage. Flying, especially, plays with the stage.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:15 PM on March 27, 2013


I'm sure this got mentioned in the old thread, but the band basically stayed in the studio for mono mixing then left the stereo mix to George Martin and whomever his second was at the time

That's essentially a myth (pdf). It's a myth that was unfortunately given a strong boost by George Martin himself who did not have a terrific memory for the details of how the early albums were put together.
posted by yoink at 1:20 PM on March 27, 2013


I'm mostly deaf in one ear. The bad ear has perfect pitch with notes it can hear, but it is gone on high frequencies. When I listened to the Beatles on Walkman headphones growing up, it used to drive me nuts.

However, it's damn handy to have hard separation on the Beatles and Simon&Garfunkel when you want to learn how to harmonize. Just set it to hard left, all melody vox! Hard right, all harmony vox!
posted by notsnot at 1:25 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Rather than carrying on about the extreme stereo separation (yes, it bothers some) you should really be noting where there's actual differences -- the most obvious examples being Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (that extra phasing on the mono mix makes it sound much more psychedelic), Helter Skelter (the extra bleeping sound effects on the mono, but no blisters on Ringo's fingers?) and the Reprise to Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, with the crowd's sound effects, the different timing at the end, and Paul's much clearer ranting (although it's still not clear enough to hear what he's saying).
posted by Rash at 1:27 PM on March 27, 2013


I eagerly anticipate the mono vinyl box (as long as Rainbo doesn't press it, of course - otherwise UK imports here I come).

[seductive creepy whisper] mintcake!, oh miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiintcaaaaaaaaaaaaaaake, this is the voice of beautiful glossy early UK Parlophone/Apple vinyl Mops pressings. We're right heeeeeeere, mintcake!, just waiting for you. Come play with us, mintcake!. It'll just cost you a few bucks and your immortal soul, and we swear, you can stop whenever you want. miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiintcaaaaaaaaaaaaaake, don't ignore us, mintcake!. We'll be your best friends forever 'n' ever 'n' ever. Look at our Garrard and Lofthouse sleeves, mintcake! So shiny, so pretty. Don't leave us here alone, mintcake!. We need you. miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiintcaaaaaaake.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:28 PM on March 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yoink, that's a neat read, if not necessarily a game-changer. Thanks for that.
posted by mintcake! at 1:41 PM on March 27, 2013


Yoink, that's a neat read, if not necessarily a game-changer.

I think his basic takeaway is really sound: both mixes have their merits and demerits, weird happenstance stuff affected both in different ways, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, and there's just no basis for saying in any sweeping way that either is always the "definitive" mix. I think it would come as a shock to a lot of the "the mono mixes are the One True Way" types to discover that often they were mixing in stereo first, pretty much from the beginning, though.
posted by yoink at 1:46 PM on March 27, 2013


I was listening to a bootleg mono version of Revolver this morning and discovered that the version of Yellow Submarine has a vocal bit that is not on the stereo at all. Fascinating.
posted by zzazazz at 2:08 PM on March 27, 2013


That's what I was talking about, zzazzaz.
posted by Rash at 2:12 PM on March 27, 2013


They sure loved to pan things hard left or right

Stereo was only a few years old at the time of the early EMI recordings. People were confused about what the advantage might be. Salespeople liked to demo stereo gear with sound-effects records to bring out the differences more.

Many people were suitably impressed with locomotives, jets, and racecars "going past" the "viewpoint" of the sound image. People even took home effects records so that they could show off their new gear for their poor, deprived family and friends (who might otherwise accuse them of falling for a gimmick?). Later on, the same trick wasn't enough to sell the public when "quadraphonic" equipment arrived.

At any rate, that consideration weighs for a lot when you find records from the era with extreme panning.
posted by Twang at 2:16 PM on March 27, 2013


I do like that mono Revolver. A lot. I play it exclusively now.
posted by zzazazz at 2:17 PM on March 27, 2013


Cool. Now I just need someone point me to a website that lists the definitive (mono or stereo) version of each track, kplzthanks.
posted by FreezBoy at 2:36 PM on March 27, 2013


They sure loved to pan things hard left or right.

Actually, my understanding is that a lot of that had to do with the state of studio technology at the time - stereo recordings were still a fairly new phenomena, and my understanding is that, at least for the first several Beatles albums, the desks at Abbey road didn't *have* pan pots for stereo field placement - there was basically a three way toggle switch for each channel - hard left, hard right, or centered.

That said, hard LCR panning has made a big comeback in recent years as a stylistic choice for big sounding mixes, and now that the psychoacoustics of positional audio as interpreted by the brain are better understood, we know that the positions of pan pots on the board when soft panning, don't exactly correlate to their perceived position in the stereo acoustic field.

Here's some more info on this if anyone is interested:

http://therecordingrevolution.com/2011/05/04/5-minutes-to-a-better-mix-lcr-panning-part-4-of-31/

http://www.moultonlabs.com/more/principles_of_multitrack_mixing_the_phantom_image/P0/
posted by stenseng at 2:42 PM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


I skipped around through both videos. I only noticed one really major omission. While they pointed out that the fadeouts and effects are different on Paperback Writer, they forgot to mention that Paperback Writer sounds completely fucking awesome in mono, but not in stereo. Cool post.
posted by wabbittwax at 3:05 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Many people were suitably impressed with locomotives, jets, and racecars "going past" the "viewpoint" of the sound image. People even took home effects records so that they could show off their new gear for their poor, deprived family and friends (who might otherwise accuse them of falling for a gimmick?). Later on, the same trick wasn't enough to sell the public when "quadraphonic" equipment arrived.

At any rate, that consideration weighs for a lot when you find records from the era with extreme panning.
posted by Twang at 5:16 PM on March 27 [+] [!]



I'm frankly surprised that quadraphonic Q4 never caught on any better than it did. I was in college at a magical time, the mid 90's, when one could find say a high end technics Q4 receiver for 10$ at a flea market and then hop 2 stalls down and find the Alan Parsons special mix of Dark Side of the Moon for another 1 or 2$. Unless you have severe motion sickness, getting lit up and listening to flanged drums jump over you from the corners of the room is AMAZING.
posted by mcrandello at 3:24 PM on March 27, 2013


Wild guess: maybe the stereo mixes had shorter fadeouts so the total record length would be shorter, leaving room for wider grooves and better stereo quality.
posted by scose at 4:15 PM on March 27, 2013


Japanese Red Wax Mono of Sgt Pepper FTW!
posted by mikelieman at 4:57 PM on March 27, 2013


i think the mono mixes tend to be superior, although from revolver on, the difference tends to lessen until the white album, where i think the stereo mixes work better

i've heard the remasters and was somewhat surprised at how thin abbey road sounded - it may have been 16 track, but the board wasn't as warm sounding

but the real revelation in 60s music is singles mixes vs today's remastered stereo mixes - motown, stax, atlantic, you name it, are all better in the original mono mix - those were engineered to MOVE you and the stereo mixes mess that up somewhat

back to the beatles' work - the most glaring difference is the single mix of revolution vs the stereo mix on the hey jude album - the stereo mix is pretty tame - the mono mix is one of the most thumping records ever made
posted by pyramid termite at 5:01 PM on March 27, 2013


Interestingly, I've found that the stereo mix throughout Magical Mystery Tour album has some nice touches.

Get the latest DVD release of the movie and check out the 5.1 surround mix. It's delicious.
posted by hippybear at 6:13 PM on March 27, 2013


I'm frankly surprised that quadraphonic Q4 never caught on any better than it did.

Quad didn't catch on for a number of reasons, the main one being that the record format for quad was matrixed and was not a very pure signal.

There are a lot of quad format recordings available online, reëncoded for modern 5.1 systems. I've snagged quite a number of them over the past while, and the best ones are the ones which are drawn from the Q8 tapes, which have 4 actual discrete signals, and result in a very pure, fine quad presentation. A lot of them are really great, some of them are merely interesting, a few of them are completely uninteresting.

I'm a huge fan of surround music, and have really loved getting some of the material I've known for decades in a new format. Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water album in the original quad mix is great fun, as is (oddly enough) The Carpenters Singles 1969-1972 album. However, modern 5.1 mixes of music aren't always that great either. Seal's Greatest Hits in surround is one of the most disappointing things I've ever heard.
posted by hippybear at 6:23 PM on March 27, 2013


one of the most thumping records ever made

Back when I bought the mono box set, and was listening to it quite a bit, it was precisely the thump factor that I found most revelatory and pleasing. The bass and drums all sound SO much fatter than the stereo versions.

It should be noted, though, that listening to the mono mixes n headphones isn't so great. The mono mixes are really fine when they're in the air, but on phones they're kinda dull. As many have mentioned of course, the stereo mixes on headphones are generally dreadful, often almost unlistenable, due to the absurd asymmetrical panning choices. Which pretty much means that the Beatles are just mostly no good on headphones! Haha!

Another thing: making mono mixes as good as those Beatles records is really fucking difficult. To bring out all the instrumental and vocal elements but maintain clarity and emphasis, without the luxury of spatial separation, is a hella job, man. Try it sometime, and you'll gain enormous respect for what George Martin and the Beatles did with mono mixing.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:23 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


To bring out all the instrumental and vocal elements but maintain clarity and emphasis, without the luxury of spatial separation, is a hella job, man. Try it sometime,

i do - generally speaking, if it doesn't sound right in mono, it's NOT right and i need to make adjustments

i did make an exception for "anxiety" on my last rpm album, because i just decided that the guitar being mostly buried in the mono playback and loud as hell on the stereo play back was just one of those things i had to live with

but, yeah, i check everything i do in mono and it's a great way of making sure the levels of everything is right - i'm not so sure my mixes are all that good - but they'd be a lot worse if i didn't check them that way
posted by pyramid termite at 6:46 PM on March 27, 2013


All this fuss about the Beatles, which is justified, makes me wish that The Who had not turned their catalog to Pete's ex-brother-in-law who turned in some truly ghastly remasters. I'd love to here The Who Sell Out in proper, pristine mono form. And don't get me started on how fucked up the version of Quadrophenia was.
posted by Ber at 7:34 PM on March 27, 2013


The first Ramones record is like that with the extreme channel separation, all the guitar panned one way and all the bass panned to the other with the drums and vocals in the middle.

It's not just conventional wisdom that they only cared about the mono mixes up until around Sgt. Pepper, George Martin and individual Beatles have said so. Plus hardly anyone had stereo sound systems before 1967, that was right about when they started becoming more popular.
posted by DecemberBoy at 9:16 PM on March 27, 2013


I grew up listening to my mom's old LPs with headphones, and the Beatles' stereo stuff blew my mind. If you closed your eyes while listening to their late stuff, it was like you were right in the middle of the song, surrounded by guitars and elephants and clucking chickens and roaring crowds and weird, mumbly little men. It was like your ears were on acid.

Apparently Douglas Adams was similarly impressed by this stuff, and during production of the Hitch-hikers Guide radio show he drove everybody nuts with his obsession about getting the "sound picture" just right. Those shows still sound amazing.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:11 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


It should be noted, though, that listening to the mono mixes n headphones isn't so great. The mono mixes are really fine when they're in the air, but on phones they're kinda dull.

Oh, wow, totally not my experience. The reason I love the mono mixes so much is because it's like having the Beatles playing inside of my skull.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:44 AM on March 28, 2013


It's not just conventional wisdom that they only cared about the mono mixes up until around Sgt. Pepper, George Martin and individual Beatles have said so. Plus hardly anyone had stereo sound systems before 1967, that was right about when they started becoming more popular.

Did you read the pdf piece I linked above? It shows pretty conclusively that none of these points bear much scrutiny.
posted by yoink at 8:58 AM on March 28, 2013


If you listen to the last radio interview that John Lennon did with Andy Peebles at the BBC it contains some discussion of the various Lennon/Beatles re-issues. Lennon was keen to ensure that George Martin was involved in the remix for the Red and Blue compilation albums.

Peebles: Vocals right everything else left or vicky verky!
Lennon: Yeah that surprised me I don't know what we were doing there, I want to talk to George Martin about that, why were we always putting the drums on the right and why wasnt it in the middle, I was surprised, I always thought in terms of mono anyway, I wasnt that sold on stereo.
posted by Lanark at 12:32 PM on March 28, 2013


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