Beatles mono mixes are all the rage; here’s why they shouldn’t be

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Only the last few Beatles albums were originally mixed in stereo, leading some bedrock fans to fetishize the early mono sound. Certainly, it’s what they grew up with, and then became reacquainted with when mono mixes of the Beatles catalog were released on disc in 2009 and on vinyl in 2014. But, are they better?

There has been much made lately about the superiority of the mono mixes of Beatles albums over their stereo counterparts.

Stereo LPs are suddenly viewed as suspect, as if stereo sound was an inferior way to present this group’s music. Magazine ads urge buyers to purchase the mono mixes of Beatle albums, “the way the music was meant to be heard.”

But show me a published interview where John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, or their record producer George Martin indicate a preference for the Beatles’ recordings in monaural sound — other than in the case of false American stereo releases of the earliest Beatles recordings, which Martin disdained.

Show me a quote by any of the only five people on the planet who matter on this subject, where a member of the band complains about stereo being an artificial aural trick that was forced onto an unwilling band.

Save your time; there is no such quote.

The current mono mix bandwagon is largely a marketing tool. There are numerous valid reasons to own the Beatles’ mono releases, but not because stereo is the enemy. Tell me you prefer hearing “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in mono. You don’t.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Wilmeth
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  • JC Mosquito

    For sure part of a marketing ploy, but with an interesting twist as well. According to Beatles’ archivist Mark Lewisohn, the mono mixes of most of their albums up to and including Sgt. P were usually done together with the Beatles themselves present
    throughout the recording of the album. Stereo mixes weren’t like that: Sgt. P’s stereo mix, in particular, was
    done in only six days by George Martin etc. after the album had been finished, with no Beatles present (paraphrased from – Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions. The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., London 1988, P. 108.)

    Another example – “Rain” had four mono mixes in ’66 but didn’t get a stereo remix until Dec 69 for the Hey Jude compilation (same book).

    In the case of Bob Dylan, producer Bob Johnston claims they spent days mixing Blonde On Blonde in mono, then did the stereo mix in about four hours.

    In essence, it isn’t that mono is better than stereo, but back then it was often a better mix. I think that by the late ’60s, everyone got comfortable making good stereo mixes, so after that mono got abandoned.

    • Vail Beach

      The foregoing is exactly why I own the mono mixes issued a few years ago. The Beatles might never have sat down and said into a journalist’s microphone, “I/we prefer mono.” But clearly, based on the information provided above, they didn’t have to say that. As far as they were concerned, they were making mono records. Someone other than them took those records and made them into stereo for the stereo fans, but while they didn’t do anything to stop it, they weren’t that interested in it until it became the standard, around the time of the White Album.

  • David Mainwood

    I prefer the mono mixes. Always have. Sgt Pepper sounds much fuller in mono. As does Rubber Soul which, to me, is horrendous in stereo. I’m sure there is a George Harrison quote on this out there. Maybe you just need to look harder.

  • David Mainwood

    wikipedia

    George Harrison commented:


    At
    that time […] the console was about this big with four faders on it.
    And there was one speaker right in the middle […] and that was it.
    When they invented stereo, I remember thinking ‘Why? What do you want
    two speakers for?’, because it ruined the sound from our point of view.

  • David Yellen

    There are SEVERAL interviews where George Martin talks about mono being the preferred medium during the early part of the Beatles’ recording career. Of course they are trying to sell something most people don’t already have, but you have not done your research.

    • Dizzy

      Exactly.

  • guido81_MA

    “At that time […] the console was about this big with four faders on it. And there was one speaker right in the middle […] and that was it. When they invented stereo, I remember thinking ‘Why? What do you want two speakers for?’, because it ruined the sound from our point of view. You know, we had everything coming out of one speaker; now it had to come out of two speakers. It sounded like … very … naked.” ~ George Harrison

    “You haven’t heard Sgt. Pepper till you’ve heard it in mono” ~ John Lennon

    “I was never sold on stereo. Why didn’t we just put the drums in the middle? I’ll have to ask George Martin.” ~ John Lennon 1980 interview

    “Up until the White Album, the stereo mixes were throwaways. England just wasn’t interested in stereo mixes. So they were done a little later, and we didn’t take massive amounts of notes. So if something was sped up, no one actually kept a note on how much it was sped up. It was just, “Oh, just speed it up a bit.” They were just thrown together, really.” ~ Ken Scott, Beatles recording engineer

    All that being said, I probably prefer the stereo versions for about 90% of their stuff. Actually I like both, I am just more used to the stereo because it’s what I grew up listening to. There are some noticeable differences in the mixes, especially on Pepper and the White Album. I definitely prefer the mono mix of ‘She’s Leaving Home’. I like a lot of the mono on White Album. Yer Blues, Sexy Sadie and Helter Skelter sound amazazing. The one downside is that the mono Helter Skelter does not have Ringo’s “I got blisters on my fingers!” coda. But the mono mixes, as well as the stereo mixes, are indeed all the rage for me.

  • Pop Culture Safari

    George Martin: “Today, most people are only familiar with the stereo version, but in those days, stereo equipment was very primitive, and not very popular. The Beatles and I spent three weeks mixing the mono version of the album. After it was finished, they left it to Geoff Emerick and myself to mix the stereo version, which we did in four days. So, the mono version was the version the Beatles “authorized.” And, yes, given that, I think it should be issued on compact disc.”

  • Pop Culture Safari

    I posted on the mono/stereo debate last year on my Glass Onion Blog.

    I think it’s tough to state that the Beatles absolutely preferred one over the other. As the quotes shared by readers below indicate, feelings varied over time. Like guido81 below, there’s some mono and some stereo stuff I enjoy.

    If you’re a big fan of the Beatles and haven’t heard the mono versions of Pepper and the White Album, in particular, I bet you’d enjoy them, or at least find them significantly interesting.

    Personally, I wouldn’t give up either the stereo or mono. There’s room on my shelves, and room in my iPod, for both.

    And, while the idea of releasing LPs and CDs is to make money, the reissue of the Beatles’ mono LPs is also of historical significance. I’m glad I can hear the albums as the band and George Martin prepared them – in stereo and in mono. A huge amount of effort and care went into producing the mono reissues, both their sound and packaging.

    So yes, it’s about marketing, and it’s about nostalgia, but it’s also about preserving and sharing the history of this most influential and important band.

  • Pop Culture Safari

    I wrote about the mono/stereo debate on my Glass Onion Beatles Journal blog last year.

    It’s hard to state that the Beatles absolutely preferred mono or stereo. As the quotes shared in the comments here demonstrate, their opinions varied over time.

    But, if you’re a big fan of the Beatles and haven’t heard the mono mixes of Pepper or the White Album, in particular, I bet you’d enjoy them, or at least find them interesting.

    I’m glad I don’t have to choose. There’s room on my shelves, and in my iPod, for both the mono and stereo albums.

    Yes, releasing LPs and CDs is about making money. But I’d argue that the mono reissues are also of historical significance. A great deal of care went into their sound and packaging.

    I’m glad we can hear the music – in mono AND stereo – as the band and George Martin prepared it.

  • Something Else!

    Friends:
    Thanks very much for these specific comments and corrections! I do appreciate them.
    Humility is a healthy thing to encounter. And today I have absorbed a large dose.
    In the words of our favorites, “I Should Have Known Better.” I do thank you.
    Best,

    Tom Wilmeth

  • J-Jam

    I’m more of a stereo guy, although I’ll admit some of the stereo mixes of Beatles songs were dodgy, with vocals mixed to either the hard left or hard right channels. The 1999 YELLOW SUBMARINE soundtrack finally displayed Beatle songs in a more modern stereo mix.

  • teladesor

    in my opinion, the following should be listened to in Mono, as the mixes are better – please please me, with the beatles, a hard days night, and some of the earlier tracks on past masters 1. occasionally a song here or there sounds good in mono later on, for example: “i’m so tired” has the harmony in the chorus pumped up, “lucy in the sky with diamonds” has the song slowed down a bit with the phase on the vocals.

  • perplexio

    Having been born several years after the Beatles parted ways my perspective is decidedly different but I can understand where albums originally recorded in mono would sound better than their stereo counterparts that were converted from mono to stereo years after the original recording sessions.

    Also from another perspective, when the technology for stereo sound was first introduced it was like a “new toy.” Sound engineers got to “play” with the new toy a bit when the technology first emerged. After all, these were sound engineers and producers that had been born and bred on monaural sound suddenly having to learn to “re-invent the wheel.” So I can also see an argument for mono counterparts of the earliest albums released in stereo sound might be superior to their stereo counterparts. I think it probably took a few years for stereo albums to eclipse the quality and prevalence of monaural recordings.

  • Stan Dard

    There are sonic effects that do not appear if you listen to the pre-Abby Road recordings in stereo. The problem is that when the mix is spread into the stereo spectrum, you lose the effect of mono summed phase cancellation, an effect of which the Beatles made extensive use. A good song to listen to in mono and then stereo is “Your Mother Should Know.” Around 24 seconds in there is a phasing effect on the hi hat of the mono mix, which cannot be heard in the stereo mixes. I am certain that an engineer of Geoff Emerick’s caliber would not have done this accidentally, nor would the Beatles or George Martin overlook what could be seen as such an egregious error of engineering. There are many similar effects present only in the mono mixes, most notably on Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery. Studio flourishes such as the one I mentioned are what made the Beatles’ recordings so remarkable. I can see why some people may prefer the stereo mix, as you can differentiate the instruments better. However, I don’t think this was the intent of the engineer, producer, or artists; rather, the stereo mixes met a growing niche in the market. Great discussion by the way!

  • rondonrondondon

    Or maybe they just sound better. One of the biggest don’ts in mixing is hard panning bass, snare, kick drum, and lead vocals. It’s common knowledge now that it sounds terrible, and much worse on headphones but in the 60’s they didn’t know that since stereo was so new. As far as I know most people didn’t listen to music through headphones back then either.

  • Dale Haskell

    I prefer BOTH! Then I can enjoy comparing and contrasting. I feel this way about ANY album that had two mixes.

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