History Repeating

Wednesday October 20, 2010

Currently there’s a sideline in presenting 60’s recordings in their original mono mix. As ever, a front-runner for this sonic trend was Neil Young who re-issued the Buffalo Springfield albums, justifiably claiming it was “how the band mixed it at the time”. The gold standard Beatles followed last year and now Columbia have released a Bob Dylan mono box-set.

Which does pose the question, “WHY weren’t the bands interested in the stereo mix at the time?” After all, stereo discs had been around since the 1950’s and provided an enhanced listening experience. The first answer is straightforward – the vast majority of people listened to music on single speaker radios and record players. Stereograms were expensive and not portable like a transistor radio. By today’s standards, however, the transition from mono to stereo was very fast – from the first mass produced stereo albums in 1957 to the last mono albums in 1968. Is anyone really convinced that The Beatles’ “The Beatles” (aka. the white album) or Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” is a better listening experience in mono rather than stereo? And it’s hard to believe that the artists were still concentrating on the mono mix and ignoring the stereo.

With hindsight it’s easy to wonder why the artists, producers and studios didn’t see this change coming sooner and be excited by the possibilities of stereo. My current experience may give a partial answer. The majority of music creators are actually pretty conservative and aren’t concerned with presenting the music in more interesting and satisfying ways.

If, like most people these days, your main source of music is mp3 on an ipod or equivalent then you’re potentially missing out on a much richer musical experience. Sure, it’s totally convenient (like the mono transistor radio back in the mid 20th century) and highly portable – no problem with that. It’s just that the technology is also in place to really create a really exciting sonic experience in the home.

For starters there’s Full HD sound (96khz / 24bit) – the quality of the original recording from the analogue source can be captured with so much more presence and detail than the current CD standard, yet very few artists are doing it.

There’s also surround sound which, when done well, can create a fabulously engaging musical soundscape. You would have thought that creative musicians would embrace the challenge of presenting their work in the best quality available and in three dimensional audio but no, like their 60’s counterparts, they seem to be happy with the status quo, doing what everyone else does and “mixing in mono”.

PS – For younger readers, ‘Mono” is short for ‘monophonic’ and is an audio source from a single channel. Learn all about it here. As ever you’ll need to click on the screen when the error message shows…

Posted by Back Cat