The Beatles In Mono: Depth, Not Width

Tulip Frenzy  took up a collection around the office, looked under sofa cushions for change,  and returned all the 5-cent deposit bottles that had collected in corners in order to buy The Beatles In Mono.  We did so because numerous published sources had declared the mono mix of each of the albums from Please Please Me to The Beatles (White Album) were superior to the stereo mixes we’ve been listening to on CDs since the late 1980s.

It seemed counterintuitive but intriguingly possible that the claims were correct. Though weird, we have to say, to think that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band might sound better in a mix made for one speaker than two.  How could it be possible that, say, “Tomorrow Never Knows” would sound better in mono than stereo?

The truth is, it doesn’t.  Or not quite. Just because more care went into mixing in mono than stereo, and just because the state of the pop music art as George Martin knew it at the time was aimed at optimizing the sound on dashboard AM radios, it does not follow that it actually sounds better to listen to a mid-period and later Beatles song in mono than stereo.

When listening to, say, “Baby You Can Drive My Car” in the mono mix, and then immediately following it with the 1965-stereo mix included here as well, it’s clear that by not separating the drums in the left channel from the piano in the right channel, the song has more punch.

Yet the human head has two ears, one on the right, the other on the left. While “Taxman” on Revolver may take the entire middle part of your face off when you listen to the mono version loudly on your stereo; while the backwards guitars on “TNK” may scramble your cerebellum just the way it was intended, the mono versions are deeper, not wider in sound.  They may take off the top of your head, but they don’t conform to the exigencies of the human anatomy.

Listening to the mono and stereo versions of mid-period Beatles back to back, you can tell Martin was a little lost in how to separate instruments and tracks from one another.  The mono versions are more coherent, more consistent.  They build from bottom to top, and don’t get lost plugging instruments in from side to side.

And yes, for the earlier works, songs like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sounds pretty great in mono.  But once the Beatles had shared a few spliffs and were thinking of “the studio as an instrument,” it just fails to reason that the version mixed for a single speaker is “better.”  It may be more authentic, and it may capture better the way the Beatles were thinking — the mix as they heard them — but it isn’t necessarily more pleasing.  It’s like listening to two different Dylan takes at the same song; each is interesting, and tells you something about the artist, but let’s listen to all of them, and not have to choose.

The entire gang at Tulip Frenzy admires the reasoning behind the effort — and the completists among us appreciate the offering in this expensive box of not only the mono mixes of all non-album tracks (think “Rain” and “Paperback Writer”) but the original stereo mixes of Help and Rubber Soul, which heretofore have never been available on CD.   We could have stood not to have the hype that says the mono mixes are superior to the stereo mixes.  We’re awfully happy to have them — though now our iPod library is groaning, and the thought does occur to us that Apple Corps Ltd might be in cahoots with Apple Computer to drive us to one of those new iMacs with their 2 Terrabyte hard drives.

The Beatles were great enough as is.  No need to hype the mono versions of their albums as even greater than they were.

2 Responses to “The Beatles In Mono: Depth, Not Width”

  1. One thing I have been saying is that they should have taken the bigger leap and re-mixed all of the music for the stereo. I figure that had George Martin knew what we know today, the stereo mix would have sounded much differently.

  2. johnbuckley100 Says:

    Good point.

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