To Channel the Fab Four, Listen in Mono
Making the Case For a Singular Sound

By Peter Kaufman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

You sit down at your favorite neighborhood restaurant and order beef bourguignon. Soon a team of waiters approaches and lays it out in front of you -- but unassembled, each ingredient in its own little saucer: floured and browned beef cubes, sauteed pearl onions, a carrot, a carafe of full-bodied Beaujolais, some garlic, the whole Julia Child rigmarole.

It's all perfectly prepared, but still. No matter how fine the individual components, they're not what you want to eat. You want beef bourguignon. And that's also why, when it comes to the lavish new Beatles box sets, you might want to choose the finished dish: "The Beatles in Mono," rather than stereo. Especially if you like to listen through headphones.

Now, there's no question that the stereo versions of these familiar songs are clearer and more vivid than they've ever been. But when the musical elements of a recording from that era are pulled apart for individual examination, things can come undone and unbalanced. On "Slow Down," the drums are sequestered in the right channel, so that when John Lennon sings "try to save our romance," the rifle shots meant to punctuate the line are muffled, nearly silenced. This is a song where Ringo Starr proves he can do everything for his band that Charlie Watts did for the Stones, but stereo relegates him to a bit part. Likewise, on "She's a Woman," almost the entire band is way off to the right, distant and vague, while to the left, clear as can be, we hear . . . maracas! The 1964 engineers' spatial arrangement of the vocals and instruments has thrown the song, as we remember it, out of whack.

Particularly on the more raucous Beatles tunes, such as "Good Morning Good Morning" from "Sgt. Pepper," mono produces one great galumphing roar -- the wall of sound, in Phil Spector's famous appellation -- that transmits the exuberance rock is meant to have. On "I'm Down" in mono, it's like Paul McCartney is desperately screaming throughout the final choruses just to be heard above his bandmates. (In stereo, he doesn't seem to have that problem, and it's all much more polite.)

The mono mixes, not just the stereo, have been cleaned up and refurbished for this release. So "Paperback Writer," for example, here sounds as noisy and vital as it did blaring from a transistor radio in 1966. And in stereo? I differ with my colleague Matt Hurwitz's assessment. Yes, you can certainly hear McCartney's bass line as never before, and you can hear every nuance of his vocal (because it's now six times as loud as anything else on the track). But the rest of the band might as well be playing in County Cork. The tune is sapped of its blast, its exhilaration. The beast of mono has been tamed, and what we are left with is "Paperback Writer" lite.

This isn't some sort of flat-Earth diatribe. There's no reason for anyone to record in mono today; there was no reason 25 years ago. But in the mid-1960s, mono was the common currency among listeners, and stereo was for Brahms and "hi-fi" gimmickry. (People used to buy sound-effects records and listen to a ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth from speaker to speaker.) Pop songs were primarily introduced to people by AM radio, which was as monaural as you can get.

Recording-studio technicians, of course, knew all this, and they fashioned pop music tracks to shine their brightest in that format. From the booklet that accompanies the new stereo release of "Beatles for Sale" (1964): Producer George Martin and engineer Norman Smith "spent two and a half hours mixing five songs into mono and just half an hour mixing four of them to stereo."

AM, in turn, further fussed with the music's sound. Using compressors and limiters and other equipment from Dr. Frankenstein's lab, they processed the radio signal to make songs punchier, more hopped-up. There were no quiet passages in songs -- technology rendered everything equally loud and urgent, every second. If you were 14, this was exciting.

Allan Sniffen, who runs a Web site devoted to the old Top 40 format of WABC in New York, recalls that the station pumped itself up by adding boomy reverb to every sound it emitted: commercials, station ID jingles ("W-A-Beatle-C!"), DJs' blather, all of it. The objective was to sound "tight, bright and out of sight," says Don Geronimo, who grew up listening to the Beatles on Washington's WPGC and eventually became a DJ there (as well as at other AM powerhouses, like WLS in Chicago).

This effort to pummel and overpower a listener is what's present in the mono mixes and often absent from the stereo versions. Not just for the Beatles, either, and not just on CD: Many geezers can recall buying the stereo LP version of, say, a Four Tops or Martha and the Vandellas song, only to confront a tepid, feeble-sounding travesty of the clamorous mono 45 that they so loved and wore out.

A final difference between mono and stereo in the pop music of the 1960s and '70s is more of a philosophical one: It's the question of whether you want to know how the magician does his tricks. Some listeners prefer that everything in a song be as clear and distinct as possible, and stereo was made for them. Here's the snare drum, there's a trombone, and that? Well, that's got to be a mellotron. Here's what the singer is singing, and I think it means XYZ.

Other listeners just want to be overtaken by the melody and chords and overall feel of a song. They don't care if they can't make out all the words; they actually like it if they can't quite identify all the instruments. These folks want pop music to retain some mystery, even some spookiness. (Encountering "I Am the Walrus" for the first time on a faraway AM station in 1967 -- in mono, of course -- I was frightened by its densely packed cacophony, which was only enhanced by radio static. I'd never heard anything so sinister.)

So, back to the restaurant. The latter group of listeners doesn't care what's in the beef bourguignon: It's just a complex, flavorful stew that tantalizingly withholds some of its secrets. For them, may we suggest "The Beatles in Mono." Bon appetit!

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