Blue Note Fake Stereo ’70s reissues: a public-interest post.
For the Blue Note collector with a limited budget, and that is most of us I guess, reissues are an inevitable fact of life. It is also inevitable they will come across reissues which claim to be “stereo”, however that claim is not always to be taken at face value. There are recordings made originally in mono which were later subjected to a form of torture known as “fake stereo”
The problem of fake stereo Blue Notes is largely though not exclusively in Liberty and United Artists reissues of the 1500 Blue Note series, the early half of which RVG recorded only in mono, the technology of the day. Some time around July 1957, with BLP 1554 Art Blakey Orgy in Rhythm Vol1, Van Gelder introduced simultaneous mono and stereo two-track recording from the same board, meaning a stereo tape exists for many subsequent recordings, whether or not used for stereo release at the time.
BLP 1562 – Horace Silver’s “The Stylings of Silver” was the first Blue Note issued in true stereo, though from there only selected titles benefited from both mono and stereo releases eg 1563, 1566, 1569, 1571, 1575-9, 1587, 1589, 1593, the intermediate catalogue numbers being released only in mono. From BLP 1595 Cannonball Adderley Somethin’ Else all subsequent Blue Note titles were released in both mono and stereo except for a small number recorded overseas not by Van Gelder ( Dizzy Reece and Kenny Clarke/ Francy Boland).
A Blue Note reissue from BLP 1501 up to 1552 in stereo is fake stereo. Thereafter until BLP 1595 it may or may not be fake, depending on title. Beyond 1595, stereo is an available option, though there may be examples of unnecessary trickery.
The problem was exacerbated by faking stereo when it was entirely unnecessary. Whether through laziness or by design, Liberty UA engineers went on to create fake stereo out of mono, even though somewhere a true stereo tape existed. Saved a walk to the vault? So here below Kenny Burrell BLP 1543 is turned by United Artists into BST 81543, while gratuitously BLP 1597, for which we know a stereo tape exists, turns into BST 81597 electronically recorded to simulate stereo.
By the ’70s stereo had become a normal future-facing format for record buyers and mono had yet to become fashionably retro. What to do with those 1956-7 Blue Note recordings which only ever existed as one Van Gelder monophonic source tape? Move the problem from marketing over to the sound engineers. All the 1970-3 Liberty UA Black/Light Blue label recordings were issued only in Stereo. Any reissue BLP 1552 or lower was given the electronic treatment. Reissuing original mono was something left to the more respectful Japanese market. However questions remain regarding the over-zealous faking of stereo, and even faking whether they were faked, or even unfaked.
The MM audio gurus say (borrowed from Hoffman Forums):
Joe Harley: “there are lots of mismarked UA Blue Note jackets out there. I’ve had “Electronically Rechanneled Stereo” records that were true mono and had them be true stereo. You have to play them to find out. It’s easy to tell the difference. Just listen to each channel separately. If one side sounds like a bright transistor radio and the other sounds dull as dirt, you have “re-channeled” stereo.
If you have the normal real RVG stereo mix, you’ll have something like this:Trumpet left channel….piano and bass middle…sax and drums right. Avoid real rechanneled LPs like the plague.”
Steve Hoffman: “Only the Van Gelder cuts were made from the original tapes. All the recuts were made from various wacky dubs of one kind or another. Most operators had no idea that their “mono” reels were actually dubbed from stereo tapes with the channels combined. This stuff was not “sacred” like it is to us now. Just old stuff that needed fake stereo to make an extra buck. Little did they know that they had true stereo right there.
Like Joe sez, some of the covers say “fake stereo” but the actual record is mono or in some case, true stereo. My rule of thumb: Unless you see RVG in the deadwax, forget it…”
The Wisdom of Crowds: now forum posters have their say:
Why “fake stereo”?
“It actually was a selling point. In the mid-60s through the 70s it was pretty
much public demand for stereo pressings that lead to all this. People bought
stereo systems or consoles to upgrade to the newest biggest thing. That was
pretty huge for a generation that had gone from wind-up 78s, am radio, and
b&w movies to stuff that was so amazing that we really can’t appreciate it
all. At any rate, you go through used lps and you see that it was a thing for
older lps and compilations of older hits to be rereleased in the “new” stereo
for all those people who upgraded”
“When stereo first came out, many companies issued fake stereo records they tried to sell as real stereo. Because of complaints, Congress passed a law requiring all fake stereo to be clearly and prominently labeled.”
How did they fake stereo?
“In the reprocessing of original mono masters for stereo some just split what tracks the original tape might have had and mixed them into two channels. Some split things by frequency ranges, like what you can do with a stereo equalizer.The more insidious reprocessors did weird things with reverb and other effects.”
“A lot of them use delay and eq, so there is a spacial effect created and boosted by having the bassier eq on one channel. Sometimes the delay is like a slight gate effect, and others like a serious reverb, bordering on echo. Mercury rechanneled Stereo is the best, because if you hate it, you can get mono out of it. Unadulterated mono. Play the left channel only”
“Most of these “rechanneled” mono recordings won’t sum very well back into the original mono, because of the phasing tricks that have been played to simulate a wider soundstage.The absolute bottom of the heap was Capitol’s “Duophonic” method” found in the ’60s and ’70s.
Duophonic (from Wiki): “splitting the signal into two channels, delaying the left and the right channels by means of delay lines and other circuits, desynchronizing the two channels by fractions of a second, and cutting the bass frequencies in one channel with a high-pass filter, then cutting the treble frequencies in the other channel with a low-pass filter. … In some cases, the effect was enhanced with reverb and sometimes adding stereo echo to mono tracks”
Is fake stereo all bad? Music industry PR says bad is the new good:
Nonesuch liner notes say: “The straight mono recording–no matter how good the fidelity–is reproduced with an unnatural, unmusical effect on a good stereo system. The better the stereo playback system, the more unnatural is the mono record. Contrary to the usual idea, the mono record is worse, not better, when played via a stereo player. The explanation is simple. A stereo playback system spreads out the stereo sound for a ‘sound-curtain’ that is often wider than the speaker’s separation. But the same system squeezes the mono sound together tightly in the center. The effect is unnatural and highly unmusical.
Electronic ‘enhancement,’ whatever its form, is a way to adapt the mono playback sound to the stereo machine. It creates an artificial sound-spread. This is the primary purpose of ‘enhancement,’ NOT the right-left locating of various musical instruments.
Good ‘enhancement’ creates differences in phase and volume level between the signals fed to the two stereo speakers so that the resulting sound, instead of operating in a pinched, forced, center point, spreads out from side to side. The improvement in musical naturalness can be extraordinary, quite aside from any ‘realistic’ spatial location. Thus, Stereo Enhancement is highly worthwhile for valuable mono reissues and is in no sense ‘fake’ or dishonest. It is a legitimate adaptation of the mono recording to the stereo player, for maximum musical impact.”
All stereo is “fake”- an engineering artefact which creates an imaginary soundstage. However it can be done in a way that the listener accepts as “real” – a good fake, or it can be done ineffectively, a bad fake, which is the outcome of electronically rechanneled stereo, which sounds horrid. You can not replicate RVG stereo master by “adding a little reverb”.
Musical instruments in a live setting are often mixed through the PA or come blasting at you all from the stage – effectively fake mono. No one stands there (shakes head) asking “why aren’t they playing in stereo?”
Taking issue with the Nonesuch viewpoint, mono is not point-source “tightly in the center”, at least not on my stereo, it’s a fairly wide stage but without differential instrument positioning. It is up for debate how much instrument positioning adds to the musical experience. In some cases it is an integral part of the musical narrative (think Ornette Coleman Free Jazz double quartet) in others it can be irrelevant or worse, a distraction from the musical intent. Some recordings work better in stereo, others work better in mono, none work at all well in rechanneled stereo.
Which to choose – Mono or True Stereo, LJC? Mono can often give lead instruments more focus than in some stereo mixes, like when Coltrane has somehow gotten inside the left speaker, there is a hole in the middle, or the sound stage is “balanced” only when everyone plays simultaneously. One stereo I listened to there were several brass lead instruments, and each musician played their solo on the same left channel, you pictured them running around like Keystone cops, pushing each other off the stage to take their turn in front of the mic
I don’t have a problem with people trying to making a buck, at whatever speed, I have a problem with lousy products like fake stereo, and ebay sellers who withold the information required to value them properly, as fakes.
Question: If God intended us to listen in mono, how come he gave us two ears? Answer: Truthfully, to stop people’s glasses falling off. God prefers Mono. Only to be expected, he’s a well-known to be into mono-theism.
You the jury decide…
You’ve read the arguments setting out the case for the prosecution and the defence. You have heard the expert testimony from the Music Matters gurus (hope they don’t mind me quoting them, full credit given) Now it’s time for you the jury to decide. I have one crucial piece of evidence left, namely an original true mono pressing on Lexington, and a simulated stereo of the same track by Liberty UA 1970-3.
For simplicity it is a Numark 160 kbps rip as I haven’t got the big system and laptop fully up to speed yet. Save waiting for this post.
Original Lexington – mono
Liberty UA rechanneled for stereo
What do you think guys?