Monday, January 18, 2010

The Mono Post

It's hard when your core beliefs are shattered.

I grew up thinking that stereo was just always inherently better than mono. And it makes sense if you think about it. If you could have two channels, why would you want to settle for one? It just makes sense that two is better than one and therefore stereo is twice as good as mono.

But I've come to the conclusion that this belief (which I never really questioned before) is ridiculous.

A few months ago when the Beatles remasters came out, I read a lot comparing the mono remasters to the stereo versions. Until about 1967 in the U.S. and 1968 in the U.K., most records sold were mono. The stereo versions were considered novelties. So while the bands would labor for days or weeks on getting exactly the right mono mix, it was often a junior engineer who would jimmy up a stereo mix in an hour or two. And a lot of those stereo mixes involved a lot of artificial separation (to emphasize that there were two separate channels) -- sometimes putting all the vocals on one side and all the instruments on the other. Needless to say, that's a crappy way to listen to music.

Then a funny thing happened to bands that had been around since the mid-60s: their early albums stopped being available in mono. So the public had to buy the stereo versions -- even though those were the versions whose mixes were tossed off with minimal involvement of the creative team that made the record.

This hit me like a ton of bricks when I recently heard a mono version of the Hollies' Greatest Hits. I own this record on vinyl (in stereo) and I love it. The harmonies are wonderful, the songs are great, and it just makes you smile from start to finish. And then I heard the mono mix of the same album.

It's like night and day.

In mono, the drums are sharp and visceral. The vocals are clearer and more natural. The guitars really chime. It's like being in a church that has perfect acoustics.

In stereo (and my vinyl copy had a sticker boasting of scientific stereo separation that was identical to hearing music live), everything feels smooshed together. The drums, guitars, and vocals get mashed together and the attempts to create spread and space just make the music sound muddy. It's like being in a clown car with 20 trombonists all playing in different keys at different tempos.

But even with the inferior sound, I still loved that album. Because the songs were great and even when they were poorly mixed they were still pretty great.

And it makes me wonder how many old records there are whose great mono mixes were discarded and the inferior stereo mixes (without any remixing or remastering to compensate) were put on CD and foisted on an unsuspecting public (or put on MP3 and compressed down to the point where the sound really suffered). All because we believe inherently that two channels has to be better than one.

But think about how ridiculous that is. Does that mean that anything recorded on 256 tracks is 64 times better than something recorded on only four tracks? So the latest Jonas Brothers album is 64 times better than Sgt. Pepper? Is the teenage girl with Pro Tools (or Garage Band) better than Carly Simon just because of technology?

Of course not.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter how many tracks you have or how many channels you master for. What matters is the quality of the songs and the quality of the performances.

And that's why inferior mixes of amazing songs still sound better than amazing mixes of inferior songs.

Still... I wish I would have had the mono version of that Hollies album for all these years.


Anonymous said...

Is the teenage girl with Pro Tools (or Garage Band) better than Carly Simon just because of technology?

It's easy to make that comparison if you leave out Autotune...

Alex said...

It's still easy to make the comparison even with Autotune!

Or to put it another way, just because everyone with a thousand bucks worth of hardware and software could make an album doesn't mean that everyone with a thousand bucks worth of hardware and software should make an album!

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

I proclaim this post and this video Done Gone Viral. Excellent, excellent writing & a great find, Alex.