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.
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.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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Put 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”.