Mono or Stereo – is it really just a matter of preference?
GALLERYPosted on April 13, 2017
LJC-Michael-Caine- Professor Jazz fastshow30A reborn vinyl collector wrote to me recently for advice on whether they should seek out a mono or a stereo copy of a particular record. (I do respond to interesting questions) I think it was regarding Kind of Blue, but the question applies to a whole lot of other music too, so I thought I’d extend my answer into a post, kick around a few ideas, invite you to contribute your thoughts. There are new collectors here who might welcome some wider advice, rather than just my opinion.
Mono/Stereo is a big zone of interest for all jazz fans and record collectors, why not give it another airing, with a new focus. Give me a rest from dissecting records.
My initial thought in reply to my questioner was the lazy answer, “it depends which you prefer”. That’s always a safe answer, but having written it down, I thought, actually, it’s not just that. Some recordings work better in mono, others work better in stereo, irrespective of your general preference. There are guiding principles that need to be teased out, to help guide us through the format choices. My focus starts with Blue Note, then extends to other labels
Rudy Knows Best: “as intended”
Most everything Blue Note recorded before 1958 was intended to be mono, and should remain so. Most if not everything recorded after 1962 (we can argue about the exact year) was recorded for and released in stereo and that is how it was intended, and should remain so. The difficult bit is in the middle, where it is available in both formats in between those years.
These were some the golden and arguably most productive years of modern jazz, so it is not a trivial question. You have a choice, mono or stereo, but how to decide?
Van Gelder used two-track tape for several years in the late ’50s early ’60s but apparently never intended these to be used for final stereo output. However there was industry pressure to ride the stereo wave. Manufacturers had new stereograms to sell, record distributors didn’t want to stock every title in two formats, the stereo revolution took hold, leading to those intended-for-mono recordings being issued as a stereo edition. Recordings already in two-track were simply mastered for stereo, some earlier mono recordings re-engineered into pseudo stereo, and others took mono recordings and simply described them on the jacket as stereo, genuine fakes.
[LJC: Starts brawl here, what Van Gelder intended when he monitored only in mono,…some of these thing have already been well-aired in the past… continue at your own pace if it has mileage for you, it’s Easter break, we got lots of time…I’m putting my feet up]
The result of using twin track recordings intended for mono as a stereo source is not always pleasant, especially with some other labels and lesser engineers. Instead of being excited to find a “stereo” recording from the crossover period, I learned to look at it with grave suspicion, especially Riverside and Atlantic, but some Blue Note too.
Often the feature artist would be placed not in the centre of the soundstage as we have today, but on the far left. Worse, on some titles with a sequence of soloists, they would each take turns in occupying the far left position, you picture them pushing each other off the bandstand to get to the mic. Even when the front line was spread between left and right channels, according to the demands of the tune, there would be nothing happening on one side or the other for long periods of time. The rhythm section would be broken up to fill vacant positions commonly placing the noisy drums on the far right and piano and or bass in the middle. It is not nice “wrap-around” stereo, it’s use of two-track tape for a different purpose from that intended – accidental stereo..
Is lasagne mono or stereo pasta?
You could place a portion of lasagne in the centre of your dinner plate, or you could place the pasta sheets on the left side of the plate, the bolognaise on the right side, and spoon some béchamel sauce into the centre, so you can concentrate on the taste of the ingredients individually. Some things are meant to be integrated, as in lasagne, others are not. Lasagna is mono.
Other Preferences: The Search For An Authentic Past
One reason why some collectors favour mono over stereo is that
mono is authentic to the period, or words to that effect. You hear this a lot from Beatles fans. The “original” is mono, like ’60s photographs look more authentic in black and white. I’ve got to tell you, I was there in the ’60s, and life was in colour, it always has been. But people are looking for imagined historical authenticity, not whether it sounds better or works better musically now. It’s their preference, they are paying, why not have what they want, retro.
With digital distribution formats like CD, I-tunes and Spotify, the mono option has almost never been offered to you. If you want the authentic retro experience it has to be vinyl.
Good vs bad Stereo: stereo came of age at different speeds: always read the label
Blue Note: Van Gelder after about 1962 it’s really is a matter of preference, there is nothing much wrong with stereo balance in the final Blue Note years, and often I like to have both for a given title. Before 1962, mono is my preferred choice. Van Gelder’s mono/ Plastylite is thrilling, big, room-filling sound, the format is not front of mind as the music becomes the focus of your attention.
Contemporary Records: and briefly, Stereo Records, Roy du Nann was the master of stereo from the get go, 1958-ish, stereo every time where it is available.
Columbia: engineers like Fred Plaut also had grasped the recording and mixing of stereo from the very earliest days, and had all the toys the big movie studio could afford, and The Church with its ethereal presence. We know they used three track recorders, sending part through a reverb chamber, to generate that sense of air and space. Columbia is always welcome on my turntable, stereo as a first preference.
Riverside: early stereos can be among the worst presentation imaginable, a hole in the middle, or nothing happening on one channel most of the way through, such that you wander up to see if a speaker cable has come loose. Heaven only knows what the engineers intentions were. Perhaps it is significant that most those Riverside recordings were distributed in Europe ( Interdisc) almost always only in mono, with just a few exceptions. Mono is generally a better experience, one exception being Bill Evans Trio, where each player is so intense, stereo is a sublime physical presence.
Impulse: of course was a child born in the Stereo Age, always a good choice. Mono was intended for radio play, then soon phased out altogether.
Other labels: : I have heard some real early stereo horrors among these, where one channel would be delayed out of phase, reverb added, bass and treble filters applied to draw off different instruments. If you sum the channels with a mono-switch to restore a mono image, the two halves are not symmetrical and you just end up with earache. Early Atlantic and RCA Victor stereo seem to be among the least satisfactory.
Artistic reasons for preference
Irrespective of the merits of mono and stereo format in general, there are some recordings where the format is successful in only one or the other, for artistic reasons.
Live club recordings: can benefit enormously from an intimate atmospheric recreation through stereo, providing the recording of the audience and room ambience is done well, and the successful recording of each instrument. Musicians in the room feels like a natural soundstage, though the engineering process is in no way natural. The worst live recording is the sort of bootleg quality: someone turns up at a gig with a tape recorder and points a couple of microphones in the general direction of the bandstand. The excuse is usually “a historically significant recording” to counter a bad recording. I have picked up a few of those, never satisfying.
Artistic contribution: the instrument positioning and sound stage doesn’t always make any artistic contribution to the music – rather, it is independent or even can be sometimes destructive of it. Some examples:
Monk on Columbia is usually more satisfactory in mono. Columbia did odd things like put Monk hard panned on one channel, and put Charlie Rouse tenor in the centre. You wonder whose album it is, Monk or Rouse? it is counter-intuitive to the ear schooled on modern stereo. The centre of attention isn’t where it should be.
Coltrane Love Supreme – must be mono! Otherwise it’s all Coltrane in one speaker for thirty minutes until the final few seconds resolution. I initially chose stereo and ended up buying another copy in mono for that reason.
Ornette Free Jazz – double quartet must be stereo, you can’t fit eight musicians in the centre, the music makes no sense that way, they don’t call and answer. I recall agonising between two original copies, one mono one stereo, around the same price, and only with hindsight finding I made the “wrong” choice, because at that time I naively thought “mono is better, isn’t it”? There are many recordings which benefit from stereo soundstage separation, this is one of them.
Most compelling argument for a Stereo edition? The Cover, of course. Observe:
The inclusion of the word “Stereo” in the top of the cover design appears to have created a wardrobe malfunction for Frances Taylor, Mrs Miles Davis.
Mono or stereo, sir? Umm.. I’ll take the stereo, just plain wrap it please.
Did Miles know? “Honey, about that decolettage…” The jazz-goes-to-college Bachelor Demographic definitely opted for stereo, jazz reviews in Playboy Magazine for the same reason. We’ve had the mono lasagna, we now have stereo cheescake, who would have thought it?
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