Saturday, November 27, 2010

One Brain, Two Ears: Stereo vs Mono

There's a rather humorous video on YouTube making the cyber-rounds as of late. It's called "Bob Dylan Wants You to Embrace Mono" put out by Columbia Records to promote their new release of the box-set Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings, which contains the first 8 albums by Bob Dylan in mono. The movie is presented as an educational film from the 1960s using a ton of archival footage of teenagers at play. In between, a pseudo-professor talks about recorded sound and how the brain is tricked into hearing things in mono as opposed to stereo, which, it is suggested, is bad for your brain (click here for the video). The argument is good one as we come to terms with technology and the ever-changing marketing of music around the world. But what appears to be a commercial, corporate gimmick to sell more CDs has real value when assessing how we hear music and what the new technology has granted us regarding the quality of those sounds.

Mono is the centralized, single-speaker sound that those of us over 40 grew up with when we got into music. We heard it in the single speaker of the car radio or the small transistor radio we borrowed from our older sibling to listen to Top 40 radio stations. With the advent of stereo receivers and the technological breakthrough that was FM, mono was quickly becoming a less desirable way to hear music. The fidelity was usually poor, as stereophonic became the best, most balanced way to hear music. This was particularly true for classical recordings where the violins were on the left and the cellos were on the right, with the woodwinds up the middle, as it were.

The technology to record in stereo was only in the hands of a few major companies such as EMI in Britain and Columbia/CBS in New York. It was rare to find a stereo studio in the mid-west United States or in Canada for instance. Public broadcasting services such as the BBC, CBC and NPR probably had stereo equipment if they had the money and mandate to buy such equipment. In 1958 the first stereo LPs were issued featuring classical music. By the 1970s, with the rise of FM radio in North America, stereo was taken for granted in every LP, or single, we purchased or heard on broadcast radio.

Since the release of The Beatles in Mono box set in 2009, it gave music lovers a chance to hear a different mix of their music as they intended. It should be noted that engineers usually had the freedom to produce stereo mixes on their own time, because the band knew that 99 percent of their fans were only going to hear the mono mixes of their albums. A teen probably had a portable, mono record player in their bedroom anyway, so for The Beatles, stereo mixes weren't a priority until 1968 or so. The mono box set that I purchased on the day of its release in 2009 offered me something new because all I had was the stereo versions either on Capitol Records or Apple as they were sold. Mono versions of The Beatles records weren't made available at my suburban record store due to limited shelf space. Not that it mattered very much since all I wanted was the music in any mix available. So when I got mono box set of The Beatles I was reacquainted with the music in a new sonic way: different mixes, no unnecessary separation of the instruments on one side and the vocals on the other. This set offered me the chance to hear everything in every corner of my living room as the band intended it. The difference between the mono versions and stereo versions, of which I was intently familiar, was a delight to my ears especially on Sgt. Pepper, an album I never heard in mono but understood was the "prefered" version. (Click here for a comparative study of The Beatles in both stereo and mono.)

But, like you, I only have one brain. Hearing music in mono is actually a more natural way of listening to music because the ears aren't working as hard and consequently I can pay more attention to what's going on in the music itself: every chord, drum sound and bass line is heard. The vocal tracks are up front and it sounds like the band is the room with me. So it comes as no surprise that due to the overwhelming success of The Beatles in Mono, other record companies are tapping in their vaults to capitalize on their rock recordings. (Some classical recordings in mono have been issued as box sets over the years.)

Columbia/Sony has released a beautiful box set of Bob Dylan's first 8 albums from his 1962 debut to John Wesley Harding released in 1967. Like The Beatles, this is a set of miniatures: original cover art reduced to CD size with extensive notes from Greil Marcus, the excellent American music historian. Hearing Dylan in this way gives listeners another opportunity to discover his early work without the distraction of stereo, especially on the first 3 records where Dylan's voice (in stereo) was on seperated one side and his guitar on the other. The fragmentation ruined it for me first time out but now the recording has focused the artist in a new way. After all, mono sound was the way we first heard Dylan on the radio before rushing to the store to buy the album. Now his music sounds warmer with his vocals up front as originally intended. Dylan had changed music because he changed the nature of songwriting, but part of that change was the way we heard him. Just consider the difference on “Like A Rolling Stone” between its fragmented stereo mix to the powerhouse mono version (click here and here to hear the difference).

I would argue that technology is responsible for how we understand music. For instance, if I say the words "country blues" your mind’s ear might think of the scratchy old sound of a black musician such as Bukka White singing with an old, out-of-tune guitar. Part of our experience with music and what makes it memorable is how we heard it the first time. If I was to play a recording from the Big Band era, such as "Sing, Sing, Sing" by Benny Goodman, we'd hear a "big" sound: one speaker, 15 musicians and a large brass section blasting out the tune. Mono is like that: immediate, loud, acoustically flat, yet dynamic, because it captures a performance without a stereo process. It’s instantly recognizable. Perhaps this was one reason why John Mellancamp, with the aid of the roots conscious producer T-Bone Burnett, recorded his recent album in mono. It succeeds due to the quality of the performance and how it sounds, This is no-less so of Bob Dylan's early recordings, The Beatles, or any of your favourite pop musicians of the 1960s.

Pro Tools

So if mono is the way to go, why isn't everybody recording in this way? Since we're at the start of a trend, it's not hard to figure out. Digital software such as Pro Tools has virtually replaced all the analogue equipment around the world and this equipment is in stereo, not mono. You can do so much with the digital technology that sounds interesting and inventive that you'd have to be crazy not to work in this way in 2010. But for a period in music history, mono was the recording "currency" as it were. So record companies can now dust off the tapes and blend the high fidelity of digital processing and issue recordings originally done in mono.

We only have one brain and two ears but if it means a re-discovery of a great artist to listen to it in mono then let's hear it.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

1 comment:

  1. Recently I was asked by a professor here at the university, if we could dub a CD (actually a multi-disc set) from mono onto his ipod. Trouble was, the German label used 2 stereo channels with a DIFFERENT piece of mono music on each one, that is symphony #1 on LEFT, symphony #2 on RIGHT! try figuring that one out!