Mono v Stereo

Mono and stereo

Badge from Back to Mono: Phil Spector (1958-1969), CD box set
Phil Spector Records / ABCKO 1991

Early 45 records are mono. They sound louder, brighter and punchier than the CD versions, or even early LPs with badly done stereo. They were played on decks with a mono cartridge. Around 1966 in Britain, everyone went out and bought new “stereo compatible” cartridges for their mono record players. Then they moved to stereo a couple of years later.

Early mono singles will often sound reasonable on a £99 turntable with an £8.50 cartridge (given a good amp and speakers!). They don’t need the sensitivity of arcane equipment which is why so many people crave old juke boxes. Juke boxes tracked at a heavy weight. Dealers selling old singles at Record Fairs assure me that a sturdy DJ-friendly Technics 1200 (still a pricey turntable) will beat the highest end decks of all when it comes to playing mono singles.

In the USA, there is a market for mono cartridges from old vinyl fans (and young fans of old vinyl!) who keep a separate deck for playing old 45s. Stereo compatible cartridges were already in use by the late fifties. However, apparently a mono cartridge sounds better with mono discs.

This Decca notice comes from the back of an EP called Barrack Room Ballads by Bob Cort, which features The Good Ship Venus and Roll Me Over in the Clover. Not the normal hi-fidelity fare.

Ray Davies on early Kinks recordings:

Ray Davies: The agreement was to go mono. Mono, to me, was the sound we should have had. I may have snuck in two or three track machines into the studio, but primarily they were designed to be mono records.I’ve always heard in mono, listened to The Kinks in mono, particularly for those early records.
Record Collector #406, October 2012

45s are collectable partly because the mix was often different for the single, the compression was different, and they were louder than the LP. For years, I thought that mono was the sole reason, but it’s only part. By 1973-74 many singles were stereo. I compared Betty Wright’s Shoo-rah! Shoo-rah! on 45 to the LP version, and it’s louder and more dynamic. Both versions are stereo.

Shoo-rah! Shoo-rah! Betty Wright, RCA UK 1972 stereo single

Collector CDs often include mono mixes as bonus tracks. Stereo took off in the “grownups” market first: classical, jazz, easy listening. In the UK it came much later in rock.

Until The White Album the definitive version of any Beatles album is the mono one. That was the one they and George Martin sat and mixed. Then off they went, leaving an engineer to do the stereo mix on his own. It wasn’t important to them or their audience. Early rock stereo is often crude with instruments on one side, voices on the other. From 1970, as stereo was standard and mono LPs simply were no longer produced, electronically produced stereo was imposed on older mono records.

Axis Bold As Love: Jimi Hendrix Experience, Track, 1967

Stereo was still a luxury item in 1967 UK and it rarely had a simultaneous release, When the Jimi Hendrix Experience released Axis Bold As Love in December 1967 their fan club newsletter announced:

The stereo version will be released a few days after the mono … and I advise you all with stereo record players to wait for this version, as the sounds are utterly incredible, but for those of you without stereo, the mono still sounds groovy.
Quoted in Record Collector #405, September 2012

The mono mix was only issued in the UK and USA, all stereo elsewhere, and it was the last Hendrix album where he was involved in a dedicated mono mix. Even so, the EH / Legacy 200 gram repressing went for the mono mix. On the Steve Hoffman forum, a comment was:

The guitar is so much better in mono with no cheesy-sounding 1967 stereo mixing effects.

This mono preference is reflected in values. The UK issue had an insert which is essential. Rare Record Guide 2022 rates it this for a Mint copy:

original, gatefold, insert, mono £750
original gatefold, insert, stereo £300

(Without the insert it drops to £150 stereo, £120 mono)

Around the changeover, which was many years later in Britain than America, we worried about whether stereo records could be played on our mono record players. The Ember label made a big deal of this in 1968, “Playable on Stereo & Mono Phonographs” and stamping STEREOMONIC on its records:

There is another side. The Beatles albums were issued on CD in mono up to Sergeant Pepper, and from then on in stereo. American listeners felt hard done by, because the versions they knew and loved and had nostalgia for were the stereo versions. Possibly, but Americans got different compilations of tracks too, with the aim of getting three albums out of two and an EP and both sides of a couple of singles. I suspect it’s the order of the songs that matters most.

The Beatles Second Album: The Capital Masters Vol 1 2004

In the end Capitol put out two box sets of The Beatles Capitol Albums on CD with both the stereo and mono masters on them. Audiophiles will claim that Abbey Road is the only album where stereo is significantly better. I’d add that the Abbey Road 5.1 Blu Ray is the best of all.

The Original Mono Recordings: Bob Dylan 8 CD set, Columbia 2010

Bob Dylan’s early albums command a higher price in stereo, being rarer, but the early albums were always prized in their mono versions, and so in 2010 Sony released The Original Mono Recordings with eight CDs in facsimile card sleeves. The inner sleeve of the first album is fun, reproducing Columbia’s stereo promoting inner sleeve of the era. Then there are little surprises like a small etching of Bob tucked into Highway 61 Revisited.

Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan 1961. “Original mono CD release” 2010
Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan 1965, “Original mono CD release” 2010
These inserts are essential for collectability on CD or vinyl

Yes, there was stereo, and all these albums originally appeared in stereo too- in this time, often a blunt separation of individual voices and instruments into the left or right channel, a technology originally meant to capture the true, real room experience of sitting in a concert hall, listening to a symphony where the violins were indeed on the left and the cellos on the right. There was a cult of stereo, pushed most aggressively and glamorously in ‘Playboy’ … but there were other ways for music to seduce people and stereo albums cost at least a dollar more than mono LPs. When albums cost under three dollars that meant another thirty three and a third percent to, in the case of Bob Dylan, to listen to a guy with a guitar and a harmonica: on the stereo ‘Bob Dylan’ that meant the guitar over here and the voice over there, with the feeling that neither were quite there at all.
Greil Marcus, booklet to The Original Mono Recordings, Columbia 2010

The set goes up to John Wesley Harding, appropriately. A review of Nashville Skyline, the next album after that suggested that Dylan had bought a hi-fi stereo at last and was remixing and rethinking the album to match it. This was a criticism.

Complete Stax Singles, 1959-1968 (9 CDs) Mono
Complete Motown Singles Box Set 1962 (9 CDs + 1 x 45) Mono

Another heaven for mono enthusiasts is The Complete Motown Singles series of CD box sets, running from 1959 to 1972. They use the mono 45 versions in the years when those were the main sellers, and sometimes add an alternate stereo version. The Complete Stax Singles box sets follow the same rule. That’s how classic soul was meant to be heard.

In recent years, there has become a custom for issuing CDs or LP box sets with both the mono and stereo mixes of classic albums.

So singles were predominately mono until 1969. Phil Spector and Brian Wilson were both stern advocates of mono, in Wilson’s case he was deaf in one ear.

EPs though, like LPs, were sometimes issued in both versions. The demise of the EP roughly coincides with the switch to stereo for LPs.  There is almost always a value difference for collectors, and like that between 45s and 78s, it’s the rarer one of the two that is most valuable. Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones & The Beach Boys stuck to mono for EPs. In contrast, Cliff Richard & The Shadows EPs exist in mono and stereo versions going right back to 1959s Cliff No 1.

On most of the EPs, the mono is rated at around £25 mint, the stereo at £30. The £5 difference is consistent when EPs are rated at £15 or £20 mint. They did cost a little more when new. 

Compare that price difference with LPs. Even though all are agreed that early Beatles LPs sound better in mono, the rare stereo versions have a major price hike. A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale and Help are all worth double or more than double in the rare and inferior stereo versions. By Sergeant Pepper where there are plenty of stereo copies around, the difference is 10 to 15% in favour of stereo.

On many 70s and 80s singles, those once owned by DJs, you will find STEREO has been marked prominently on the disc by the past owner. Around the end of the sixties singles were only just starting to be issued in stereo and it made a difference when played in discotheques and mobile discotheques. The old mono singles, of which every DJ would still have plenty, were reliably bassy and beaty no matter what equipment they went through nor where anyone happened to be dancing in a room. Some stereo singles were so lop-sided that only half would come out. You’d get the whole band on the left, the voice in the centre, and nothing on the right till the horns came in for an instrumental middle section. This was a drag for those dancing on the right of the hall and the DJ wanted to be forewarned to push in the mono switch on the amplifier, if he had one. Not all stereo singles were so extreme and they got better at not separating things so much as the years rolled on, which is why the DJ would decide whether to put in the mono switch (rather just leave it permanently in).

Dreamer: Supertramp, A&M USA promo copy 1974

American demo copies generally had just the one track, with  MONO on one side for AM radio play, and STEREO on the other for FM radio stations. They liked to add a colour difference too, in deference to DJs with poor reading skills perhaps.