Monday, November 2, 2009

10 observations on the mono box set.

Perhaps you've been asking yourself, "Should I buy the recently released digital remastered Beatles box set in mono?" Well, I'm of the opinion that most people probably should, although you personally might not really need to. It kind of depends on how much of a geek you are. But, wait a minute, you're here reading a Beatles blog, aren't you? So, likely yes. But just in case, I've compiled a very unscientific list of some things I find interesting about the mono recordings-- if any of these features are important to you, by all means spend your money. And yes, I'm like two months late to the party. Sorry. It's given me a lot of time to listen, though.

If you're wondering why anyone's considering buying anything in mono at all, it's because the mono releases tended to be the Beatle-sanctioned releases. In the early '60s, stereo was expensive and nichey and more common among older audiophiles, whereas teenagers would just have been blasting their music from radios and cheapie turntables. Although I'm pretty sure all the Beatles albums had stereo counterparts, the stereo mixes were overseen by engineers and interns and stuff after the band members had knocked off to go, I don't know, bang groupies or whatever. When stereo became a bigger deal in the decades to follow, cobbled stereo versions of Beatles music ended up being the dominant versions available. Hearing the songs in original mono, the thinking goes, is to hear them as the Beatles heard them, as they conceived of them sounding. There is an element of greater purity to these tracks, we are told, since they have not been defiled by technologies that our lads simply didn't contemplate. It's kind of like when people get snooty about playing Bach on a harpsichord versus a piano, the former seemingly more pure than the latter. But the difference is more subtle in the Beatles' mono releases than is the difference in timbre between a harpsichord and a piano. That's why I'm not sure everyone really needs to buy them, no matter how tempting. In fact, some of the time I think it's the digital remastering of the tracks more than the mono thing that makes them sound so good, and so clean. And since I haven't listened to the new stereo releases yet (for financial reasons, I am getting them as a Christmas gift), I can't compare just now.

Anyway, that's a long introduction to my long list. Here we go. By the way, please share your own observations in the comments! Or disagree vehemently with mine.

1. The most agreed-upon bit of info that I've read elsewhere is that you're largely struck by how much clearer the bass and percussion are. This is true, pretty much across the board. In case you've somehow remained ignorant of Paul's and Ringo's awesomeness, prepare to be ignorant no more.

2. Rubber Soul is Ringo's masterpiece. You guys. Seriously. On the mono tracks, you can hear every ingenious fill, every instance of freaking epic tambourine-ing, every time the band threatens to lost itself a little bit and Ringo heroically pulls them back. I don't think he was ever better. (Corollary: "You Won't See Me" is now firmly in the running for my favorite song on Rubber Soul, thanks entirely to the wizard at the drums. My post on this one back in May acknowledged Ringo's awesomeness, but trust me that it's heightened hugely in mono.)

3. The Beatles' messy singing is sometimes messier than previously known. This is truer on the early tracks that were recorded in more of a hurry, the band needing run off on their next tour or wherever, but the remastering tends to expose the adorable lack of polish on John and Paul's shared vocals. They don't cut off together, and more frequently than you might have noticed, they're not always in tune with each other. We already knew this. But it's even cuter in mono. (Corollary: "If I Fell" is a major exception. That singing is as flawless as can be, such that even the remastering reveals no issues. In mono, that song is just as smooooooth as you can imagine. Sigh!)

4. There are some Beatles covers that are less beloved by others, but I think virtually all of them are improved in mono. I don't know why it's the covers more so, and I've been trying to put my finger on it without real success. Considering that some of my picks for Most Improved have vocals by George, though, maybe it has something to do with the way the vocal sounds more stagey in mono, more of-a-piece with the band (more on this a few items down)-- which makes George's sometimes-weaker vocal that much more energized. Anyway, I'm feeling more love for "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" and "Devil in Her Heart" than I have in ages, to say nothing of "Words of Love," which I had no idea was so fun to listen to.

5. Another song that's dramatically improved for me in mono is "She's Leaving Home," which for some reason was sped up about a semitone (I think?) on the mono version from what's on the old stereo version. Not only does this make the pace a tad brisker and save the song from the grossest levels of self-indulgence, it makes Paul's already-high vocal on this song that much higher-- which for some reason sounds kind of artificial to me. In a good way. Now when I hear it, I hear Paul singing alone, on a darkened stage, a single spotlight upon him as he relates his sad tale. It's THEATRE now, is what I mean, and although this is one of those songs I've never quite understood the intense love for, I think in mono I finally really get it.

6. Are you one of those fans who hates George's little Indian forays? I'm talking about the straight-up Indian stuff here: "Love You To," "Within You Without You," and "The Inner Light." Well, you might hate them less in mono. I never hated them in the first place, but they are somehow easier to listen to in the mono set: the drones buzz less and sound more like active musical participants in what's going (albeit while droning), and you find yourself appreciating the disciplined technique, the perfectly meandering melodic parts the other instruments play. Also, it sounds like George is chant-singing inside your brain, which is kind of neat.

7. Speaking of a Beatle singing inside your brain, this is a weird effect that is sometimes cool, and is sometimes less cool. When you listen to mono recordings with headphones, the music feels like it's coming from the center of your skull, which can be odd and somehow unintimate. (At least it's not an oompa band in your brain, though.) There are some songs that I have always loved because it feels like John is whispering very sweet, very dirty nothings into my ear, but in mono he's moved further away into the more unsexy venue of my brain. (I was just listening to "All I've Got to Do" today, which is a really striking example of this phenomenon.) Worse, his voice obviously isn't so separated as in stereo-- there's more of a wash-of-band feel to the sound, so sometimes it sounds like John is singing on stage to an audience of fans rather than just to me. Which makes me sad.

8. However, sometimes John singing inside your brain is the best effect you could possibly wish for. "I Am the Walrus" is one of the greatest mono tracks for me, at least partially because there's something about John's vocal that's much more terrifying here. Maybe it's because in mono his voice doesn't separate from the instrumental texture, so it seems that much more inhuman. Also great is that prominent percussion we talked about. There's more drive to this song than I've heard before, which somehow makes you hear how tightly held together the whole song is even as it sounds like it's devolving into anarchy. But no. John and the band have you completely in their depraved, depraved power. (Shiver.)

9. If I may make a gigantic generalization: the most impressive mono songs are the songs in which the most stuff is going on. I think this might be more a feature of the digital remastering than the mono, but still and all I'm finding it to be true. However, interestingly, the clarity of all that's going on leaves the songs a little more vulnerable to criticism of intent. That is my pretentious way of noting that, say, "It's All Too Much" proves to be a little too much indeed-- you can hear all the psychedelic instrumentation clearly, but somehow that makes you more unsure of what it's all for. (And that's a song I really like.) Whereas in "Strawberry Fields Forever," say, you're struck for perhaps the first time by the discipline of the arrangement, the structural integrity beneath that deep lazy futzed-with John vocal and all the rest. (Corollary: I had this revelation just tonight. That part in "Strawberry Fields"? In the third verse? Where the strings are playing triplets? I just realized that that is, like, the most important part of the whole song. More on this from me later, maybe. I might just have to mull it over.)

10. But here's an exception that proves the rule. It's possible-- possible, I tell you-- that A Hard Day's Night is actually the best album the Beatles ever released. I swear. There is more energy in that album that most bands ever muster in their entire careers. Listen to it in mono and then come back and talk to me about this, so we can stare starry-eyed at each other and know exactly what we're thinking.

What do you guys think?


  1. I have nothing interesting to say about the mono yet. I listened to the stereo catalog all the way through and when I doubled back for the mono, I only made it to somewhere between For Sale and Rubber Soul and suspended operations.

    On my first leg, the mono set was a little disappointing. I ripped it at 320, and am listening on an iPod with some not-inexpensive Shure headphones, but I'm not hearing the great rhythm section improvements others have. I plan to buy a CD player and hook up my old Bose speakers and make my judgments then. But what I do enjoy when I enjoy the mono set is the discrepancies, ranging from different fadeouts to different takes. This ...

    ... is good, if you haven't yet seen it.

  2. Yeah, the best of the mono set, in my opinion, is later on-- Rubber Soul and beyond, I'd say. (Though AHDN really does blow me away. You might have just been Beatled out-- when you're all set, you should go and give that one another listen.) I didn't talk about the discrepancies here (except in She's Leaving Home, where the effect is much more than merely cosmetic), but they're everywhere, and they're kind of fun to hear!

    As for not hearing the improved rhythm section, I suspect it might be a function more of the digital remastering than the mono. So if you started with the stereo remasters, you might have already gotten used to it.

  3. That was my thought too. I wish I'd done mono first, because I can tell that they're mixed better, and if I was going to get only one Wow Factor, better for it to be mono, and then to groove on the stereo details. Anyway, still think there might be some surprises left for me once I go to the speakers instead of the headphones.

  4. I splurged and bought both the mono and the stereo sets. I've read a bunch of different reviews about stereo vs mono, and what stands out mostly from all of those reviews is how often they contradict one another. I read one review that was adamant that the 4 early Beatles albums sounded much better on the stereo set. Then I go over to Pitchfork where the reviewer writes, "The first four albums with their extreme stereo separation sound, sound much better in mono ..." I read another blogger who complains that the stereo set has too much "compression." Then the next review says fortunately compression is not a problem. One reviewer tells me to listen to the mono set with headphones, another tells me it's best NOT to listen to the mono set with headphones.

    It's all so confusing.

    As for me, I like the mono set better I think because I like the more unified sound. I was listening to the White Album in my car, and while it sounds great on the stereo set, it is so jarring to have portions of the music coming out of one speaker and other parts out of another speaker. Whether I'm listening on head phones or on my aging stereo system at home, I just prefer the more unified sound of the mono cds.

    Truth is they both sound wonderful to me. And I have 2 kids, so when I die one will get the mono set and the other the stereo set. :)

    (And yes, Paul's bass playing is phenomenal. And Ringo sounds so, so good. The Paul-John partnership gets all the attention for obvious reasons, but I think Paul and Ringo's partnership was just as critical to the Beatles' success and sound. They were really in sync. )

    Agree with you about AHDN, but then that's always been one of my favorites. The CD that surprised me was With the Beatles. My daughter and I were just sitting there listening to it, and before long, both of us were just bopping away in our seats. I'd forgotten how dancey it was. Please Mr. Postman and Hold Me Tight sound awesome.

    One final point: I loved She's Leaving Home before. I love it even more on the mono version. In fact, all of Sgt. Pepper on mono is just. Gah. Sounds so damn good. That opinion is apparently a cliche but whatever. It's true.

  5. Hey, Meg ... So good to see you back posting. I'm a few days late to this one, and have little to say since my Mono Set just arrived and i have not listened to it. Timing is everything and I've had quite a busy week. Good to see you back. Wish there was a way to know when you post something new other than constantly checking. Cheers ...

  6. Great to see you covering this topic.

    I wanted the mono box, but held back due to costs, and bought a handful of the stereos instead. Then I cracked and bought the mono box. So I have plenty of albums to compare. And of course you need at least some stereo - Let it Be and Abbey Road, for example, sound great.

    Agree on AHDN, in mono. I think tehre's a consensus building that they screwed up teh stereo EQ on AHDN, the first great chord is 'rolled off'. In mono, other highlights for me were Rubber Soul and Beatles for Sale. I had a hard timne getting into the White Album in mono, but eventually 'got' it, though the stereo still holds up well. Revolver I'm still undecided about, I guess I'd give the edge to mono, yet again.

    Will be interested to hear what you think of the stereo albums, when you get them.

    Keep it up, great site.

  7. Hello,
    I was wondering about the sound of mono through the ipod with earplugs and through bose ipod dock. I am talking about the bose dock that is just a dock with speakers, not the one you listen to through a full bose system. I love the beatles, grew up with them and have heard them through FM, AM, vinyl and through old hand held radios. So I wonder how much it really matters. I have a nice pioneer stereo set up with nice speakers, but am always on the run so I am at a loss when it comes to choosing. Something tells me the mono set would sound better with my nice home stereo system but is it worth it for the ipod dock player and the ipod it's self?