Why you should care about The Beatles’ mono mixes

My mono box set with cute little insert describing this mono tom foolery
My mono box set with cute little insert describing this mono tom foolery

Well the precondition to your reading this article is that you think that the Beatles are pretty cool. Why are they cool? Well, that’s a different article. This one is going to focus on the availability of their music and a little bit of a timeline here.

The year is 1963 and a bunch of yahoos named Paul, John, George, and Ringo are sitting in this studio with another man named George Martin and they’re recording some of the crap they like to sing.

Technological Background

Way back in the day, when you recorded something…that was it. You recorded on one track or groove or wax paper and then you played it back, through one microphone and then one speaker. This is what we refer to as monaural or mono audio.

By 1963, some yahoos had what they called “stereophonic” record players which used some voodoo magic trickery to put two entirely separate audio channels into one groove (they actually put the L and R channels at 90° from each other as they cut into the groove with each being 45° off from vertical, in such a manner that when a signal appeared equally in both channels the needle moved up and down and when there was a difference between the two the needle moved side to side).

The bottom line was that this was by no means a very common way of doing it back in 1963. There was no standard way of mixing stereo records, and the consoles (which had literally huge black knobs on top of rotary potentiometers for controlling mix levels) did not have little tiny op-amp driven “pan” potentiometers — everything produced just one channel. You would effectively need two separate mixers in parallel to create a stereo mix (which is what today’s mixers are, in fact). But they hadn’t combined them back then, or the combinations were a little crude.

George Martin at that time was using two track, which allowed him to separate the vocals from the instruments so that he could better control their proportions in the mono mix. Well, after that was done, he had to make a stereo master. How shall we do that?

Problems

First problem: if you have just voice and instrument tracks (two total), how do you make stereo? Well, you put the instruments on the left and the voice on the right, add some reverb for good measure, and ship it off. While that was commonplace back in the day, it is not what we consider a stereo recording to be today nor is it really how the Beatles intended it to be heard. It was not some “artistic choice,” it was a limitation of their equipment and a limitation of their equipment and their process…it is down right weird. You CAN record stereo with two tracks, but they recorded their master for MONO REPRODUCTION.

Second: if, for instance, you later have additional tracks like in Sgt. Pepper’s and The Beatles, you have a lot more flexibility in the final mixing stage to shake things up. Mixes weren’t simple operations.

Mixing

Today, we have little computers that change virtual volumes in response to virtual timecodes and pop effects in and out. This technology was available towards the end of the analog era in the form of “console” or “mix” automation, but was certainly not a thing in the primitive contraptions used in the Beatles’ stuff. A mix constituted:

  1. Take yonder four or eight track tape machine and connect it through a bunch of cables to effects and plates and vacuum tubes and a mixer, and finally out to another smaller tape machine for the output.
  2. Get everyone in the room with functional hands to come over to the mixing console and teach them when and how to turn which knobs.
  3. Start yonder small and large tape machine and then start the chorus of hands moving.
  4. Pray for the best.

In this fashion, you should realize that a mix in those days was as much a performance as the parts on the tape themselves.

Attitudes

So, stereo was not common back in the day and furthermore the songs were not recorded to be in stereo. This means that the stereo mixes are going to be weird. You can do stereo on four track, but that typically involves getting your stereo backing tracks on two of the tracks and then using the remaining two tracks to record various lead parts that will be center or close center panned.

Speaking of which, before pan potentiometers that allow you to set the vocal at 12.5 degrees off center right, there were only pan switches that gave you L, C, or R.

A stereo mix, for better or for worse, while using the old masters, has to be weird. You have to put drums on the left and guitar on the right etc. I won’t say that it doesn’t work well on some songs (I’m Looking Through You or Drive My Car), but there are others that listening with a pair of headphones to the stereo mix will give you a headache (Eleanor Rigby…why did the left channel abruptly lose a vocal?). Nor was this the way that Paul or John or George or Ringo intended you to listen to the music.

Results

Using for example Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, once the recording had finished began the process of mixing and mastering with the Beatles particularly interested in the process, they stuck around for a great deal of time to oversee the mono mix exactly to their liking.

After they were satisfied, they packed up and left and let George Martin and his cronies do the entire stereo mix.

Imagine, of course, that in the coming decades the stereo format became much more popular and entirely standard, the record companies would be reluctant to say “and now, in glorious mono, The Beatles!”

The term sounds bad, but recognize that this was how the Beatles made their music and this was the format for which it was intended. There are also many differences between the mono and stereo mixes, many as a function of the fact that the mixes weren’t made in the same month or even year. No two mono mixes would be the same, so you shouldn’t expect a mono and stereo mix to agree in all functions. Just listen to Sgt. Pepper’s in Mono and you’ll be curious as to how different it is, realizing at the same time that the widely proliferated stereo version is, in some sense, less genuine than the mono version which has all but faded into obscurity.

Specifically, phasing in Lucy and the Sky with Diamonds or the Reprise’s different placement of audience noise and random vocal parts. In those days the phasing effect was accomplished by running two tape players simultaneously with the same vocal and then offsetting them ever so slightly to create a sort of comb filtering as the different frequencies interact at different points in the phase. The term “flanging” or using your finger to slow the flange of a tape reel was coined by Lenon. It may appear that they just didn’t bother to do all this jazz during the stereo mixdown.

Caveats

The White Album was the last album to feature a separate mono mix that was not just a fold down (sum of the L and R stereo channels), and by that point anyways they were paying attention to stereo as it was catching on. As such, Abbey Road nor Let It Be appear in the mono box set. You can still enjoy them in stereo, as they were actually intended.

Music nerds, unite. Hope you enjoyed, and this is also how I justified buying and ripping the whole mono box set to FLAC with EAC. The stereo one is everywhere, but the mono one is much harder to find.

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