Why Do Beatles Fans Care So Much About Mono?
By Brian Ives
Apple Records recently announced the September release of the Beatles‘ mono catalog reissued on vinyl. This came as welcome news to a relatively small, but passionate subsection of the Fab Four’s enduring fanbase that have been waiting for the 14 mono LPs since the group’s catalog was remastered in 2009. But seriously, what’s all the fuss about mono?
Well, a mono recording has all of the sound mixed in a single channel and was intended to be listened to on a sound system with one speaker — such as a turntable with a built-in speaker. Until the late ’60s, most rock and pop albums were mixed for mono, since most young people didn’t have access to stereo systems.
Stereo recordings use two, or sometimes more, independent audio channels to create the impression of sound heard from various directions. In stereo, vocals and guitars may be mixed in the right speaker while the rest of the instruments are mixed in the left.
At a recent listening session at Electric Lady Studios in New York City, Apple Records played select tracks from the mono vinyl for Radio.com and other members of the press. The LPs were played on a turntable that was part of a McIntosh stereo system, which attendees were told runs about $85,000, “so you’ll probably never hear it sound quite this good again.”
“Warmth” is a term that is often used in the analog vs. digital debate, and it is an apt description of why it may be better to hear the Beatles in mono rather than stereo.
Listening to these songs in mono, on vinyl and yes, on a stereo that few can afford in a room that few people will visit, there is a warmth that is lacking even in comparison to the recent 2009 mono CD remasters. The distortion at the beginning of “I Feel Fine” sounds more dangerous, while “Money (That’s What I Want)” feels more urgent and in-your-face. There is even an added strain in John Lennon’s voice that was nowhere near as apparent on CD.
Great arguments have been made in recent years over why vinyl sounds better than CD, but what is the argument for listening to mono instead of stereo? When it comes to The Beatles, it’s actually pretty simple.
“When the early Beatles albums were recorded in 1963 through 1967, mono was by far the dominant format in the UK. Beatles producer George Martin recorded these albums with mono in mind from the start,” Bruce Spizer, a noted Beatles expert who has written eight books on the band, told Radio.com. “The stereo mixes were an afterthought, with the Beatles rarely present for the stereo mixing sessions. For these reasons, the early mono albums represent the Beatles music as the Beatles and George Martin intended it be heard.”
Spizer even said, “[Martin] viewed stereo as a gimmick for Hi-Fi freaks, something that needed to be done to satisfy the bean counters at EMI.”
George Martin certainly wasn’t interested in making a quick buck if that meant the production would suffer, as Abbey Road’s head mastering engineer, Sean Magee, who worked on the mono vinyl project, explained: “There’s a great story about when they brought the second speakers into Abbey Road studios, George was like, ‘What are you doing that for?’ ‘Well, we’re going to have everything in stereo, so the music will come out of two speakers.’ ‘What the hell do you want to do that for?’”
It’s a good question, since George Martin, along with engineers Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick were masters of recording and mixing in mono. “If you want to talk about the geographic landscape of the sounds, these recordings feel completely dimensional in mono,” mastering supervisor Steve Berkowitz, who worked on the Beatles mono LPs, explained. “The goal here was to make the records that they made, the way they were intended to sound, by George Martin and the engineers and the Beatles.”
In the ’60s, most pop music—as opposed to jazz, classical and show tunes—was recorded with the intent to be listened to either on a turntable with a self-contained speaker, or on the radio. So, although the ability to record in stereo was available, there didn’t seem to be much of a point for rock bands. “At that time, the majority of people who would have listened to this—teenagers—would have listened to it in mono,” Magee explained. “Stereo was an afterthought.” Not to mention, the stereo versions cost about a dollar more, a pretty hefty markup for a teen in that decade.
Indeed, the Beatles only cared about their mono mixes. That is, until their recording got more complex.
The band’s 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded and mixed for mono, but the album gave the band a sense of what was possible with stereo, particularly with cinematic numbers like “A Day in the Life” and “Good Morning Good Morning.” By 1968′s self-titled release— better known as “The White Album”—they were recording with stereo mixes in mind.
Beyond the semantics of sound, in some cases there were reasons to get albums in both mono and stereo.”The mono mixes of Sgt. Pepper and ‘The White Album,’ like Dylan’s Highway 61, are really different from the stereo mixes, it’s almost like two different records,” Berkowitz said.
Spizer agrees. “There are noticeable differences between the stereo and mono mixes of some of the songs on Pepper and ‘The White Album,’” he said, adding that songs from other eras have varying stereo and mono versions: he mentioned “Help!,” which features different vocals for each mix.
And while many people—the Beatles included—maintain that to truly appreciate Pepper, you have to hear it in mono, some of the songs actually sound better in stereo. Spizer lists “A Day In The Life” as being “more effective” in stereo, along with the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise).”
“To be completely transparent about the process, we would do what we thought was right, and we’d send it to Apple, and then we’d get an answer,” he explained. “We worked with [Apple Records CEO] Jeff Jones and other people from Apple and Universal. At the end we got approvals. With regards to the inner process, that’s an Apple question.”
Radio.com was told that Jeff Jones does not do interviews. Radio.com also asked to interview George Martin for this piece, but were told he “would not be available.”
“I did not speak to Mr. Martin, I wish that we had,” Berkowitz said, guardedly. “We were directed to go through Apple and that’s exactly what we did. Whether they played them for him or not, I don’t know. Giles Martin came in on a number of occasions and we did confer with him to a degree.”
Giles Martin, of course, is George’s son who worked with his father on the soundtrack to the Beatles Cirque du Soleil show, LOVE and later worked on the Beatles edition of Rock Band. More recently, Giles produced tracks off McCartney’s 2013 album, New.
A lot of work was put into these mixes, but how much demand is there really for the mono vinyl editions of the Fab Four’s 14 albums through 1968?
According to Apple, quite a lot. During the listening event, Apple said that they will be using a vinyl pressing plant in Germany throughout the entire summer that will work only on Beatles records, cranking out one million LPs.
“It comes at a coincidentally good time,” Berkowitz explained. “When there’s such an elevated focus on people wanting vinyl…People are buying more records again, and they want that analog experience, and they like holding something 12×12 and these records represent the opportunity to hear it the way they were meant to be heard.”
“Up until these new re-issues, the only way to truly have the listening experience intended by the Beatles and George Martin was to play a vinyl record from the Sixties,” Spizer said. “Although some of the mono reissues over the years come close, they were not done with the same emphasis on re-creating the sound of the original records…For mono freaks, these albums will provide the ultimate listening experience for the Beatles albums from 1963 to 1968.”
Bottom line, with these mono LPs you’ll hear the songs in their originally intended format with the mixes that the band cared about on a much better sound system than the Fab Four could have ever imagined. And that’s whether or not your sound system costs $85,000.
The mono LPs will be released on 180-Gram vinyl on September 8; they will be available individually and in a limited edition 14-LP box set.
(All images courtesy of Getty Images)