How They Heard It – Blue Note Records and the Transition from Mono to Stereo

GUEST POST : Richard Capeless, October 23, 2014

Ed. Note: In the second draft of this article, I aimed to trim much of the fat. For those of you who have already read the first draft, I hope that you will find this one more focused, better organized, and easier to digest. – Rich Capeless, October 23, 2014


If you’re an audiophile or record collector with an interest in classic jazz, you’re probably aware of the multitude of passionate opinions on both sides of the mono-stereo debate, especially for albums released on the Blue Note label. While casual jazz listeners have most likely never considered whether they’re listening to a mono or stereo recording, most audiophiles and record collectors are well aware of the difference. Keeping in mind that Blue Note’s classic catalog is filled with historically significant recordings that tug at the strings of every jazz fan’s heart helps explain why the topic has a tendency to provoke strong emotions.

The choice between mono and stereo—if it even need be made—is ultimately a personal preference that may even change from title to title. Those with access to both formats will ultimately rely on their ears in making a choice, but both versions of an album are not always accessible. In either case, jazz fans on both sides of the issue bring up the topic of “creative intentions” time and time again. This usually refers to the way a recording would have been heard in the studio by the producers, musicians, and engineers involved in the recording process. Having experience with audio engineering and an interest in the methods of Blue Note’s legendary house recording engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, I came to realize that there is a good amount of misunderstanding regarding this topic (rightfully so), and the objective of this article is thus to help clarify any confusion jazz fans may have.


Before we begin, I just wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page regarding some important terminology. The term “mono” is short for “monaural”, which describes audio recordings and equipment utilizing a single audio channel or “track”. On the other hand, “stereo” recordings and equipment (originally called “binaural”) take advantage of two audio tracks. While it’s possible that stereo was invented merely to provide record labels with the ability to say they have the next big thing, the technology would eventually be harnessed to create a more realistic sense of “space” for the listener than mono. Thus in the late-1950s and throughout the 1960s, stereo slowly but surely supplanted mono as the industry’s standard format.

When it comes to recording equipment though, the terms “mono” and “stereo” can be misleading. When recording studios first implemented two-track tape recorders in the 1950s, they weren’t always utilized with the sole aim of creating a stereo “field” or “image”. So these tape recorders and their tapes were not typically referred to as “stereo” but rather “two-track”, and single-track (mono) equipment and tapes came to be referred to as “full-track”.

In the dawn of stereo, before the format had proven itself a viable commodity, many producers and recording artists still focused on the mono “mix” of a recording. In many of these instances, both the mono and stereo releases of an album were derived from a single two-track tape, but the producers and recording artists only gave the mono version their undivided attention. This was the case with The Beatles’ earliest recordings, for example.

As the stereo format grew in popularity though, the creative focus for many shifted from mono to stereo. In these instances, labels still wanted studios to create mono “masters” for the record pressing plant so long as there was a substantial demand for mono records (keep in mind that the term “master” can refer to either a tape or a lacquer disk). So in many instances where stereo was the creative focus for a recording session, the mono master was created simply by summing the two tracks utilized for the stereo recording without any creative attention given to the process. This technique came to be known as “folding down” a stereo mix into a mono mix, and it is also worth noting that it often (not always) created a “generation loss” in the mono master—a decline in fidelity caused by copying one tape to another.

A Land Before Stereo

Prior to March 7, 1957, everything Blue Note did was mono, from monitoring the recording sessions all the way down to the initial release of the albums. Though artificially rechanneled “faux-stereo” versions of these albums were churned out during the stereo craze of the 1970’s, the vast majority of jazz collectors and audiophiles will agree that these are highly compromised presentations of the original mono recordings. So for all albums recorded prior to March 7, 1957, mono is the only sensible option.

Introduction to Two-Track Tape

By early 1957, stereo was causing a big enough commotion for Blue Note to ask Rudy Van Gelder to start recording sessions to both full-track and two-track tape. Though most Blue Note studio recordings were conducted at Van Gelder’s home studio in Hackensack, New Jersey at this time, the team made their first documented two-track recording on March 7, 1957 in the ballroom of a hotel in New York City named Manhattan Towers. (For a time, Blue Note recorded larger ensembles here as well as big-name artists like Jimmy Smith who had an inkling for jamming past the normal curfew time at Van Gelder’s.) The recording was of an Art Blakey percussion ensemble for the LP Orgy in Rhythm, Volume 1 (BLP 1554).

Van Gelder recorded one other session to both full-track and two-track tape for Blue Note at Manhattan Towers in the coming months (Sabu, Palo Congo, BLP 1561). Then on May 8, 1957 for a session with the Horace Silver Quintet (The Stylings of Silver, BLP 1562), the engineer started running full-track and two-track tape simultaneously for all Blue Note sessions at Hackensack, a practice that continued uninterrupted for eighteen months until October 31, 1958. With Blue Note hesitant to jump into the stereo marketplace though, all albums recorded to both full-track and two-track tape during this time period would only be released in mono initially.

First two-track session at Hackensack  BLP 1562 The Stylings of Silver

The first two-track session at Hackensack: BLP 1562, The Stylings of Silver

The 50/50 System

In late 1958, about a year and a half after Rudy Van Gelder first began recording Blue Note sessions to both full-track and two-track tape, the label finally decided to make its move into the stereo LP market. This meant the engineer needed to ready his first-ever stereo master lacquer disk for the Plastylite pressing plant. The first LP chosen for a stereo release was in all likelihood Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else (BLP 1595). To create the stereo master for this album—which had already been mastered and released in mono several months prior—Van Gelder would have retrieved the two-track session tape from the then-untouched and unheard vault of two-track tapes he had stored away. But when he went to assemble the master two-track reel to be utilized in cutting the stereo master lacquer disk, he must have foreseen how much tedious and difficult work lie ahead if he were to continue recording Blue Note sessions to both full-track and two-track tape: for every single album recorded, Van Gelder was going to have to make the exact same splices on two different tapes.


The first stereo master lacquer Van Gelder ever cut was most likely BLP 1595, Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else

Major labels like Columbia had deep enough pockets to hire double the engineers and pay double the cost of labor to have two separate teams simultaneously working on the mono and stereo versions of an album. But Van Gelder enjoyed working alone, and Blue Note couldn’t afford such a robust staff anyway. Was there a way for the engineer to create both the mono and stereo master lacquer disks from a single session tape?

If he only recorded to full-track tape it would have been impossible to create a stereo master from that tape, and recording to two-track tape only would have initially seemed like an unattractive option since Van Gelder did not have a stereo monitoring system in his Hackensack studio.

But just when all hope for the desired simplicity seemed lost, Van Gelder, known to be quite resourceful in the studio, realized a third option: if he made both the mono and stereo LPs from a single two-track tape, he didn’t have to monitor the sessions in stereo. In other words, even if the music was being recorded to two tracks, he could still do all the recording and mixing during a session while listening to a single speaker. That way, when he went to create the mono master disk later, as long as he summed the channels together at equal volumes during the session, all he would need to do was sum them back together again the same way and he would hear exactly what was heard during the session. He called this clever method of getting two recordings for the price of one “the 50/50 system”, and on Halloween 1958, Art Blakey’s Moanin’ (BLP 4003) became the last Blue Note album ever to be recorded to full-track tape by Van Gelder.

art blakey-moanin'

BLP 4003, Cannonball Adderley, Moanin’ would be the last Blue Note session ever to be recorded to full-track tape

“Analog Tapes Do Not Like To Be Copied”: Avoiding Generation Loss

Because of his notoriously painstaking precision, attention to detail, and pioneering usage of high fidelity equipment, Rudy Van Gelder can be considered one of the earliest audiophiles. As such, he had every intention to avoid tape generation loss whenever possible. Thus it is worth emphasizing that no tapes were copied within the 50/50 system. In Frederick Cohen’s record collecting guide Blue Note Records: A Guide for Identifying Original Pressings, Van Gelder explained that

“both LP formats could be made from the original tape—not copies because analog tapes do not like to be copied to another analog tape.”

Cohearent Audio mastering engineer Kevin Gray further explained the 50/50 system through email correspondence. Sessions were recorded to a two-track “session tape”, then the takes for the album were “spliced” out of that reel and assembled as a new reel to create the “master tape”, which in turn would be used to cut both the mono and stereo master lacquer disks. The 50/50 system did not require Van Gelder to “bounce” the two-track master tape down to another full-track tape before cutting the mono master lacquer disk, and thus any and all potential generation loss between the two-track session reel and the mono cutter head was avoided.


Stereo Positioning

If we listen carefully to the stereo releases of Blue Note albums recorded between May 1957 and May 1959, it’s possible to gain a sense of Rudy Van Gelder’s progress in developing and eventually settling on a particular stereo positioning scheme for the majority of his two-track recordings. There were only three positions for a musician and their instrument in a stereo mix at this time: hard left, dead center, or hard right (pan pots would not become a staple of mixing consoles until the seventies), and though his choices varied to a degree during this period, the majority of these recordings position horns left, piano center, and bass and drums right. (The center was empty on occasion, as it was with Blue Train, for example, with horns, reeds, and piano on the left and drums and bass on the right).

But then in January 1959, Van Gelder suddenly shifted the bass to the center of the stereo field, and over the next few months he would slowly but surely move the reeds to the right. What caused this sudden change of heart?

Luckily, the pieces of this puzzle fit together quite well. Having bass frequencies positioned hard left or right on a stereo record is known today to cause problems when mastering for vinyl. Van Gelder must have realized this after cutting his first stereo master lacquer disks in late 1958, which in turn would have spawned a period of increased experimentation lasting several months. Finally in May 1959, the engineer settled on a stereo positioning scheme for the typical jazz quintet: trumpets left, piano and bass center, and saxophone and drums right, and these choices would end up being Van Gelder’s unwavering preferences for the duration of the classic Blue Note era.


Monitoring at Hackensack

On at least two occasions, Van Gelder has thoroughly explained that he only had mono monitoring capabilities in his Hackensack studio, where he recorded until the summer of 1959. From Cohen’s Blue Note guide, Van Gelder:

“The studio in Hackensack never had a stereo monitoring system. It had only one speaker in the control room and one in the studio for playback, so all the two-track sessions were monitored on one speaker.”

The story of how Cohen arrived at the quote referenced above is an interesting one. Cohen had originally interviewed Van Gelder in person for the guide. But upon seeing several rough drafts, Van Gelder, notoriously particular about the way he is presented in print, decided Cohen should just quote the liner notes from a 1999 Japanese Blue Note compilation CD instead, where the engineer believed he had addressed the topic word-perfect. In the process of pointing Cohen in the direction of those liner notes, he also requested that Cohen emphasize a particular sentence with italics:

“The sole purpose of the original two-track setup was not placement in space but to make the mono sound better.”

The engineer would echo this sentiment again in 1999 during an interview for the online publication All About Jazz:

“…Everything that was made in Hackensack was mono. Even towards the very end when we were recording two-track we weren’t listening in stereo. We were recording in two-track and we were listening in mono because there was only one speaker in Hackensack in the control room and only one speaker in the studio. So how could you listen in stereo when you only have one speaker? And all the judgments, (producer Alfred Lion)’s judgments, as to mix and balance, and mine too and the musicians too and how they sounded in relationship to each other, and all that during the creative part of those recordings was done in mono. It couldn’t be any other way. Towards the end we were running two-track sessions but no one had ever listened to them. So there was no particular attention or attempt at creating a stereo field at that time.”


RVG Hackensack Ampex

Rudy Van Gelder in the control room of his Hackensack studio

Monitoring at Englewood Cliffs

In June 1959, Rudy Van Gelder made his last recording in the living room of his parents’ Hackensack home, and one month later he was ready to roll at his new studio and living space in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Although Van Gelder’s new control room would have one speaker front and center for mono monitoring and two speakers flanking it on both sides for stereo monitoring, the tried a true practice of monitoring Blue Note sessions in mono continued for some time. From Cohen’s guide, Van Gelder:

“When the studio in Englewood Cliffs opened in July 1959 it had three speakers in the control room and four speakers in the studio, but the practice of editing and monitoring in mono for Blue Note sessions was continued for a few years.”

But at what point in time might the stereo balance of a recording have become of equal or greater concern for Blue Note co-founder and producer Alfred Lion? If we take a look at the first three years of Blue Note’s stereo LP release schedule (as conveyed in Cohen’s guide by way of Blue Note archivist Michael Cuscuna), perhaps we can gain a better understanding of the label’s interest in stereo over the years.

For the first two and a half years Blue Note released stereo LPs (May 1959 to December 1961), the label always released the mono version of an album ahead of the stereo. What’s more, of the 68 LPs released by the label in that time frame, 42 wouldn’t see a stereo release for decades. As for the remaining 16 LPs, even those only saw their stereo release months after the mono.

Then in December 1961, just in time for the holiday season, Art Blakey’s Mosaic (BLP 4090) became the first Blue Note album to have the mono and stereo versions released simultaneously. Over the course of the next several months, stereo releases would get closer and closer to their mono counterparts. Finally in August 1962, Blue Note began releasing all LPs in mono and stereo at the same time, and this practice continued uninterrupted for the duration of the mono era.

Mosaic (BLP 4090) would be the first Blue Note LP to have both the mono and stereo versions released simultaneously

BLP 4090, Art Blakey, Mosaic would be the first Blue Note LP to have both the mono and stereo versions released simultaneously

While it’s worth mentioning that the year 1962 suspiciously coincides with Van Gelder’s crude approximation that mono monitoring continued “for a few years” after the move to Englewood Cliffs, we ultimately cannot know for sure when Blue Note began paying more attention to the stereo mix of their records.


Rudy Van Gelder’s testimony over the years suggests two important facts. First, all monitoring and mixing at Hackensack was done in mono. This covers the entire period of time the engineer was recording to both full-track and two-track tape for Blue Note (May 1957 to October 1958). Second, Blue Note sessions were still monitored and mixed in mono at the end of the Hackensack era despite being recorded to two-track tape only, and this practice continued for an undisclosed amount of time into the Englewood Cliffs era.

When I first started collecting vintage Blue Note LPs, I understood that mono was the only option for their earliest recordings. But for later LPs, I wasn’t content with just seeking out the most affordable and readily available option (which just so happened to be stereo). Until I was able to audition both versions of an album, I wanted to know how the music was heard in the recording studio during the sessions, and I wanted to make my choices based on that.

When I began my research, I was surprised to find out from a number of sources that the mono masters of all classic Blue Note albums recorded after October 1958 were fold-downs of the original stereo master tapes. This suggested to me quite plainly that the stereo mix must have been the focus in the recording studio at that time.

But upon delving further into the issue, I discovered that the topic was more complicated than it first seemed. While it’s true that within the 50/50 system the channels of each two-track tape were combined in the same manner as a common “fold-down”, I find the use of the phrase here shortsighted because it typically suggests that a recording was mixed in stereo, not mono. Although it’s easy to understand why so many jazz fans would jump to the same conclusion I did, the irony is that the exact opposite was true with the 50/50 system, and as strange as it may sound, it would be more accurate to say that the stereo masters were “unfolded from the mono mixes”.

I used to be a passionate yet idealistic advocate for the mono versions of these LPs, but my militant allegiance has relaxed significantly as I have become a more experienced collector. At this point it’s clear that both formats have their strengths, and I can now say with confidence that jazz fans are sure to enjoy these great recordings in whichever format they may happen to appear in.


Special thanks to Michael Cuscuna, Kevin Gray, and Frederick Cohen for their contributions.

Further References

For further reference, please visit and, where I have posted two databases that were essential in my research.

Please note that this article only addresses Rudy Van Gelder’s methods regarding the Blue Note label and does not address his practices with respect to other labels.

LJC-HipHop-DJ-ngPut your hands together and thank Richard Capeless, writing as DGMono, for his scholarly efforts to nail down definitively what this stereo thing was all about. How it happened, why it happened, and who it was that happened it.

To play you out, a little comparison, to theme:

A needledrop of Blue Note van Gelder mono, Little Johnny Coles, from DGmono


And now from DJ-LJC the stereo needle drop, Blue Note original vinyl BNST 84144



Different, you may prefer one over the other, but I recommend holding back on the much over-used word “better”.


What's Happenin'


99 thoughts on “How They Heard It – Blue Note Records and the Transition from Mono to Stereo

  1. FWIW I don’t agree with the statement that it was a highly compromised recording process. 🙂 I definitely get that you believe that is ‘the bottom line’, though that is not the point of my article in particular.

    I will say that I think the value of original mono Blue Notes is often pretty wild, but I get why people value them. Van Gelder has expressed in interviews tirelessly that if one wants to consider “artistic intentions” both his and Alfred Lion’s interest in that era was in mono, through the ’60s to the end where they sold the label and Lion stepped down. That’s my assessment, and though I have many quotes supporting that claim, it’s certainly not fact and anyone is free to disagree.

    As for the use of the word “binaural” predating “stereophonic” to refer to stereo sound, I understand that the word “binaural” has its origins in audiology and that it originally referred to organisms (people) hearing with two ears. I’m also aware that a certain recording technique that uses two microphones to record in stereo is also called binaural recording, and further that “binaural” was closely associated with the earliest stereo vinyl technology that incorporated two cartridges. But commenter Bob Furmanek has an excellent website providing evidence of “binaural” being used commercially to refer to stereo tapes in 1950s, and it appear that the word was not always referring specifically to the recording technique but the actual tape:

    I does however appear that once the modern stereo LP with a single groove was conceived in the mid-1950s that the term binaural may have been more often associated with the old “double-groove” style of stereo records and the new single groove “stereo” or “stereophonic”.

    Finally, if I recall correctly I think that part of the article was actually a contribution by LJC himself…not sure if he wants to chime in here…


    • The point of the article was to give background to Van Gelders recording choices and how he dealt with the move to Stereo no? And my reaction to it is that they valued saving money and time over the quality of the recording. I think that’s an extremely fair and objective point of view.


      • To clarify, I disagreed with your statement that the 50/50 method represents a highly compromised recording process, with the emphasis on the word “highly”. Since I cannot conduct my own experiment comparing the 50/50 system with tracking on separate tape machines, for me to agree with your statement I think I’d need to know that summing the channels of the two-track tape introduced a lot more noise into the mono mix than the supposed 3 db I mentioned earlier (it’s also possible that the noise floor for each of the Ampex 350’s two channels was lower than that of the full-track 300, though I have no idea if that’s true).

        For the stereo mix, note that Van Gelder and Lion didn’t monitor the stereo mix at all at Hackensack (at least that’s what Van Gelder says). I do find that the earlier Hackensack stereo mixes are on occasion substandard (on other occasions magically outstanding), but that would make sense if they weren’t monitoring the two-track tapes. For stereo records made after May ’59, I think the concern is that there would be an inferior balance due to the theoretical 3 db drop in the “center” signal when “unfolding” from the mono balance. I would like to point out that 1. we don’t know the extent to which Van Gelder and Lion were monitoring in mono and/or stereo at Englewood Cliffs, and 2. I’ve tried folding stereo Blue Note records together, and the piano and bass–the centered instruments–don’t sound any louder to me. Also remember that Van Gelder usually had a “set it and forget it” approach to balancing the instruments left, center, and right in the ’60s, so failing to carefully monitor the stereo mixes may have very well had little to no effect on their quality…that’s how I hear it anyway, they all sound very balanced after May ’59.

        I also think we should keep in mind that in the late ’50s and early ’60s many labels were creating the mono versions of their recordings by mixing a multitrack tape down to mono (the same goes for stereo too when the session tape was more than two tracks). This is definitely true for Atlantic, Columbia, and Parlophone. So all of these mono mixes essentially have the same noise “problem” as in Blue Note’s 50/50 system.

        That leaves the possibility that he cut mono records in the ’60s with a stereo cutting head. I should be able to provide evidence of that either way soon, but for now my money is on those ’60s mono LPs having 1-mil grooves. Van Gelder has been too enthusiastic about mono his entire life for me to suspect that he would cut a corner like that. I will say however that on second thought, he could have been trying to master two (stereo) records at the same time, so who knows?

        I wouldn’t go as far as saying your assessment is “unfair”. I think you have been persistent in claiming that both the mono and stereo mixes of late ’50s and ’60s Blue Note recordings aren’t as great as a multitude jazz fans believe they are because of the compromises inherent in the 50/50 system, though I simply do not believe that those compromises affected either the mono or stereo versions in any significant way.

        So where do you stand with your own collecting? Do you like Blue Note recordings made after 1957 at all? Do you have a general preference for stereo or mono, original pressings or reissues?


      • One more importing thing that I overlooked: Other labels at this time were recording to two or three tracks and mixing down to a mono master tape before cutting the lacquer. Van Gelder wanted to avoid the tape generation loss accrued at this step, and as outlined in the quote above, his desire to go straight from the two-track tape to the lathe in order to cut both the mono and stereo lacquers was a key factor in the creation of the 50/50 system. I think that was pretty clever and it’s probably part of the reason why I chose not to focus on the (minor) compromises inherent in the system when I wrote the article.


  2. After reading the article, to me it seems the 50/50 method was more about compromise and less about ingenuity. Van Gelder started recording on 2 track tape but still monitored the sessions in mono and thus sacrificing the quality of the stereo mix. Why would he do that? Especially since the industry was shifting to stereo and the demand for stereo was increasing. Also, recording in 2 track only to sum the channels together for the mono cutter head is in my opinion the antithesis of hi-fidelity. No doubt the sound would be compromised compared to full track recording being sent to the cutter head. Hopefully someone can shed some light on these thoughts, thanks.


    • I think the article explains why he did it.

      Indeed, I think it was a compromise. Giving Van Gelder credit for being innovative was in reference to the fact that (as far as I know) he came up with his own solution for using a single master tape to make both the mono and stereo masters of recordings. If anything the compromise may have been that by summing two channels to make a mono master he was getting “double” the noise (tape hiss), though I think “doubling” the noise floor means raising it by 3 db. The noise floor would have already been pretty low on a full-track master tape so raising it 3db seemed to be the compromise Van Gelder was willing to make.


      • The whole system was a compromise, no longer recording or mastering in true Mono but also not mixing in stereo in my mind is kind of a fail. So was he cutting the stereo lacquer on a stereo cutterhead and the “Mono” on a Mono cutterhead?


        • I think calling it a failure would be overlooking how important it was to him to save himself time and work and the label money by not having to do the same splices on two different tapes.

          That’s a very good question that numerous people have been asking of late. My guess is he swapped the cutting heads out and used both mono and stereo cutting heads (he has always been quite passionate about mono so I don’t see him cutting corners with this) but I don’t know for sure. I mean he was willing to raise the noise floor on the mono LPs to who knows, right? I have however befriended the mastering engineers at Battery Studios here in NYC and the head maintenance engineer there said I could stop by with some mono ’60s Blue Note LPs sometime and we could take a look at them under the microscope to know for sure if they’re 1-mil or 0.7-mil groove width. You’re the third of fourth person to inquire about this so I think I’m going to finally take him up on his offer. 🙂


          • I was just being obtuse when I said it was a fail.

            I imagine that it would take many tedious hours to carefully remove and install the next cutter head and have it properly aligned. Given how willing he was to compromise in other areas of the recording process I wouldn’t be surprised if he just kept a stereo head on the whole time and used a stereo Mono switch on his board.


            • I wouldn’t normally rule that out as a possibility, but then I remembered seeing the inside of the control room at Englewood Cliffs circa 1964-5 in the Jimmy Smith doc I’m linking to below and it looks like he has two lathes set up in the background. So that may be true that it’s a process to switch the cutting heads on a lathe and maybe that’s why he has two set up?


              • Mid ’60s, I would imagine those are lathes set up for stereo to go along with the stereo equipment in the new studio but no way to tell definitively. Bottom line is that what he was doing was a highly compromised recording process. And it’s doubly funny thinking about how people go crazy over the mono records even though they aren’t even true mono.


  3. “On the other hand, “stereo” recordings and equipment (originally called “binaural'”
    Aren’t stereo and binaural recordings 2 completely different things? To my knowledge, stereo has never been referred to as binaural


  4. The first Blue Note stereo release was on tape in August 1957: ORGY IN RHYTHM VOL.1 – Art Blakey – Blue Note 1554. I have quotes from Rudy Van Gelder talking about the session and can dig those out if you’re interested.


  5. The most interesting statement for me was the explanation of the hard L/R panning and how that was a technical limitation and not as I assumed an engineering decision made by many different engineers across different labels as they got used to stereo.

    Due to this hard panning, I have used for 15+ years a four speaker config (two normal L/R and two opposing side L/R) to remove what one other person called a “cooped up in the speaker” sound.

    I too couldnt stand the “cooped up in the speaker” sound but the music is so compelling that I have literally spent over a decade perfecting my 4 speaker arrangement and by listening on the long wall, I get great “de-cooping”

    Many thanks for the article and I will look around the rest of the web site.



  6. I think I noticed an error in the databases linked under further references;
    In the case of Hank Mobley BLP 1568, the RVG Collectors Discography suggests this was mastered in Mono only. However the entry under Blue Note Records A Collector’s Guide to Mono & Stereo contradicts and lists it as a simultaneous full and two track mastering.
    The picture of the master tape on Music Matters website for their mono re-issue of 1568 indicates that there is a stereo master


    • Your confusion lies in the terminology. It was recorded simultaneously on full and two track tape machines, meaning two tapes exist. Yet Rudy only used the mono tape to cut 1568, meaning one mastering, he never used the stereo tape to cut a record. Hope this clears things up!


    • Take a few moments to read the descriptions for each of the databases, which are located at the top of each page and include the following snippets:

      From the RVG database:

      “Please note that an entry of “Mono” does not necessarily mean that an album has never been released in stereo. It only means that the album was never mastered by Van Gelder himself in stereo. Indeed, many of these albums were recorded to two-track tape and eventually released in (true) stereo decades after their original mono release. The anomaly has arisen here as a result of this discography’s collector focus and I apologize for any confusion it may cause.”

      …and from the Blue Note database:

      “MONO & STEREO RELEASES: These columns indicate the original release month and year for both the mono and stereo versions of every album in the database (source: Cohen). The presence of a date in one of these columns always implies that the relevant album was originally mastered by Rudy Van Gelder in that format. Note that while the original release of every album in the database always included a mono version, an “X” in the stereo column is not intended to suggest that an album has never been released in stereo. Many of these titles were released in stereo decades after the original mono release, but because of this guide’s collector focus, these releases are not acknowledged here.”

      I tried to make the descriptions as simple as possible but I’m aware that there is still room for confusion. 1568 was recorded to both full-track and two-track tape but was originally released in mono only in 1958. According to Discogs, it was first released in stereo in 1990 on vinyl LP in Japan.


    • Please also keep in mind that the word “mastering” at that time meant cutting a lacquer disk for the pressing plant, not ‘bouncing’ a session tape down to a different mono or stereo tape as it came to be commonly known over a decade later with the advent of multitrack recording. So for 1568, my Blue Note M/S Guide indicates that the album was recorded to full-track and two-track tape simultaneously during the recording session (these tapes would have been called “session tapes” back in those days but today serve the purpose of “master tapes”), and the RVG discography indicates that Van Gelder only cut a mono master lacquer disk for the pressing plant, no stereo.


      • Hi Rich,
        Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t realise that “mastering” referred to the cut laquer rather than the master/session tape


  7. Joel, with the original mono Moanin you have, I have to assume that the ‘separation’ you’re hearing is actually due to groove wear, and it’s not really stereo (that should be obvious, it’s a mono record). With a mono record, when one side of the groove wall gets worn in a different way than another, it will create a distorted ‘spread’ type of pseudo-stereo mono sound when the record is played with a stereo cartridge (not summed).

    I can’t say I follow what you’re describing with the stereo Music Matters Somethin’ Else. I have owned multiple stereo releases of that album and on every one of them the piano is the only instrument panned center; the drums and bass are right and the horns are left. I’m certain MM honored the original stereo spread and that accordingly the drums should be on the right with the bass. Summing mono, well, everything should be center, and I doubt that much of anything would cancel out. But keep in mind, Somethin Else had both full-track (mono) and two-track (stereo) dedicated master tapes made during the session. So if you’re interested in the mono version of that album, you should be seeking out a mono copy made from the mono master tape a la an original, a Classic Records reissue, a Disk Union reissue etc. What my article is essentially suggesting is, if the album was only recorded to two-track tape, summing a stereo release of that album should get you the same balance as the original mono LP–notice I said balance, not sound. An original will certainly sound different overall for a number of reasons, but the overall balance of the instruments should be the same.


  8. I find much of this talk and speculation rather amusing. You people must all be very young. If you were old enough you would remember that the really crucial factor here is the market. In the 1950s there was only one way to hear stereo: analog audio tape. Somewhere in the middle 50s when professional stereo audio recorders became available (usually 2 or 3 track) stereo recording of commercial issues became possible. But how could you listen to stereo without stereo equipment? Various forms of technology were experimented with. One was simultaneous broadcasts of TV programs with one channel being delivered by an AM or FM radio station. Or maybe two radio stations. These were just occasional experiments. How could you listen to your own personal recording in the home otherwise? Audio tape. Two systems emerged with one dropping out rather quickly: staggered, with the playback heads of two channels a few millimeters away from each other to avoid crosstalk and stacked, with the two heads exactly inline above or below each other. This latter method eventually won out when home recording was introduced a few years later. But what about discs? First they tried two “tonearms” locked in parallel then eventually the stereo needle and cartridge. Of course you also needed either another amplifier and speaker or a completely new stereo amplifier and a second speaker (matched off course). This involved some expense which most people were not interested in paying out. Besides much of the early stereo issue had been gimmicky stuff with bongos bouncing from left to right and so on. Anyone who cared about music wasn’t really impressed with stereo–until they heard it! This took a few years so the companies had to maintain dual inventories of mono and stereo issues. Then there was the practice of charging an extra dollar or two for the stereo issue–as ridiculous as goosing up the price for a CD when that era started. It was clear that a stereo recording had a more open feeling, that it made it more possible to distinguish what individual instruments were doing in an ensemble, and so on so gradually customers bought the equipment and manufacturers stopped making mono equipment because no one wanted it except the weird people who still listened to 78s. Stereo equipment would play mono recordings and so you were taken care of if you still had a lot of mono records or tapes around. You had to live through this to understand it apparently. I spent a few months working in a record store in the fall of 1965 and experienced it first hand. Within a couple of years mono (or monaural in full) would drop out except for honest reissues of pre-stereo recorded material [dishonest phony stereo eventually dropped out as well]. Sure there have been poorly mixed stereo issues but for the most part this fixation with “original mono issues” is as ridiculous to me as the one on analog LPs over digital CDs or tube amplifiers over solid state. It’s really all about noise or the reduction or absence of noise [take Dolby noise reduction in the cassette era]. Think about that!


    • Hi, I’m the author of the article. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom and experience from being of age when all this was happening. I have heard stories like yours from several audio enthusiasts who were around then as well. You are correct that I was not alive at that time but I have done my best to do professional-level research and to leave no stone unturned in the process.

      I understand that the market was a major factor in record labels moving to eventually release stereo LPs and to soon after terminate the production of mono LPs. To clarify, the thrust of this article is to correct the popular theory that as early as 1957, Alfred Lion, Rudy Van Gelder and the Blue Note musicians were listening to and focusing on the stereo mix of Blue Note recordings–a misnomer has arisen simply because two-track master tapes exist from that time period–and to explain that this in all likelihood did not happen until sometime in the mid-1960s.

      You suggest that people generally didn’t take stereo seriously until they heard it. According to my research, this was not the case with Blue Note producer Alfred Lion and Rudy Van Gelder. Rudy Van Gelder explained in a 1999 interview that he and Alfred Lion never liked stereo. From the article:

      “Van Gelder explain(ed) that Lion was never a proponent of the primitive stereo techniques that were widely employed in the ‘60s. But like most owners of small labels, he was forced to acquiesce to the demands of the marketplace and eventually released LPs in both mono and stereo.”

      ““The way the instruments were separated at that time always bothered me,” Van Gelder says.”

      So clearly the market forced Blue Note’s hand to release their recordings in stereo; perhaps I underemphasized that in the article.

      It’s not as if someone needs to be born in the ’40s to understand the benefits of the stereo format. In light of this, there are arguable disadvantages to early stereo that occasionally make the mono version of early jazz recordings more desirable to some people. If your intention here is to primarily shed light on the importance of the market in the transition, thank you, but if your intention is to prove to everyone who wasn’t around at that time that mono is inferior to stereo and that mono is perhaps merely a retro-fad of sorts, I encourage you to let people be with their own personal tastes and preferences, regardless of when they were born.


    • A fixation is an “obsessive interest” (ad hom). Some listeners have a preference for mono over stereo. I do, where I find instrument placement a distraction from the music. Original mono issues between 1956 and around 1961 are often preferred over stereo for that reason. (An exception was the engineer Roy DuNann, who really got stereo from the word go). No fixation involved.

      The absence of noise seems to me nothing to do with the presentation of music, which is what matters – what you hear, not what you don’t hear. I prefer the presentation of vinyl. We vinyl “obsessives” tend to be a degree fault-tolerant in the quest for superior presentation.

      Listening to various high-end vinyl systems, I find the vinyl LP offers consistently superior presentation to CD, as do tubes over solid state electronics. Is that ridiculous? That’s my opinion, I don’t think there are any facts here. People are welcome to hold other opinions.

      Be sure to let us know of any other opinions here you find amusing or ridiculous, let’s see if we can help put you straight.


  9. While both sides of the stereo vs mono debate have valid points to make, for me the most important thing is the realism of the sound. To that end, I find the hard left / hard right primitive stereo presentation unrealistic and distracting, while not presenting drums in the center not only sounds unnatural, but almost unlistenable. On the other hand, the many mono reissues that have come out on vinyl in recent years are so rich and colorful in texture, that even RVG’s CD remasterings sound bright and brittle.


    • Hi Mike, thanks for comments

      When I see a live band, say an acoustic jazz quartet, it never occurs to me to ask if they are playing in mono or stereo. It’s four cats blasting from a cramped pub stage in front of me, mixed through a reflective low ceiling, effectively, mono.

      Seems to me modern stereo is more an engineering artefact. It lends itself to home-listening, with its room-wide soundstage, where we demand “logical” placement especially where the focus of attention falls.

      I still can’t listen comfortably to those early hard-panning stereo records where the lead soloist is cooped up in the left speaker. Your heart sinks when the second soloist is…also cooped up in the left speaker. You automatically think: how’d they both get in there?


      • ” It’s four cats blasting from a cramped pub stage in front of me, mixed through a reflective low ceiling, effectively, mono.” Not at all. Effectively, stereo – or, in fact, surround. All stereo presentations are artifacts, with the exception of useing headphones to listen to two-microphone recordings. But it is MUCH much better than having all the instruments come out of a single box, small or large. Our ear-brain system can detect it, because it registers not only positional information, but also arrival time information. For that same reason, mono is perfect if you are listening to a solo voice or instrument.


  10. Hello…just came across this discussion…I’m a great fan of rvg…have listened to many b.notes..I am a recording engineer specializing in jazz for many years and present a jazz program here in Australia…one interesting aspect of mono vs stereo recording is the issue of spatial cues as has been raised…with mono it is often a front to back presentation…the ear will often assume a darker sound is further away..less high frequencies as would occur in nature..hence the way older mono recordings give us the sense the drummer is further back because often they weren’t closer miked compared to the front line…stereo is often more a horizontal experience if that makes sense…our cues more left and right…
    That’s why it can help in modern recording to keep this in mind especially with jazz to not keep everything so bright as it can make for a one dimensional experience…reverb can help to an extent but can’t really replicate the subtle audio cues that the brain uses..


    • Very enlightening, Mal. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why – just to take one example – some of Roy DuNann’s early recordings from 1954 (Lennie Niehaus Vol.1 “The Quintet”) sound so good although they were done with one mic only. One AKG mic, that is…


  11. Slightly off-topics and after a warm thanks for this greatly documented article, a question: have we some good pictures of the way RVG positioned his microphones, especially for the saxophone (tenor) ? As an amateur tenor and bari player, who was recorded a couple of time, including at the Swiss Radio and most of the time found the resulting sound, mine and my sax-colleagues, extremely dry and stiff, I do think RVG recording of guys like Stanley Turrentine or Hank Mobley will remain among the best ever, without any post-treatment. Any contribution will be loved.
    Jacques Rossat, Switzerland


    • Jacques, I’m not certain of his placement technique, but I’m positive he would have used his favorite microphone, the Neumann U-47. They still make them (under the name Telefunken in the US) but they’re 8 grand!

      While a lot of people are critical of Van Gelder’s piano sound, not many will dispute that he had one of the greatest horn sounds ever, and in my experience, there is a “sweet spot” for his recordings, 1956-1958, where his horn sound is phenomenal. I don’t know what he did, it may have been related to compression, but the horns have this way of “breathing” during that time that sounds so pleasing!


      • Rich, Thanks for this contribution. You’re spot on with your… “sweet spot” and it’s exactly the sound I’m referring too. Of course, the U-47 is a phenomenal mic but, happily enough, nowadays other cheaper makes are on hand which give decent results.
        The placement remains an essential factor, mainly for saxophone, the sound of which doesn’t come out of the bell only. I think a reasonable distance (1-2 m ?) allows a reasonable damping and “natural mix” to happen before the sound is catched by the mic. I faintly remember having seen session photos of the 50’s – 60’s with mics positioned rather above the instruments but I’d be interested to get a clus about how RVG used to work in these happy times.


  12. Good article. For some reason I have always enjoyed the Stereo more than their mono counterparts. It seems that Van Gelder delivered the results regardless of monitoring or indeed his own preferences.


  13. What an outstanding and entertaining read, Richard. Thanks, it’s a joy to finally see some of my own assumptions confirmed! 😉


  14. Wow! What a detailed post. I’m sure this will be visited regularly. I’ll definitely be watching the Jimmy Smith film all the way through.
    Just a thought. I’m wondering whether RVG’s thoughts about positioning both piano and bass at the centre of the recording were influenced by his recordings of Hammond organs, since a great many organists used take care of the bass role via their rack of bass pedals?


  15. Nice piece DG Mono – and it found the quote I had been looking for since I red Cohen – describing the monitoring after the move to Englewood Cliffs.
    I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but as evidence for Blue Note tending to record behind the technology, only one classic era session used multi-track recording which was a 1966 Herbie Hacock session that was unreleased. After that Blue Note reverted to two track for much of the rest of the decade.
    As to Steve Hoffman’s argument about phase cancelation of ambient noise, well I think this is pretty much a red herring for sessions monitored in mono.


    • I wouldn’t call the information that gets cancelled in mono “noise”, it’s the acoustic ambiance of the musicians playing within a space. Whether or not it was heard in the monitors at the time it was recorded to tape is not something I see as a red herring at all but an undeniable acoustic artifact from the recording. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Blue Notes I prefer in mono, but to deny that some musical cues get lost when folding down the two tracks to mono is dogmatic.


      • Honestly just because Steve says it is so, I’m not sure that it is.
        I’m sitting here with a mono Go and I don’t notice any great phase cancelation of ambient noise.
        Perhaps rather than vague talk of musical cues we could be given a concrete example from a record that was monitored in mono but recorded to two track.
        Steve’s explanation had behind it a rationalisation for a commercial decision – and also his underlying dislike for Van Gelder’s recording techniques – but I’d really like some hard evidence on this.


        • Dean…the evidence is right above you right now!!

          It really doesn’t matter whether or not the session was monitored in mono or stereo. When a two track stereo recording is summed to mono–which is the case with all the classic Blue Notes–room cues are “lost”. This is due to the fact that reverberations in a room are often out-of-phase with each other. So when they’re left to emit from two separate speakers, they will be heard, but when summed, they won’t even make it out, they’ll be cancelled.

          Now, whether or not this audio information is significant or desirable is definitely open to interpretation. And I didn’t want to make this point unless it was absolutely necessary, but here’s my one little problem: Hoffman and followers of his philosophy believe that, with a handful of exceptions, the stereo versions of these recordings are OBJECTIVELY superior to mono because of the room cues, and they can’t begin to understand why someone would want to miss out on them. Well, I’d say it’s for the same reason that someone might prefer to sit in the first row at a live music performance instead of in the back–because proportionally you’ll hear more direct sound waves and less reverberation. Another major reason why people prefer mono is because they very much so prefer the “direct” presentation of the music to the wider, arguably “empty” stereo spread of the day–another very valid reason! I mean, even if you wanted to listen to mono just because you knew it was how they heard it in the studio, who cares?? I just wish the stereo audiophile fanatics would let the mono collectors be with their preference.


          • I wanted to make one small correction to my comment above: if “believing” that the stereo versions are superior is the wrong choice of words, at the very least many of the stereo audiophile fanatics argue as if this is the case…at least that’s how I see it.


          • Rich
            my point is that the recording process is always only a representation of what is going on in the studio, so stereo or mono are never a 100% reproduction of what has gone on.
            Further almost no producers I have interviewed were 1st and foremost trying to create such a thing, they were making the best record possible. They knew the restrictions of the recording process and if they were losing musical cues – if such a thing is possible (as opposed to losing audio information which is a different thing) – they were managing this as they were putting it to tape.
            In this process you can never recreate what was the sound in the studio by going back to the tape., because no-one was truly trying to do that – the live room in most studios would’t make a great concert space.
            Van Gelder and Lion were making a record and found a way to do that which had thrilled people for over half a century. Information will have been lost in the process, which I doubt anyone could point out by A/Bing – in fact whilst the emptiness of the early stereo spread can be easily demonstrated, I’m not sure anyone could point to the loss of audio cues on a 50/50 mono with any degree of accuracy.
            As such the idea of phase cancellation of studio ambience is very much a red herring – unless someone wants to demonstrate otherwise. If the stereo fanatics would like to point out where they are on the stereo and where they disappear on the mono I’d be more than happy to be shown.


            • I was at a loss what to make of the claim “instruments disappear” , as someone has commented. I can’t say I have ever noticed this, at least on any of my mono/stereo pairs. Not to say a particular title I am not familiar with may be referred to. Or am I missing something?


            • Gentleman,

              As much as I love me some mono, I can definitely hear the difference in the room reverberation between the mono and stereo audio clips for the Johnny Coles track above, particularly with the drums. And this song isn’t the best example but I have definitely heard nuances in drumming get lost in mono mixes while they can be heard in the stereo version. I guess I find it interesting that in both cases I’m talking about drums, probably because I’m a “drum guy”…maybe it doesn’t happen as much with other instruments…?

              I would argue that while room ambience may not be something that producers typically pay a lot of attention to (depending on their attention to detail and skill level), it is indeed something that recording engineers take into consideration. Think about how much goes into room design, instrument positioning in the room, how sometimes ambience mics are set up in studios, and of course the fact that artificial reverb units are used like Van Gelder’s EMT plate (which admittedly means they are going for a different type of room reverb than the natural reverberation of the studio in use). Much of the magic of Kind of Blue is due to the ambience, for example. Van Gelder was inspired by Columbia’s 34th Street studio and Boston’s Symphony Hall when he designed Englewood Cliffs. I’m certain he still used artificial reverb, as did Columbia at 34th Street, but the room’s sound was inevitably present on these records and was a factor.

              Certainly Van Gelder wasn’t trying to make his Hackensack recordings sound like they were being recorded in a living room. Van Gelder and Cuscuna have both discussed the fact that Van Gelder loved how live jazz sounded in a niteclub and this was a major inspiration behind Van Gelder’s revolutionary close-miking techniques. But when he moved the Englewood Cliffs, I think he was more interested in capturing the sound of the room on tape.


              • Since I am moving house, I have dismantled some of the turntables. The only one left to function (the sound system will be the last thing disconnected in this house, come what may) is my Mono Lego Lenco L70. Playing Andrew Hill’s outstanding Point of Departure in an early stereo press. Sounds pretty awesome (acoustics in the room have changed due to the move).

                Question for the forum: If I play my early BN stereos, does all teh above mean that if I play them in Mono with a Mono cartridge that they will be indistinguishable from the original Mono’s? I must say they sound pretty good on the Mono deck (with a Denon DL102 not to damage them). If true, this would save a hell of a lot of money in collecting! Your views are very welcome!


                • I leave it to the pickup and cartridge specialists to provide the answer, which should be about horizontal and vertical tracking and things like that. After all, it again boils down to the question whether you can create BN mono sound by just folding down BN stereo. By sheer intuition, I would not like to listen to a stereo record via mono cartridge.


                • Hi Boukman,

                  Great question! I’d like to take a stab at it. I wanted to make sure I got the right answer on this, as it is a slightly different situation from my own mono setup, which is a stereo cart used in tandem with the mono button on my amp. Though the language is technical, this post from 2003 by a John Diamantis at Vinyl Asylum could not do a better job of explaining the situation (based on my understanding of the technology):

                  “The stereo signal is created by recording the sum (mono signal or L + R) in the horizontal plane, and the difference (L – R) in the verticle plane. Normal stereo signals are a combination of both, roughly approximating a 45 degree pitch. The coils within the cartridge are set up to “decode” this matrix signal into left and right channels.

                  If your cartridge responds to only the horizontal modulations, you will reproduce the sum of the L + R, and therefor reproduce all of the information, UNLESS it was recorded purely as the difference, in which case it will cancel out (L – R). Except for extreme effects, this conditiion does not occur in normal recordings.”


                  When I first thought about it, I knew that the DL-102 was not only designed to play mono records but also to play stereo records in mono. But I still didn’t understand why the listener wouldn’t just be “getting the mono information only and not the stereo information” since the single coil in the DL-102 does not acknowledge the vertical motion of the cantilever (the cart does have vertical compliance but the coil does not react to its vertical motion). So my initial unclear thinking was, “So you’re not getting the ‘stereo information’ and it sounds good??” But I was having a memory lapse: the sum gives you everything (left, center and right, if you will), not just the “center’ i.e. “mono information”.

                  Long story short, the balance of the instruments will be virtually identical to a mono copy. But as Felix has pointed out previously, the overall sound may seem quite different from a mastering perspective, and summing the channels of an original stereo pressing should give you more dynamic range than Van Gelder’s one-of-a-kind mono mastering would (some listeners will be happy about that, others will miss the signature Van Gelder “punch”). Also, again as Felix pointed out, Van Gelder may have used different EQ’ing at the mastering stage for each version. But as far as the balance of the instruments goes, that should be virtually identical, even in consideration of Van Gelder’s “pulling in” the wide stereo spread of the master tapes when he cut his stereo master lacquer disks.


                  • Perfect answer, Rich.
                    But honestly, summing up an RVG stereo and subsequently asking myself whether what I’m hearing is the genuine RVG mono or not would drive me mad. If it sounds good – so be it. But in the first place I would be perfectly happy with the stereo sound.

                    On the other hand, your comment on Andrew Hill’s “Black Fire” made me return to that album, and I think LJC’s mono rip sounds better than the stereo version I know.


              • DG, here may be something of interest to you when discussing early recordings and techniques. When listening to the Johnny Coles samples, did you make sure to switch your pre-amp to stereo and mono while listening? This is why I ask: After reading the article, I listened to both the original Mono Blue Note Moanin’ and Somethin’ Else. When I switched the pre-amp to stereo on Moanin’ i also got a separation of sound with the horns on one side. However, when you play Somethin’ Else, you get full mono no matter whether the mono stereo switch is on or off. Now, here’s the kicker, (sorry) the drums on Music Matters stereo are only in the MIDDLE. Changing the balance left AND right loses the sound. It doesn’t make any sense considering the bass is only on the right, while both instruments were on the same side for the recording. I listened with a tube pre-amp and phonostage, solid state mono block power amps, a sub and vinyl.


                • Sounds like you’ve got a stereo copy, not mono, of Moanin’. Check the deadwax and if the catalog number has the prefix BNST for stereo or BNLP for mono.


  16. I didn’t realize how immediate and dynamic mono sounds until I set up a turntable with a mono cartridge. I spin two tables for my listening pleasure. And while it is possible to spin a mono record with a stereo cartridge, never play a stereo record with a mono cartridge, unless you want to destory the grooves. 

    Below in quotes, is an excerpt from a commercial audio website on the advantages of mono over stereo, which I happen to subscribe to. I did not know how good mono could sound until I set up a table/cartridge exclusively for mono. I would love to set up a separate system with one speaker and power amp, but it’s just too much effort for now. But who knows, if I continue to be as impressed as I am with mono, I may some day. 

    “MONO records actually sound wonderful. Good MONO pressings have depth perception that is sometimes better than its two-channel (stereo) counterpart. The resolution in general is very good. Part of the reason can be traced to learning curve. When stereo first came out, recording and mastering engineers had gained expertise at making MONO recordings. Highly skilled mastering engineers came of age a decade or so later in the seventies and beyond. Also, music arrangements in the era of MONO recordings was simpler and some would say genuine (as compared to more contrived and electronic). This then required less tracks and more headroom for music within the recording. Additionally, recording equipment at that time used tubes, thus their effect in the sound recording chain. The key is to play these records the way they were meant to be played – via a MONO cartridge. You will hear less noise and experience the excellence of MONO recordings in the manner that they were meant to be heard and enjoyed.”

    And finally, hearing a really vintage mono record on a mono only audio system for the first time was like going from CD to vinyl for me. The experience was that dynamic. Others may get better, or different mileage. 

    Enjoy the music.

    p.s. to the soon to be known as dottormonojazz, you’re on to sometime in my book Sir. And I really appreciate your Blue Note catalog. Thanks to you and LJC.


    • The other option for faithful mono playback is summing the channels of a stereo cartridge. Without understanding the technical details, this might seem like an inferior solution. But I have performed careful A/B comparisons between the two methods, using a modern mono cart with vertical compliance and a stereo cart summed, and while both sounded great, I could not detect a difference between the two methods. (To be clear, I am not talking about an authentic vintage mono listening setup with a cart with no vertical compliance, but I don’t even know if it’s still possible to get replacement styli for those carts anymore, like the vintage pearl white Ortofons.) The signal-to-noise ratio dramatically improves by summing the channels (partly due to phase cancellation, partly due to the “masking” of the surface noise by the music), and if there is any further improvement in the SNR with a modern “rewired” mono cart, it seems that it more or less only exists on paper and is virtually inaudible.


      • Rich I am using a Miyajima mono cartridge. I am running it through a Pathos InTheGroove phono SS amp. Had problems with a low level hum initially, but worked out the wiring and connections with great success. Honestly, there is no substitute or work around that works for me. The mono signal coming through my speakers are the cleanest and purest sound I have heard. A vintage mono copy of any artist is stunning.

        It’s hard to pick up vintage BN unless you want to spend lots of cash, but I have been able to buy some original Columbia and Presitge mono, and the focus of sound has to be experienced to appreciate the difference in dynamics relative to the later stereo issues in my opinion.


        • Cal, have we conversed before? I know those Miyajimas are really nice, and I remember talking with someone on here about that brand. I also just wanted to say that the phrase “focus of sound” is an excellent one to describe the advantages of mono. 🙂


          • Hi Rich, I think so. I have discussed it on this blog. I live in the Washington DC regional area, and the 2014 Capital Audiofest is in town today. I am on my way to review some new audio equipment now. That last time I was there I had an opportunity to listen to and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a purely mono system with the vendors. One of the vendor exhibits had a Miyajima cartridge rig set up. It had no hum and sounded great.



    • No argument from me about the benefits of a mono cart. Sadly, a second turntable has zero WAF at LJC Towers. The current set-up is verging on negative WAF territory, the TT won’t mount two tonearms, and if I wanted to get to there I wouldn’t start from here. So for me, it’s mono vinyl summing the channels at the phono stage. Not a great solution but something I can live with.

      With the best original mono you rarely stop to think about it being mono anyway, you just plunge into the music. If you accidentally forget to click that mono switch and hear your mono vinyl in stereo you pretty soon start to wonder why it’s lacking oomph.


        • No arguments from me. Today, I took the wife with me to the Capitol Audiofest here in Washington DC (something I rarely do). As a precaution, I discretely instructed the vendors I spoke to not to discuss cost of audio equipment in front of her – just the benefits of great audio equipment. Using this tactic I was able to pick up for a fair price, a nice BN New York stereo pressing Lee Morgan, Search for the New Land. The vendor listed it for $150 – I got it for $85, and he threw in a BN Liberty Record stereo pressing of Horace Silver, The Jody Grind (VG++), and a Shirley Horn live recording on SteepleChase (mint). Not a bad deal I thought, and so did the wife. I may take her again next year.

          Actually, I have The Jody Grind on mono, but wanted the stereo as well because of the all the praise you guys gave the stereo on this blog.


  17. I still don’t fully understand the mono vs stereo vs fold-down debate (no! I’m not asking for another more elaborate explanation – please) and I guess I never will.

    But thanks to Rich for this — I found it an enjoyable and informative read that helped me understand why it is a debate that some are passionately concerned about. I must be honest – I’m not. Partly because “Blue Note jazz” (if I can generalise so sweepingly for a moment) is not my preferred listening, and partly because I think habituation is a key component in the mono vs stereo question. We respond to what our ears have become habituated to (either by circumstances or ‘training’). And listening to LJC’s two clips above convinced me that while stereo may not be ‘natural, it is what I have grown up with and to me it sounds both more natural and more revealing of nuance.


  18. Nice job. I have been looking for expert opinions on this subject for sometime now. And this sums up my thoughts about the formats as well. In most cases I have both the mono and stereo copies of my special BN recordings, and I usually love them both for each of their particular qualities. Redundant? Maybe. But I just can not help myself. Thanks DGmono.


  19. Thanks for all the infos. Really informative as for a lot of the content on this site. But still, I do prefer the stereo sound. Of course, there is the separation of instruments, but I always find the is a kind of “harshness” to the mono sound and that the stereo sounds “smoother”. But both can be very pleasing in their own way and I don’t think that one could say that one of the options is totally unlistenable.


  20. Superb article. Thank you very much Richard and LJC. If I may be permitted to step out of artistic intent to write a bit about what is actually heard on mono vs stereo I will quote the (controversial on this blog) Steve Hoffman and another Blue Note collector sungshinla.

    First sungshinla:
    “I have had many many late 50’s/early 60’s Blue Note originals in both Mono and Stereo.

    I really hate to burst the bubble of the Mono-maniacs, but the Stereo most often is the winner.

    In fact, if you take a clean Stereo and a clean Mono original Blue Note LP from this era and listen REALLY carefully, sometimes you will note that some of the instruments’ sounds will disappear (or become undistinguishable from another instrument) in Mono. I cannot explain why a fold-down would do this, but it did in several instances.

    I was basically the only Jazz LP nut in the 80’s and 90’s who would pay more for a Stereo original Blue Note than a Mono, and that was the reason why. Original Stereo Blue Notes sound better usually, at least in one important area, which is, you can hear the musicians better.”

    And the Steve Hoffman:
    “As I wrote in the other thread and as I keep trying to explain to the folks, certain cues are lost when RVG stereo tapes are folded down to mono. Also, all of the out of phase information that occurs when recording live CANCEL OUT in L+R mono. They vanish, poof! Nobody knows this more than RVG himself. The monos were good enough for a 1961 Webcor phonograph but just because that sound was a compromise back then doesn’t mean we are stuck with it now. The actual stereo (binaural) tapes reveal a sonic panorama “time machine” back to the past. We are lucky to have such a clear record of such amazing music.”

    After coming across that old thread about Blue Note Records I started buying both mono and stereo records of some of my favorite Blue Notes. Unfortunately what I was coming to the realization was what those two cats wrote was becoming more and more evident the more comparisons I did between the two formats. While it was less common for instruments to entirely “disappear” it did occur in numerous instances where there was more than just piano, bass, drums and two horns like this article writes about. What did occur in nearly every instance was the loss of stereo spacial cues.


    • Agreed. This was eluded to in the conclusion of the article. There is no denying that this cancellation happens with mono. Mono can also render many of the subtler notes of an instrument inaudible, depending on how “loud” the band is. However, while some believe that hearing the cues and nuances is the ultimate measure of excellence in a recording, others prefer the immediate and direct presentation of the music in mono…to each his or her own!


      • Right on. I can hear the difference, and prefer the mono for its immediacy and punch. Plus, I like the “deep” stage spacing of the mono over the “wide” spacing of the stereo (if that makes sense). However, the stereos are super too, and it’s mainly down to what I have found and at what price as to whether my originals are mono or stereo, haha!

        Thanks for the terrific article. Now get your blog current so I have something to read for goodness sake!


      • I share your view, Rich. I am not willing to take sides in the mono/stereo debate, but whenever there is a stereo version available, I will go for it. Not necessarily because I expect it to sound “better” but because it offers a wealth of information about the recording situation, or at least enables me to see/hear things from a different perspective. There is a rare and, according to conventional wisdom, “impossible to listen to” duophonic stereo version of Count Basie’s famous 1957 “Atomic” LP which I actually like.
        And I was thrilled, back in 1985, to hear about the emergence of a number of Duke Ellington tracks unwittingly recorded in “true stereo” as early as 1932 (available on Everybodys EV-3005):

        To me it was an incredible, stunning, eerie experience to hear that historical line-up in what is no less than “true stereo”, if only created by a whim of chance.


        • Eduard,

          At this point, I’m open to owning copies of albums in stereo that are post-May 1959, after Van Gelder worked out the stereo panning scheme. For stuff before that though, I still prefer mono. I’m much less picky than I used to be though, and I’ll pretty much take an album in either format as long as it sounds pretty good and the price is right–I got sick and tired of playing the original mono game on eBay (and losing haha)! In particular, I am very open to owning dark-blue label 70s Blue Note reissues, for which I always look for original Van Gelder mastering (some will bemoan this but hey, I’m a Van Gelder fan boy), and I’m also now open to mono Prestige OJC reissues. I’m not quite to the point yet of trying out Japanese reissues, but I have heard some modern audiophile reissues that sound good too. But still, if I can afford it, nothing beats the magic of originals.


          • …which is yet another proof that record collecting is much more than “just the music”. And I fully appreciate that.
            You are, of course, talking about Blue Note records here, thus your “post-May 1959” rule. And yet again, listening to the primitive (?) 1958 stereo of “Somethin’ Else” never fails to enthral me.


      • Kudos to you Richard for you thorough and impeccable article. I liked very much the diagrams!

        Just wanted to add that the degree/amount/character of the cancellation depends on the micing (room acoustics implicit) and of course, the phase transfer function of the mixning/folding [tube] console.
        In addition to the technicalities and psychoacoustics, as you pointed out, are the “creative focus” and artistic vision. Trying to find analogies with other art forms (not so easy because of the acquisition-reproduction-sensorial chain) I could only think about the work of a chef: Would an exquisite dish taste the same when served in one dish or split into two dishes?

        Thanks again for your work!


          • Good point, Ed, but I would argue that we have one brain that processes musical information. 😉 But keep in mind, when I personally debate this, I’m pledging my strict allegiance to mono; I just wanna make sure that people look at the situation fairly and with as little prejudice, personal bias, and confusion as possible–and I also strive for people to respect each other’s preferences (which I certainly think you are, BTW).


              • We have one brain, and it is “wider than the sky” (Emily Dickinson), it can be set to mono mode and it can be set to stereo mode… and it can process as many dishes on your table as you wish (as long as your stomach can).


  21. Re: Rare footage…
    Now if this is RVG “having a laugh”, what did he look like on other occasions? Seems like Jimmy is enjoying himself while the studio staff couldn’t care less.


    • I would say Van Gelder looks very focused on Smith, ready to do as he says at any moment: rewind the tape, turn it up, do another take, etc. He does have a pretty big laugh with Smith the first time they play back the “GO OOON DOWN” part on the song. But yes, in the end, I hear Van Gelder was quite serious in general.


  22. Excellent read…….Mono or Stereo? It’s the music that matters, I am just grateful to be able to appreciate this music in any format.

    Thank you DGMONO!


  23. thanks DGMono for unveiling mono-stereo BN mysteries in such a clear way.
    maybe some stereo issues can sound better than mono, or modern reissues can do the same.
    I’m a man from the past century: I’m pleased enough with mono recordings.
    maybe I should change my nick into dottormonojazz…
    great reading!


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