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Date

May 21, 2019

Discogs Staff Mono Versus Stereo: What You Should Know

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a situation like this: Browsing one of the hundreds of vinyl releases of a popular 1960s rock album on Discogs, you see wild price differences between a mono and stereo version of a record. What’s the deal? Is one better than the other? Does it even matter?

To fully understand the differences between mono and stereo, we’ll dig into the history of vinyl records and the valuable insight of Larry Crane, editor and founder of Tape Op Magazine and the owner, engineer, producer, and mixer at Jackpot! Recording Studio in Portland, Ore.

Mono Vs. Stereo: Some History

Back in the mid-20th century, there were no cassettes, no CDs, no MP3s. If you were a casual consumer of music and wanted to play an album at home, it was vinyl or practically nothing else. For modern releases, vinyl collectors might have to decide between a color, clear, or black release of a record. In the 1960s and 1970s, many collectors had a different dilemma – whether to buy a mono or stereo version of an album.

Let’s go back in time and view some of the major technological advances vinyl records went through for a better understanding of why this choice matters.

In 1948, LPs were introduced to the world. The days of flipping noisy shellac records every five minutes were over. It was a monumental improvement for music listeners, and it changed the way music was created and released. LPs showed the promise of advancements in vinyl technology and paved the way for more developments in the future.

Nearly 10 years later, in 1957, another major change was slowly making its way into record shops. Stereophonic records were now for sale, promising immersive sound and other auditory benefits. However, unlike the almost immediate shift from 78s to LPs, sales of stereophonic records would not overtake monophonic for more than a decade.

There’s a reason for this gradual change. Let’s just say that both collectors and engineers entered into a more complex world once stereo technology was introduced to consumers. To play a stereo record, collectors initially needed specialized setups, or they would risk damaging their equipment and records. On the production side, there was a steep learning curve and added expenses for releasing stereo records.

Albums originally released in this purgatory period between 1958 and 1970 – when many albums were produced in both mono and stereo versions, in varying degrees of quality – require some extra consideration from collectors.

To those interested in history, this is perhaps one of the most exciting eras in vinyl records. To decide which version is best suited for your collection, you’ll need to research how a record was originally recorded, mixed, and released.

Differences Between Mono And Stereo Records

Casual listeners will notice one main difference in the output of mono and stereo records. Audio playback of mono records is considered “centered.” A simplified way to picture this is to imagine a listening setup with two speakers – one to the left of you and the other to the right. Mono tracks will output the same audio from both speakers.

Stereo tracks will often pan the sound, driving different audio signals through the left and right speakers. This is a technique that can more accurately represent how live music is perceived by listeners. A good way to picture this is to imagine an orchestra being recorded with stereo microphones placed in different places in a performance hall. By mixing the audio picked up by these microphones, an engineer can create a more enveloping sound atmosphere on a record.

Technical Grey Areas

Larry brought up an excellent point in our conversation. There is a grey area here, as some records are not technically stereo despite being labeled as such. Stereo releases could sometimes have one mono microphone recording each instrument. Engineers could then simply pan the drums to one side, bass and guitars to the other, and center the vocals. There’s also a technique called “reprocessing for stereo.” An engineer could take a mono recording – hopefully off the master tape – and set up two equalizers to split audio into left and right speakers. Or, cutting even more corners, you could find mixes where stereo reverb was just added to a mono track. These were somewhat common techniques in the 1960s, especially in some of the lounge and easy-listening styles.

In reality, these methods are not technically stereo. Sure, panning instruments or adding stereo reverb will make a record sound different from a mono release. But it falls short of recording a session in true stereo. Understand that there’s ambiguity here, and the “STEREO” label on an album cover is sometimes a misnomer.

According to Larry, there were also pioneers of stereo. Individuals like Bruce Swedien were recording jazz releases in stereo and mono, even when the studios only wanted the mono versions. Bruce eventually worked on some huge releases, including Thriller. Again, history can guide your decision. Knowing some of these stereo pioneers will help you find great early stereo releases.

Perceived Difference

As for the qualitative auditory differences, mono releases typically sound more direct and pack more punch, with instruments often “competing” for space and layering on top of each other. Stereo tracks can allow for more “space,” giving room for the vocals and other key components in the center of the soundstage. You can sometimes get a sense for what the artist wants to stand out in a stereo release by listening for what occupies the “phantom center” of the soundstage. Larry had a brilliant take here: “to pan is to create space for what is important in the track,” and artists can “establish intent” by doing this.

Listen to the differences between the mono and stereo cuts of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds from The Beatles’ seminal 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band:

Mono Example

Stereo Example

I like using Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as an example of mono versus stereo, because both mixes were done well (though the mono mix received much more attention from the band). Just check out the 21 forum pages on the Steve Hoffman mono vs. stereo poll to see how widely opinions can vary for this one album.

Undeniably, there is a lot more nuance and complexity baked into the differences between mono and stereo records. When you get down to the nuts and bolts on the production side, the recording and mixing processes differ depending on the track, engineer, band input, and a collection of other factors. Though for the end consumer, it’s often a matter of preference.

What To Know When Making A Purchase

In these modern times, we often take conveniences for granted. Collectors in the 1950s and 1960s had to know whether their setups could play mono, stereo, or both. Today, any setup should be able to play both mono and stereo records – so don’t buy one or the other based on your listening equipment.

Bands often signed off on either a mono or stereo version of the record with engineers before it was released. This is part of the history you can typically dig into about a record. After this though, the band could walk out of the studio and engineers would mix a release for the other output. Recalling our history lesson above, creating both mixes was often out of consumer necessity – with the equipment at the time, many collectors could only purchase one version or the other. That said, it was also a technique sometimes used to further commercialize an album with re-releases long after the music had been recorded.

Take Piper At The Gates of Dawn, for example. Pink Floyd approved the initial mono release for their 1967 debut, but a stereo mix was later made. Listen to how different the mono and stereo versions of Interstellar Overdrive sound. Infamously, the stereo version of the song has erratic panning from left to right, which some claim the band would have never approved.

Mono Example

Stereo Example (fast forward to 8:40 for the infamous guitar pan)

The stereo version of Piper At The Gates of Dawn was much more widely distributed, but many argue that the mono is better. Larry lauded the mono version’s “better intent,” “focused energy,” and “strength” in sound. He does have both versions in his collection, though. The Steve Hoffman poll leans toward the mono release, but there are compelling justifications for liking either of the versions in the forum.

It’s generally recommended to stick with the band’s decision if you’re unsure of your personal preference. This signifies the creator’s intent when making the album; it’s the true representation of what they were trying to convey.

There’s certainly a novelty in going with the opposite version, and you may even find that some are rarer or more valuable. And if you’re into the sound or history of it, I encourage you to add that non-approved version to your collection. It’s an interesting talking point and can be fun to compare at home!

Here are some other pointers to help if you’re struggling. Keep in mind these are very general, and there are bound to be exceptions.

  • Anything released before 1959 was recorded at a time when stereo was not yet commercially available, so a mono release is going to be the most accurate. Any stereo re-releases were artificially created and are often subpar. As a general rule of thumb, be suspicious of any stereo releases of albums initially released before 1959-1960.
  • Between 1959 and 1970, you will want to consider doing research on the album. Look for the band’s intent when digging into the record’s history. When in doubt, go with your preference, or consider adding both versions to your collection.
  • For anything originally released after 1970, you are generally safe with sticking to stereo.

If you’re looking for further guidance, I recommend checking out the Steve Hoffman Music forums. Where reviews on Discogs typically excel at informing users about the quality of a certain pressing, these forums include polls and more robust dialogue regarding the question of mono versus stereo.

Lo and behold, mono isn’t necessarily dead. Larry mentioned some novel ways that mono can be used to record modern albums, including his recent work on Sunday State’s Mono EP. You can find some of his thoughts on the enduring benefits of mono in Tape Op Magazine, along with other deep takes from inside the recording industry.

What are your thoughts on mono versus stereo releases? Let us and fellow collectors know in the comments!

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Alex Ross The Shed

Culture by the Yards. The New Yorker, May 28, 2019.

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John Zorn recoups losses from Pledge Music bankruptcy

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spencer@jazzwise.com (Spencer Grady)

jazzkaar bobby mcferrin gimme

The second half of Tallinn’s 10-day Jazzkaar festival was particularly loaded with starry Americans, including the Joshua Redman Trio, Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music and John Scofield’s Combo 66, but the most anticipated gig of this 30th edition was that of vocalist Bobby McFerrin’s Gimme 5, the only show presented at the voluminous Alexela concert hall. New Yorker McFerrin (pictured above) doesn’t play so many dates nowadays: the joint was sold out, the show unusually featuring an a capella overload collaboration with the six-piece Estonian Voices, led by Kadri Voorand.

The two groups had only met in the afternoon, but an instant bond was apparent, with the best section of the set having McFerrin gently guiding all of the singers with his arcane hand signals, gestures of subtle coercion. The singers sat in a curved row, males to the left, females to the right. These early, long songs had the aura of improvised creation, as McFerrin built up patterns and layers with his humanoid looping pedals. McFerrin operates in very high and very low ranges, sometimes adjacent in spacing, or mingling simultaneously, as if operating twin vocal cords. Male bass raindrops joined in what began to sound like an Afro-Brazilian chant, then the Gimme 5 dudes introduced their snare and cymbal impersonations, this instant song building and intensifying.

A pair of more familiar numbers presented a different slant, with solo vocal opportunities distributed around male and female members, interpreting ‘Wade In The Water’ and ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’. When Estonian Voices stepped forward to present a pair of their own songs, the sonics were much thicker, either using effects, or even digital vocal extras. While in the context of their own shows this is impressive, in this surround of soft subtlety, their pyrotechnics seemed shockingly brash by comparison with all of the delicate improvisational weaving of the preceding and following pieces. In this instance, Estonian Voices were best used under the direction of McFerrin, ably responding to his unfamiliar promptings. He sat in the middle, a wise lama of sonics, listening, ear cocked, then responding to find the next growth, often motioning for a volume drop, or a group-within-the-group embellishment of a particular recurring phrase.

jazzkaar Kirke Karja

The Estonian pianist Kirke Karja (pictured above) is one of the country’s most exciting and adventurous artists, and she usually reveals a new band, and a new musical path, during each Jazzkaar edition. This time, Captain Kirke & The Klingons featured the powerful Lithuanian reedsman Liudas Mockūnas in a quintet line-up. Okay, so that’s not the ideal bandname for such a severe outpouring of loquaciously arranged extremity, but it might give we Trekksters a certain quiver of cosmic anticipation. Karja played in the smaller Punane Maja alternative space, though this area has undergone an impressive expansion since last year, with stage placement improved, and milky lighting creating an atmospheric environment.

The Klingons also included a pair of French players, Pierre Lapprand (saxophones) and Etienne Renard (bass). Mockūnas and Lapprand combined sopranos to begin, mewling in harmony, with the former graduating to monster contrabass clarinet, hacking up substratum sputum, and indulging in industrial overblowing. Vistas of mordant meditation were unveiled. Mockūnas delivered a glottal soprano solo, closely partnered by the Lapprand tenor, in a crawling march, as Hans Kurvits used mallets on his drum skins. There was an abrupt jolt into a scintillatingly spiky jitter, Karja’s piano to the fore, as Mockūnas barked “less reverb!” (twice), and finally “no reverb!”, before a full icepick-in-the-forehead double tenor throttling alongside Lapprand. This is Karja’s best band so far, her swift evolution seemingly demanding no restrictions.

Martin Longley
Photos by Rene Jakobson 

 

 

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Goldmine1 Queensryche: Releasing ‘The Verdict’

Queensryche have settled into the ‘Todd La Torre’ era, with three fine records of hard-hitting, no-nonsense music, and now they continue with ‘The Verdict.’ Guitarist Michael Wilton explains.

The post Queensryche: Releasing ‘The Verdict’ appeared first on Goldmine Magazine.

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“You want to shock people with a bit of mystery and beauty. That’s my favorite kind of shocking.”Tim…

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Goldmine1 Tangerine Dream to release seven classic albums on CD

Tangerine Dream will release seven classic albums remastered and reissued on CD (UMe-Virgin) June 14, 2019.

The post Tangerine Dream to release seven classic albums on CD appeared first on Goldmine Magazine.

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CAS Grace Jones ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist

Described as “a biography” in its liner notes, Slave to the Rhythm spans a broad sonic range, incorporating elements of funk, r&b, and go-go. Take a listen back to music that inspired the album including Smokey Robinson, Bill Withers, A Certain Ratio, Sly Dunbar and many more.


Read more: The Story of Grace Jones ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

The post Grace Jones ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist appeared first on Classic Album Sundays.

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Mark Kimber The Story of Grace Jones ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

By 1985 Trevor Horn was world-renowned for his bold production having worked with the likes of ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Malcolm McLaren. With well over a decade of experience in the music industry, beginning with session and studio work in London and expanding through his time with Yes and The Buggles, he was well equipped to amplify Slave To The Rhythm’s conceptual ambitions. Under his supervision, Grace Jones entered the studio on a weekly basis to record a new version of the song, sticking to predefined thematic and lyrical boundaries to weave a cohesive thread through the album’s eight songs. Gradually the tracks became wildly divergent, and Horn showed typical monetary disregard by stretching the budget to an eye-watering $385,000.


London: Sunday 30th June 2019 2019 3:00pm – 5:30pm

The album spanned a broad sonic range, incorporating elements of funk, r&b, and go-go. Matching its singer’s outsized persona, the songs often have a cinematic quality; on album-opener ‘Jones The Rhythm’ Horn creates a coliseum of sound and Grace sounds gladiatorial in its centre. ‘Operattack’ uses vocal slicing and echo machines to create a horrific, hall or mirrors effect that wouldn’t sound out of place on a musique concrete experiment. And on ‘The Crossing’ sound imposes a moment of tranquility, as synths glide over fields of crickets with nocturnal elegance. The visual elements of Grace’s music had rarely been rendered with such clarity as they had here.

Described as “a biography” in its liner notes, the album is underpinned by sections of spoken word taken from an interview with journalist Paul Morley and a reading of the Jean-Paul Goude biography, Jungle Fever, by actor Ian McShane. The latter famously explored the photographer’s romantic relationship with Grace, which had begun shortly after the pair met in the late ‘70s. Goude shared in her hedonistic lifestyle but also became Grace’s stage manager and album-cover designer, using digital techniques and avant-garde style to create iconic images such as the impossible pose which appears on the Island Life sleeve. The pair had remained intimate until Grace became pregnant with her son, Paulo; at which point Goude decided he was no longer interested.

Goude has come under fire for his depictions of black women, in which he typically enlarges fetishised aspects of their anatomy and darkens their skin tone. Although his work was often seen to reinforce reductive stereotypes, its undeniable that his close and lengthy relationship with Grace at the peak of her career gave him an unrivalled level of insight to both her public and private lives.
But Goude often writes in an abstract and poetic style, opening the album by describing rhythm as “both the song’s manacle and its demonic charge”. When he does mention Grace directly, its couched in awkward, objectifying terms – on ‘The Fashion Show’ he states: “all black people were just, you know, “do it to me, sock it to me” and all that stuff, and there she was, you know, singing “La vie en rose” in French. It was great, you know. So I thought what a wonderful perspective.”

By casting herself as a “Slave To The Rhythm” Grace seems all too aware of these points. Rhythm is not only the percussive tempo of a song, but the relentless machinations of the industry built around her image, her music, her life, and her style. The word “Slave” denotes the ultimate lack of control, but Grace wields it in a way that suggests both the joy of musical surrender and the discomfort of a life spent filtered through the gaze of others.
Her revealingly guarded interview with Morley is positioned as a subtle riposte to Goude’s words – an assertion of control regarding the private details of her life. Her interviewer’s attempts to pierce beyond the persona are met with sly irreverence. A question about relieving teenage boredom receives the enigmatic response: “I floated on a cloud”.

Nevertheless, Slave To The Rhythm still feels like one of Grace’s most personal releases. Whilst it is ostensibly an album focused entirely on the performer, its subtext reveals an effort see beyond herself – a panoramic view of the world that made her a star and its murky history of exploitation, greed and unfettered desire. Far from a simplistic criticism of this culture, Grace seems to recognise the sense of moral entanglement that is impossible to avoid in the entertainment industry. In a culture that is so contrived and transactional, no one can be entirely innocent.

Despite fading from the public eye during the ‘90s, she has remained an active and flamboyant performer who refuses to conform to our preconceptions of a septuagenarian. As the boundaries between gender and sexuality are broken down her career path is inspiring in its refusal of the norms society once hid behind. But despite reuniting with Paul Morley for her aptly titled biography, I’ll Never Release My Memoirs, she still remains a mystery. Like a musical mirage, the version of Grace Jones which appears before us will always be dazzling, inspiring, and ever so slightly out of reach.

The post The Story of Grace Jones ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ appeared first on Classic Album Sundays.

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