Mono or Stereo – is it really just a matter of preference?

LJC-Michael-Caine- Professor Jazz fastshow30A reborn vinyl collector wrote to me recently for advice on whether they should seek out a mono or a stereo copy of a particular record. (I do respond to interesting questions)  I think it was regarding Kind of Blue, but the question applies to a whole lot of other music too, so I thought I’d extend my answer into a post, kick around a few ideas, invite you to contribute your thoughts. There are new collectors here who might welcome some wider advice, rather than just my opinion.

Mono/Stereo is a big zone of interest for all jazz fans and record collectors, why not give it another airing, with a new focus. Give me a rest from dissecting records.

My initial thought in reply to my questioner was the lazy answer, “it depends which you prefer”.  That’s always a safe answer, but having written it down,  I thought, actually, it’s not just that.  Some recordings work better in mono, others work better in stereo, irrespective of your general preference. There are guiding principles that need to be teased out, to help guide us through the format choices. My focus starts with Blue Note, then extends to other labels

 Rudy Knows Best: “as intended”
Most everything Blue Note recorded before 1958 was intended to be mono, and should remain so. Most if not everything recorded after 1962 (we can argue about the exact year) was recorded for and released in stereo and that is how it was intended, and should remain so. The difficult bit is in the middle, where it is available in both formats in between those years.
These were some the golden and arguably most productive years of modern jazz, so it is not a trivial question.  You have a choice, mono or stereo, but how to decide?
Van Gelder used two-track tape for several years in the late ’50s early ’60s but apparently never intended these to be used for final stereo output. However there was industry pressure to ride the stereo wave. Manufacturers had  new stereograms to sell, record distributors didn’t want to stock every title in two formats, the stereo revolution took hold,  leading to those intended-for-mono recordings being issued as a stereo edition.  Recordings already in two-track were simply mastered for stereo, some earlier mono recordings re-engineered into  pseudo stereo, and others took mono recordings and simply described them on the jacket as stereo, genuine fakes.
[LJC: Starts brawl here,  what Van Gelder intended when he monitored only in mono,…some of these thing have already been well-aired in the past…  continue at your own pace if it has mileage for you, it’s Easter break, we got lots of time…I’m putting my feet up]
The result of using twin track recordings intended for mono as a stereo source is not always pleasant, especially with some other labels and lesser engineers. Instead of being excited to find a “stereo” recording from the crossover period, I learned to look at it with grave suspicion, especially Riverside and Atlantic, but some Blue Note too.
Often the feature artist would be placed not in the centre of the soundstage as we have today, but on the far left. Worse, on some titles with a sequence of soloists, they would each take turns in occupying the far left position, you picture them pushing each other off the bandstand to get to the mic.  Even when the front line  was spread between left and right channels, according to the demands of the tune, there would be nothing happening on one side or the other for long periods of time. The rhythm section would be broken up to fill vacant positions commonly placing the noisy drums on the far right and piano and or bass in the middle. It is not nice “wrap-around” stereo, it’s use of two-track tape for a different purpose from that intended – accidental stereo..
Is lasagne mono or stereo pasta?
You could place a portion of lasagne in the centre of your dinner plate, or you could place the pasta sheets on the left side of the plate, the bolognaise on the right side, and spoon some béchamel sauce into the centre, so you can concentrate on the taste of the ingredients individually. Some things are meant to be integrated, as in lasagne, others are not. Lasagna is mono.
Other Preferences: The Search For An Authentic Past
One reason why some collectors favour mono over stereo is that
mono  is authentic to the period, or words to that effect. You hear this a lot from Beatles fans.  The “original” is mono, like ’60s photographs look more authentic in black and white. I’ve got to tell you, I was there in the ’60s, and life was in colour, it always has been. But people are looking for imagined historical authenticity, not whether it sounds better or works better musically now. It’s their preference, they are paying, why not have what they want, retro.
With digital distribution formats like CD, I-tunes and Spotify, the mono option has almost never  been offered to you. If you want the authentic retro experience it has to be vinyl.
 Good vs bad Stereo: stereo came of age at different speeds: always read the label
Blue Note: Van Gelder after about 1962 it’s really is a matter of preference, there is nothing much wrong with stereo balance in the final Blue Note years, and often I like to have both for a given title.  Before 1962, mono is my preferred choice. Van Gelder’s mono/ Plastylite is thrilling, big, room-filling sound, the format is not front of mind as the music becomes the focus of your attention.
Contemporary Records:  and briefly, Stereo Records, Roy du Nann was the master of stereo from the get go, 1958-ish, stereo every time where it is available.
Columbia: engineers like Fred Plaut also had grasped the recording and mixing of stereo from the very earliest days, and had all the toys the big movie  studio could afford, and The Church with its ethereal presence. We know they used three track recorders, sending part through a reverb chamber, to generate that sense of air and space. Columbia  is always welcome on my turntable, stereo as a first preference.
Riverside: early stereos can be among the worst presentation imaginable, a hole in the middle, or nothing happening on one channel most of the way through, such that you wander up to see if a speaker cable has come loose. Heaven only knows what the engineers intentions were. Perhaps it is significant that most  those Riverside recordings were distributed in Europe ( Interdisc) almost always only in mono, with just a few exceptions. Mono is generally a better experience, one exception being Bill Evans Trio, where each player is so intense, stereo is a sublime physical presence.
Impulse: of course was a child born in the Stereo Age, always a good choice. Mono was intended for radio play, then soon phased out altogether.
Other labels: : I have heard some real early stereo horrors among these, where one channel would be delayed out of phase, reverb added,  bass and treble filters applied to draw off different instruments.  If you sum the channels with a mono-switch to restore a mono image, the two halves are not symmetrical and you just end up with earache. Early Atlantic and RCA Victor stereo seem to be among the least satisfactory.
Artistic reasons for preference
Irrespective of the merits of mono and stereo format in general, there are some recordings where the format is successful in only one or the other, for artistic reasons.
Live club recordings:  can benefit enormously from an intimate atmospheric recreation through stereo, providing the recording of the audience and room ambience is done well, and the successful recording of each instrument. Musicians in the room feels like a  natural soundstage, though the engineering process is in no way natural.  The worst live recording  is the sort of bootleg quality: someone turns up at a gig with a tape recorder and points a couple of microphones in the general direction of the  bandstand. The excuse is usually “a historically significant recording” to counter a bad recording. I have picked up a few of those, never satisfying.
Artistic contribution: the instrument positioning and sound stage doesn’t always make any artistic contribution to the music – rather, it is independent or even can be sometimes destructive of it. Some examples:
Monk on Columbia  is usually more satisfactory in mono. Columbia did odd  things like put Monk hard panned on one channel,  and put Charlie Rouse tenor in the centre. You wonder whose album it is, Monk or Rouse? it is counter-intuitive to the ear schooled on modern stereo. The centre of attention isn’t where it should be.
Coltrane Love Supreme – must be mono! Otherwise it’s all Coltrane in one speaker for thirty minutes until the final few seconds resolution. I initially chose stereo and ended up buying another copy in mono for that reason.
Ornette Free Jazz – double quartet must be stereo, you can’t fit eight musicians in the centre, the music makes no sense that way, they don’t call and answer. I recall agonising  between two original copies, one mono one stereo, around the same price, and only with hindsight finding  I made the “wrong” choice, because at that time I naively thought “mono is better, isn’t it”? There are many recordings which benefit from  stereo soundstage separation, this is one of them.
Final Thought
Most compelling argument for a Stereo edition? The Cover, of course. Observe:
Miles-Davis-Some-Day-My-Prince-Will-Come--mono-vs-stereo-covers-1920-LJCThe inclusion of the word “Stereo” in the top of the cover design appears to have created a wardrobe malfunction for Frances Taylor, Mrs Miles Davis.
Mono or stereo, sir? Umm.. I’ll take the stereo, just plain wrap it please.
Did Miles know? “Honey, about that decolettage…” The jazz-goes-to-college Bachelor Demographic definitely opted for stereo, jazz reviews in Playboy Magazine for the same reason. We’ve had the mono lasagna, we now have  stereo cheescake, who would have thought it?
Opinion Zone: Open
What is your take on the mono/stereo format wars?
What things work for you and why?
If you can’t think of any reason, which cover of Someday My Prince Will Come would you choose?  This is a safe space, trust me. Just not very safe.
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73 thoughts on “Mono or Stereo – is it really just a matter of preference?

  1. I still enjoy telling people that stereo is just a passing fad…
    As the majority of my collecting happens via yard sale and thrift shop digs, I will usually look for mono as they tend to better hide the previous owners indiscretions ie, record care and stylus wear/tear.
    Currently working and saving towards a dedicated-mono TT, goodwife willing. Can’t wait.

  2. I’m friends with the owner of a used record store who always says he would rather hear any of the old music, even The Beatles, in mono. I’ve never understood this. He says it’s because that’s how he remembers hearing it on his old AM car radio. but that’s not how I remember hearing it. I was always excited to hear a new album on the hi-fi, which was stereo, and most of the records I ever heard at home were in stereo, clear back to my parent’s Tommy Dorsey and The Kingston Trio albums. I always felt more of a “presence” from the stereo versions.
    If one wants to hear it the way he/she thinks it should be heard (in mono), most decent audio systems have a mono selection (mine does). Maybe it won’t balance each channel to a perfect match of the mono album version, but it’s probably close. Thoroughly enjoyed the article, thanks!

  3. I grew up in the mono era and was initially suspicious of anything labeled “stereo.” Later, this changed and I began to buy stereo where that was the only choice available; otherwise, I still preferred mono. I also like certain audiophile labels. One is Sheffield Lab. I first became aware of this label while attending a Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in 1983. I was passing a room in the audio exhibit area and heard the saxophone of Phil Woods. It sounded incredibly real as though he was in fact in the next room. I went in. The room was empty except for a turntable that was playing. I went over to see if there was an album jacket. There was: Plain white with the name Adam Makowicz, whom I didn’t know. Later, I came back to the room and talked to a guy. I asked if I could buy the record and he sold it to me. It was a promo disc. Since then, I have bought other Sheffield Lab albums and have been satisfied with the music and sound.

  4. It’s all in taste…
    What do you like?
    Speaking objectively, I find that neither mono nor stereo give a realistic impression of music. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief involved when one convinces himself that one is more realistic than the other. I will even go further and say there is no stereo system in the world (no matter the cost ) that produces sound realistically. We like to think that they do, but seriously, when was the last time you heard a a live music performance that sounded like your mono or stereo record? When was the last time you heard a live performance that sounded like a $2000 system or a $20,000 system? Mono and stereo records are not realistic because they are filters. The old Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies here; when you apply a filter to an event you change its existence.

  5. Another variable to consider. RVG recorded concurrently in full track mono, and 2 track stereo until late 1958. We know that he paid more attention to the mono recording, and initially regarded stereo as an afterthought. Are both differences audible ? Maybe. I have no doubt that full track mono was capable of higher fidelity than half track stereo. Recording at 15ips on full track could result in a signal that was flat to 20hz at -10db level, and flat to 15khz at 0db level. For stereo half track, frequency response was down about 5db…….Flat to 15khz at -10db and flat to 10 or 12khz at 0db. Is THIS audible ? Yes. Resulting sonic differences allowed RVG to record “hotter” IE at a higher overall level for a “fuller” more visceral sound on mono pressings vs stereo. Many have commented on the energy present on a RVG mono pressing from the 50’s, the drive, the feeling that the musicians are in your face so to speak. His early stereo releases sounded a bit pale in comparison, lacking the energy of their mono counterparts. RVG quickly adapted and by the early 60’s his stereo recordings were every bit as good as what he previously achieved in mono. Apparently he was satisfied because it is believed that he stopped running a parallel mono deck when recording. What does this mean ? There may be logical reasons why his pre 1960 mono recordings sound better. Which brings us back to the question of how best to reproduce them using modern equipment.

    • It makes some sense yes. But is it speculation from your side or is it known from Rudy himself or other source that this is the case (-5db etc)? The monos sound indeed very lively, hot and dynamic!

  6. Whichever is in better condition. That’s my motto. That said I do have mono and stereo editions of Ascension, if only because each is a different edition or take of the music (there is a stereo Edition I; it’s just not what I have).

  7. Re: Columbia. They were not owned by the movie company in that era, they were owned by CBS, Inc. Of USA Radio and Television network fame, CBS bought Columbia Records in 1940, and Sony now owns Columbia Records and owns RCA Records, and Columbia Pictures.

    • I am sure you are right as to who owned what back then, just conjecture on my part, but whatever the reason, the recording studio that produced Columbia label recordings had advanced recording studio equipment and premises – The Church – and fine engineers to match. Their stereo production at the dawn of stereo achieved recordings of great finesse unmatched by many other labels at the time.

      • Columbia Pictures’ record label was Colpix Records, which indeed had nothing to do (at the time) with Columbia Records or its owners, the CBS radio/TV network.

        Of course Colpix released many jazz LPs too in the early 1960s, by the likes of Nina Simone, Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, Art Blakey, Chet Baker, Sonny Stitt, Benny Goodman, and even Chris Barber…

  8. Another great post thank you !

    Good spotting with the covers off
    “Someday my Prince will Come”
    I have USA copies of both and have never picked that up I think I prefer the mono cover tho
    but I would love some feedback on the music is it meant to be in mono or stereo or both? It’s one album I’ve never been Abel to decide on so would love your feedback
    On what is preferred ?

  9. Mono or Stereo ? Why choose- listen to both ! I am a fan of both, but I am also aware of the limitations of early stereo. By 1958, engineers had at least 20yrs of experience in recording mono content, and maybe 4yrs of stereo experience. Makes sense there would be a learning curve, with mono continuing to sound better than stereo for several years post 1958. I had a mono epiphany about 20yrs ago. I was listening to my setup of the time (Thorens TD318/ Stanton 881s / VanAlstine Pas3 / Heath W4 monoblocks / Near 10m speakers), and finally understood what mono was all about. Hearing a vintage Ella/Verve/Songbook title, I heard depth ! Sure the soundstage was compressed into a narrow middle window, but I could hear distinct space around many of the instruments, clear layering of musicians, and a sense of space that receeded (in a narrowly focused line) all the way to the horizon. Instruments and voices sounded real in a sense that I rarely heard from stereo. Yes precise location was missing, but realism was palpable. Since that day I have been able to hear similar qualities from other well recorded mono sources. In fact solo instruments can sound MUCH better in mono than stereo. Consider a jazz quartet- 4 separate musicians and instruments. When playing together they all appear in the middle, but when soloing you also get pinpoint location of the soloist, with a corporal sense of realism. On the other hand I am not a fan of early stereo because of hard panning, hole in the middle, unrealistic placement of musicians etc. Early stereo recording equipment was inferior to mono equipment. Cutting heads and cartridges took about 4-5yrs to catch up to the best of late mono. And some early stereo recordings are completely different takes of the performance. Take 5 is a prime example and sounds completely different. By the mid 60’s stereo had caught up and mostly surpassed mono quality, and many 1961-1967 stereo Jazz lps sound much better than their mono counterparts. But with some good comes other limitations; by the mid 60’s equipment was mostly early solid state, and it was at least 10yrs before equipment registered an audible improvement again. Content also had changed post 1967. Disclosure- I do have a dedicated mono TT and cartridge which provides a different kind of reproduction of pre 1958 mono LPs. That also begs the question of WHEN did Blue Note / Plastilyte (and others) convert LP presses from mono groove width (wide groove) to stereo groove width (narrow groove) ?

    • But you’re not saying that “Take Five – mono” and “Take Five – stereo” are different takes, are you? If they were, then something really important must have escaped my attention.

        • The sound is different, indeed, because mono and stereo were recorded on different equipment – but at the same time! Track length is the same, and there isn’t one single note they are playing differently. Just compare the audio files to prove this. So it’s the same TAKE, by definition. Agree?

          • FWIW I believe the consensus is that Columbia was only tracking to three-track tape in 1959. After painfully dissecting the Kind of Blue tape speed debacle and observing the Columbia engineers in the Glenn Gould documentary “On the Record” (which takes place in ’59), I was led to the believe that Columbia did not make full-track session master tapes at that time and that original mono LPs from that era were made from three-track master session tapes.

            • Thanks for shedding light on this matter. After all, they’re the same takes in both mono and stereo. There is a marked difference in sound, however, due to different mastering, especially with the mono EP version of Take Five (which sounds considerably “fatter” to me).

        • rl1856, re: “Take Five”

          The mono 45 is a different performance.
          The mono lp and the stereo lp have the same performance, and of course with the jarring edit in the same place. The 1986 digital remix made no attempt to cover the edit, so it sounded far worse.
          You must be thinking of the single.

          • Now that’s where it’s really starting to catch my interest, tomoz. The 45 EP I was talking about is the one backed with “Three To Get Ready”, CBS CG 285.529. It definitely is the same take as the LP version, same length etc. (see my post above). There’s at least one other EP with “Blue Rondo” on the flipside, which I haven’t listened to.

            I never knew there was a “jarring edit” in the LP version of “Take Five”, though I’m not trying to contradict you. Would you care to tell me exactly where it occurs?

          • P.S. – I just found out that the short (2:55) mono, single version is indeed a different performance (take). But once again: I’m really interested in that “jarring edit” in the LP version you mentioned. Thanks!

    • From an SH Forum, a summary I found helpful, if still not totally clear:

      1. From the introduction of the LP in 1948 until around 1967-68, mono records were cut differently than stereo records (stereo was introduced around 1958), Mono was cut with a 1 mil (25 micron) cutting head. After that, mono and stereo records were usually both cut with a .7 mil (18 micron) cutting head.

      2. The only difference between the groove on a mono record pre-1968 and a mono record post-1968 is the “width” of the groove (1 mil radius vs. .7 mil respectively).

      3. When a pre-1968 mono record is played with a 1 mil stylus, it hits the groove of the record at its nominal position. If the same record is played with a .7 mil stylus, it hits lower in the groove. Similarly, when a 1 mil stylus is used for a post-1968 .7 mil mono groove, it rides higher than the nominal position.

      • The problem with that summary is that it’s wrong, as far as I can work all the plants switched to 0.7 for mono, but as and when they felt like it, so some plants were cutting/pressing 0,7 mono LPs in 1962 or earlier while other plants were still pressing 1 mil in 1968 and probably much later outside Europe and North America. Now you’d think that somebody would have gone to all the trouble of compiling a list of which plants and therefore which labels switched when, but if so I’ve never seen it, I have seen at least three different years given for the general switch to 0.7 though. As I posted earlier, my solution is to buy a 1 mil and 0.7 mil mono cart, but that is expensive and not necessary if for example you only collect late sixties mono Rock/Pop LPs, unfortunately I have monos from the early fifties up to the seventies, as well as modern mono pressings.

        • Great, the principle seems right but the timing is over a longer stretch. What I didn’t get, and probably still don’t, is what we are supposed to do about it.

          My listening room doubles as a domestic living area, and there is no wriggle room for a mono second deck. Multi-arm solutions don’t work for my Avid Acutus Reference, and I leave the set up of my Dynavector TKR cart to someone who knows what they are doing, which isn’t me, I never touch it.

          However I am delighted that so many readers have pitched in with thoughts on mono/stereo, thank you, keep calm, and carry on.

          • The positive thing is that a dedicated mono cart whether it is 0.7 or 1 mil should play any mono record better than a stereo cart, so for most people that can swing two decks, two arms or a detachable headshell to accommodate one going for the stylus size that best suits the majority of their mono collection will be a benefit for all of their mono records. The stylus size is only part of the equation, there’s stylus profile and possibly most importantly a true mono cart has no vertical compliance which seems to take care of a lot of “noise”. Personally I’m still assembling/improving my mono hardware and it’s an interesting learning curve with surprisingly little genuine first hand useful information readily available, sixty years after stereo swept all before it many of us are rediscovering mono, but having to relearn a great deal of knowledge as well.

            • Exactly. If we were to use “industry guidance” then all mono LPs pressed before 1968 have a 1mil groove width. But as you point out, that is not the case. Another variable to consider is the wholesale changeover from tube to ss equipment- specifically as the change affected recording and cutting of LPs. Lets say a label made the change in 1964. Did they continue to use an existing (older) mono cutting head, or just stop cutting 1mil and use there new stereo cutting head and equipment for everything (summed signal for mono pressings at .7mil) ? For Blue Note there is yet another point to consider- sale to Liberty. After 1966 pressing moved away from Plastilyte. Did this affect when 1mil mono was changed to .7mil mono ? We know that Liberty increasingly remastered existing recordings prior to 1968 (non RVG pressings), were mono copies pressed in 1mil or .7mil ? At the moment I have drawn a proverbial line by playing post 1960 pressings with a .7mil stylus, and pre 1960 with a mono cartridge. However I have a number of mono pressings from 1960-68 and would love to know what is what so I don’t damage a mono .7mil pressing by using a 1mil cartridge for playback. But any mono reissue (including 70’s Japanese Blue Note) is played using a .7mil stylus.

              • Would a 1mil stylus really damage a record cut at .7mil (of visa versa)? I’ve read this a number of times and is part of the reason i haven’t jumped into a mono setup.

                • Mono carts wreck stereo recordings because they don’t have vertical compliance and basically cut through the part of the groove with that stereo information, a 1 mil mono cart should be fine on a 0.7 mil mono pressing, it just won’t sit as deep in the groove and anyway it’s not like any of us can tell a wide cut from a narrow cut without a microscope or playing them back to back with a stylus of each size.

              • A 1.0 mil stylus will play mono records of all generations without a problem. At least when you use a Miyajima Lab “Zero” true mono cartridge. The only records you shouldn’t play with such a cartridge are stereo LP’s.

  10. Oh, boy. This is one of my favorite topics, and it’s crazy how divisive it can be. It really does just come down to personal preference, but I think there is also a long-standing mono-bias in the jazz community which is reinforced by collectibility and auction sales(though I have seen prices for stereo BNs double in the last two years)

    There is also a factor of consistency across the collection, perhaps. (“All original MONO pressings” “strictly-mono!”)

    I’m 24 so I grew up in the CD Walkman and later iPod era, got into vinyl at about 18 or so. I also got bit by the audio bug.

    To me, well-done stereo is an illusion of the recorded performance, with instruments placed on or between the speakers like an imaginary stage. When it’s really exceptional and coherent, such as it is on the Stereo Records “Poll Winners” records and the stereo Dexter Gordon “Go”, Ike Quebec “Blue and Sentimental” (and others) It’s really as close as it gets to a live, acoustic performance IMO, where I can easily pick out and focus on an individual instrument if I want to.

    It’s sometimes hard to navigate, but given some patience I have been able to compare a ton of different labels’ stereos and monos.

    As others have said, Blue Note is generally great in stereo past the 4100s, but my experience has been mixed with the earlier ones. I’ve heard that the “Connection” in stereo is not great, and I think “Mosaic” is a little weak, but the Ike I mentioned is fabulous, as is “Blue Hour”and the live volumes I have heard(4054, 4055, 4060)

    Riverside on the other hand is extremely mixed. The early ones suffer from hole in the middle, and a number of the later ones have overly floaty and unfocused drums and other instruments which I find distracting. I still give em a shot if they are cheap, and a handful have been excellent–Cannonball Takes Charge and the 1st Wes Montgomery Trio come to mind.

    I don’t want to get to rambling, but lastly, I’ve heard many people say they don’t like when the sax or lead horn is off to the side. I’ve always interpreted this as the way the players stood in the studio—if John Coltrane stood front and center while recording ALS, how would the rest of the band see and react to his expressions and playing? I admit, this may be a misconception on my part of how recording and engineering work. But I can definitely say that the band leader has not always been front and center in every performance I’ve been to, so I have never come to expect that in a recording.

  11. A very thought provoking post. I think I am a stereo kind of guy although when I first started to collect, the monos were always my choice because they were $1 cheaper. I am surprised you listed RCA among the disappointing early stereos as there Living Stereo LSC (C for classical?) series is considered some of the finest sounding records ever pressed. I only have a few RCA LSP (P for popular?) stereos including some Paul Desmond and Duke Ellington and find them to be excellent. On a related note, for classical record aficionados stereo is almost always preferred.

  12. Stereo is like fake boobs on a woman. They may enhance her figure, and you may like the way they look but it’s not real 🙂

    • not real? sure it is! what isn’t ‘real’? it’s THERE, so how can it be fake? i’m being deliberately pedantic here. like when someone asks me if a photo is ‘real’… well you’re looking right at it, so….

    • I love and appreciate mono (see my response), but I disagree with your assessment of stereo. Does life audibly occur in 1 central location, without much depth or presence ? Of course not. In fact our auditory system is designed to interpret location cues based upon sound recognition through 2 separate pickup location (ears). Well recorded stereo presents a more realistic presentation of the actual soundstage. But stereo is a compromise. Binaural is better still, and different enough from stereo to warrant a separate definition.

  13. I think the (perhaps unhelpful) summary here is that it’s horses for courses. I’ve got plenty of mid-1960s Blue Notes in stereo and they sound great – especially the ones with larger numbers of musicians (say a Sextet or more). But I certainly agree that earlier Blue Notes are best in mono.

    Another factor that always springs to mind is one that you’ve touched on by mentioning the stereo A Love Supreme with Coltrane out on the left. I have a stereo first pressing of Giant Steps that exhibits the same symptom. When I compare it to other Coltrane quartet mono first pressings I reach an inevitable conclusion that Coltrane in a quartet setting is much better served by mono because we get the band leader front and centre where he deserves to be. I tend to extrapolate this argument to other distinctive leaders when recorded in a quartet. I instantly think of the likes of Dexter Gordon’s A Swinging Affair and Sonny Rollins’ The Sound of Sonny mono first pressings in my collection and how I find them preferable from this very particular perspective.

    On a lighter note: those two cover images of Frances. Andy, I think you’ve allowed your eyes to be distracted from a dispationate objective analysis (can’t think why!). If you look more carefully, you’ll notice that the top Frances’ head is lower down on the stereo copy. The cover designer has simply moved the whole photograph down to make room for the stereo logo. There’s no airbrushing or additional decolletage on view than the mono version. Look closely near Frances’ right (her right) armpit and you can see the top of her dress just visible as evidence of this.

    • Replying to myself: the height of vanity! I forgot that I wanted to respond to your brief paragraph about Impulse. I think you dismissed the Impulse monos a little unfairly by saying they were intended for radio play. Not true because many Impulse monos were commercially available for sale in shops before Impulse finally made the switch to exclusively stereo with Coltrane’s Om in 1968. I have a smattering of Impulse monos recorded by Rudy Van Gelder with the Longwear Plating mark in the deadwax and they sound terrific. Having said that, I imagine that the stereo versions sound just as good.

      • I can’t deny the Impulse mono sound good. I have 35 Impulse titles in total, nearly a third are mono, most of those being early titles in the range A-5 to A-33 orange/ black ring AmPar labels, most stamped VAN GELDER/ RVG master, which is why they sound so good. I stand corrected, it was indeed the later Impulse catalogue in which the white label promo copies appear to be the only mono found.

        Looking over my 24 stereo titles, I see on checking that many are the later ABC Records Inc black/red ring label (later catalogue or second issue) and significantly, a much reduced the strike rate for Van Gelder, only a quarter. It looks like Impulse and Van Gelder began to part company, many stereo second issues re-mastered by other engineers, or not Van Gelder mastered in the first issue.

        Seeing those stereo titles in a group, I am struck that those non-Van Gelder stereo titles include more than a few I considered weak sonically – Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, Sun Ra. For some reason, none of my Shepp titles are Van Gelder.

        I revise my opinion on Impulse, the common thread to both mono and stereo high quality seems to be mastering by Van Gelder.

        • Yes, I reckon you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Van Gelder + Longwear with orange/black labels = High Quality, whether mono or stereo, for Impulse. Fortunately, there’s a happy coincidence between this combination and my areas of interest when it comes to collecting Impulse. My preference being for the earlier material like the “classic” Coltrane quartet and dates led by the likes of McCoy Tyner, Curtis Fuller, Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes etc.

          • This also holds true for A Love Supreme, or at least my copy. I wonder if the stereo copy of ALS that LJC referred to had the Van Gelder stamp. I have an original stereo ALS with Van Gelder stamp, and it is not hard panned. It is left-center, and in fact so much in the center I might call it center-left, and it’s a wonderful listen with headphones. In fact it’s perfect for me because Elvin is off to the right and it enhances his contributions, IMHO. Interestingly, I used to have a 90’s stereo repress of this and Trane was hard left. This came up on Jazz Collector a while back and someone mentioned that if Rudy added compression in mastering, this would have the effect of centering both channels. So this is my current understanding but would love to confirm this from anyone knowledgeable about mastering techniques here.

            • Both my copies of ALS – mono and stereo – are UK 1st release HMV pressings. I assumed that they were the same as the US originals, because they were mastered from copy tape sent from the US to EMI. That may be an incorrect assumption on my part.

              It has been observed from time to time that what is on original US tape raw material (or copies of them sent overseas for local mastering) does not result in the same output – different decisions were made during the mastering process.

              • I also have HMV mono and stereo 1st UK pressings, but have always assumed that the early US pressings are noticeably different, unfortunately I’ve never come across an early US ALS mono or stereo, HMV must have been on the ball for ALS. The fact there are later HMV pressings suggests that it carried on selling and on catalogue so not much scope for US imports unlike some Coltrane Impulse titles which do show up in period collections on US, luckily I like my HMVs. From memory the first press UK Atlantic monos sound good for Coltrane as well, some Atlantics use US metalwork, I think the Coltranes are UK cuts though.

            • If you narrow the stereo spread you can get a louder cut. That’s why the UK ‘White album’ from 1968 has the stereo narrowed by 50%. It would not be impossible that Rudy wanted a louder cut and narrowed the stereo to make it possible (and over-the-top compression would be unnecessary).

        • Impulse started as an east coast label, based in NYC. Creed Taylor left Verve to run Impulse and he used RVG. Impulse was a division of ABC Paramount- a West Coast company. Over time, Impulse operations shifted west, probably concurrent with the disappearance of the RVG stamp in the deadwax. Ironically like Liberty.

          • I’m afraid that ABC-Paramount was not “a West Coast Company”. It was a subsidiary of ABC – one of the three nationwide TV networks along with NBC (RCA Victor Records) and CBS (Columbia Records), all of which were based in New York City. The misleading “Paramount” part of the name comes from the fact that ABC owned the Paramount chain of movie theaters, which had earlier belonged to the Hollywood movie studio of the same name (which itself got into the record business by buying Dot Records in 1957).

            Throughout the “golden years” of Impulse, ABC-Paramount functioned out of the ABC headquarters in Manhattan, initially 1501 Broadway, moving to 1330 Avenue of the Americas (locally known as Sixth Avenue) in 1966. This is confirmed by any number of sources, including the issues of Billboard magazine on Google Books.

  14. Mono cutting and pressing process is much less complex.
    Mono records have less cutting distorsions, less stamper wear, more accurate pressing.

  15. My understanding of stereo is that it was invented in part, to create a more realistic soundstage. To give the presentation width, to make it ‘appear’ that your living room was the bandstand, with the bassist on one side, the sax player somewhere near the center, the pianist at right, or something like that.

    You can argue how accurate this occurs in a stereo mix, but one listen to an average mono recording, versus a well mixed stereo version, and the average listener will likely choose the stereo every time. It does seem more pleasing to listen to. The sound field can seem to collapse when switching back to mono. The stereo sound field can seem to have depth, too, that mono has a harder time reproducing on average.

    Perhaps because I do some live recording, I strive to produce a stereo mix that does locate the instruments across a wide field. I abhor modern pop recordings that are nearly mono, with a little stereo tossed in here or there. These days, it seems some engineers pan nearly everything dead center. It’s as if they truly don’t understand what stereo is.

    I’ve even produced what I call fake true stereo. I’ll take a single track of a guitar, and copy it. Now I have two identical tracks of guitar. I unsync the copied track, by a brief millisecond, pan one track hard left, the other hard right. You now hear stereo guitars from one guitar track, that has width and depth, too. It’s amazing how much more enticing this effect can be to listen to. It can really grab you.

    I understand there are mono mixes that are clearly superior to the stereo, especially some of those Blue Notes. I like mono. I also don’t mind the hard left and hard left panning of early stereo, with nothing in the center. Doesn’t bother me at all. When I transfer a LP to digital, a mono LP has the advantage of having two identical tracks in the vinyl. Often, one of the two is quieter, or less damaged than the other. So I delete the noisy side and keep the cleaner track to listen to.

    Either way, I enjoy the music!

    • “I abhor modern pop recordings that are nearly mono, with a little stereo tossed in here or there. These days, it seems some engineers pan nearly everything dead center. It’s as if they truly don’t understand what stereo is.”

      Actually, most modern pop is mixed for headphones listening, which is what the majority of young music fans use in this day and age.

      “I also don’t mind the hard left and hard left panning of early stereo, with nothing in the center. Doesn’t bother me at all.”

      I take it you don’t listen on headphones ; ) This type of presentation can be quite unpleasant when you have the 100% separation of the left and right signals.

      • I was reading recently an article from a young listener complaining about the Beatles ‘Mono reissues’ and all the other Mono audiophile reissues being a waste of money as he only listens via headphones and they sound terrible like that.

        • Aha — just the point I was going to make. I listen almost all the time using headphones and primarily for that reason prefer the sound of stereo pressings.

          But on balance I think it is largely a matter of personal preference…

          • Ironically, I find the ideal situation to listen to primitive, wide stereo is through speakers because the separation sounds less jarring and unrealistic.

            It’s interesting to learn of people’s preferences but there doesn’t appear to be any consensus on any of these issues, and I agree with other commenters that it all simply boils down to what we hear and what sounds good to each of us.

    • Why not both? The stereo sounds great but if I could only keep one version, it would be the mono. It’s dryer and more cohesive presentation makes it easier for me to connect with the music.

      • I have always preferred the stereo — never having heard it in mono. Although I do seem to recall that on one track (and I can’t remember which) the placing of the alto and tenor saxes swaps over… But perhaps Cannonball and Coltrane did in fact swap stools? Who knows?

  16. I still sometimes wonder why stereo was originally introduced. The cynic in me says it was just marketing. “Let’s get all the consumers to replace their mono collection with stereo records, and buy a new phono cartridge, amplifier, and a second speaker.” A good friend of mine makes the plausible argument that stereo is an auditory replacement of seeing live musicians spread across a stage. When I go to a live performance, and the seating and sound are optimum (for example, small jazz club with middle seating close to stage), I can close my eyes and audibly sense the instruments coming from different directions. But when I open my eyes, the visual sense takes over and the directional aspect of the music either doesn’t matter or just reinforces the visual sense. In most instances, I experience live performances in mono (due to loud PA system, or distance from the stage, etc), but it doesn’t seem to lessen the enjoyment of the performance. The other cynic in me supposes our stereo systems are just clever, electronic tricks. But then I was there in the 60’s, too, and life was in color and stereo.

    I listen to mono recordings with a mono cartridge and prefer mono recordings for the instances cited (hole-in-the middle stereo). But overall, I think the (artificial) sound of a good stereo recording is best. After all, getting that stereo soundstage just right is why I invested in all this expensive equipment.

    • pcocke: “The other cynic in me…” I’m very cynical and would find it helpful to have more than one cynic in me. How’s it done? 🙂

  17. Fortunately I’ve always bought both, so I have a large number of mono LPs often with their stereo counterparts and although first press Blue Note monos sound superb even with a stereo cart after many years of putting it off I’ve finally committed to doing mono properly with a dedicated mono cart permanently mounted on a dedicated mono deck. Early days yet and I’ve decided I need a dedicated mono phono stage, but for me mono switches etc., are a compromise and doing mono properly requires the same resources and dedication as stereo. My new problem is which size stylus is appropriate for which mono pressings, yes there are two types of groove size, so I’m now thinking I need two mono carts. As an aside I have the Alan Davie Music Workshop LP and that’s a mono only recording from 1970, perhaps the last mono Jazz release?

  18. I have the entire run of Dave Brubeck Quartet releases on Columbia in mono, the drums in particular are greatly improved (the bass drum has actual bass). Sure, – few scattered tracks are still better in stereo (“Tokyo Traffic”) but “Unsquare Dance” features the most gimmicky stereo panning before Hendrix.

    Your Miles Davis fan should know that the pretty good sounding mono reissue of KOB is not the original mix, as the tape was trashed. Its the one modern era Miles in mono reissue not from original tapes.

  19. I prefer mono for records where there was a choice, the exception being impulse, where I don’t mind either way. Van Gelder came into his own by then. Something, as you noted, feels more authentic about mono, even in situations where that is a stupid feeling (such as blue notes of the 4100 and up variety).

    But yes, some records simply require stereo, such as Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” or Don Cherry’s “Symphony for Improvisers”, in which portions of the group are panned for specific artistic reasons.

    And after the mid-60’s, who cares anymore?

    I will say this, though, companies often emblazoned STEREO on the front, as in the Miles example, in tasteless ways. Riverside ruined many covers this way, but there are others, and I like the look of mono covers as well, almost exclusively, until stereo stopped being a thing that got much mention on the cover.

    • also, i know where that “mono vs. stereo” image came from. that’s a northeast USA record label from the early 2000s that recorded indie rock music. a friend’s band recorded for that label. small world!

  20. finding Love Supreme in mono isn’t that easy (unless your pockets are deep) seems like all of the reissues are stereo

  21. While there are some good engineering reasons for mono vs. stereo as you have enumerated, my limited experience with BN has been mixed. Byrd’s Fuego in mono was not as satisfying as in stereo, the stereo is just more open sounding, giving it a livelier sound. It just the opposite with McLean’s Jackie’s Bag, the mono copy has a big lively sound in mono vs. the stereo which, while more open, does not fill that open with the air of the performance. The stereo versions are Liberty issues, whereas the mono issues are Classic Records, so that comparison may be apples and oranges. Also, I used the mono switch on my Fisher integrated for mono, but the cart is stereo, I hear for the real experience one should be using a mono cart.

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