Mono Or Stereo: Help!

If you're planning to buy some or all of the remastered Beatles recordings due out on 9.9.09, you may be wondering whether to get the mono versions or stereo. While most will probably go for the stereo sets, the truth is that The Beatles and producer George Martin put the most care into the mono recordings. The mono versions were the mixes they always intended people to hear. (more on this in an interview I did with Beatles historian Kevin Howlett)

Let me explain.

From 1963 to '67, most people listened to record players with one speaker. The same was true with radio. FM stereo just wasn't available.

The truth is, the mono mixes sound great remastered. It's been a thrill to hear these again. The bass is warm, the cymbals clear, the harmonies wonderful. Purists will go for the mono recordings, and I'm a purist. But I actually recommend getting the stereo sets.

Here are excerpts from the remastered mono and stereo versions of "Getting Better."

Mono Version:

Stereo Version:

The stereo sounds pretty amazing. You can hear instruments with more definition. The details pop. It's a bit like watching your favorite movie in HD for the first time. Also note that the mono is a very limited-edition box set. I'm told that retailers will get their fulfillment for orders placed by 9.9.09; then, that's it.

One downside of the stereo version has to do with the way stereo was mixed in the early '60s. Instruments were usually panned to one side or another, so you'll find vocals coming out of one speaker, and maybe drums and guitars out of the other. These days, it can feel a bit gimmicky, and it does date the recordings. I don't mind it. In fact, sometimes I love it. Once you get to Rubber Soul, that problem goes away.

The packaging for the stereo edition is much better than the mono: foldout cover art with lots of pictures, booklets with extensive liner notes, and a short film documentary about each album at the end of every disc.

Of course, the stereo box has three more CDs than the mono box, including Yellow Submarine, Let It Be and Abbey Road, since those were never issued in mono.

If you could pick and choose — though, let's be honest, you can't — I'd recommend the following: Get the mono for Please Please Me, With The Beatles, Hard Days Night, Beatles for Sale, Help and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Get the stereo for Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (The White Album), Yellow Submarine, Let It Be and Abbey Road.

Notice that I duplicated Sgt. Pepper for both mono and stereo. They're both very cool.

One curiosity: The mono discs for Help! and Rubber Soul also have a bonus — they contain the original stereo mixes that came out on the original LPs. George Martin wasn't present for many of these mixes (I told you stereo was a low priority back then). So in 1987, George Martin remixed Help! and Rubber Soul for those 1987 CD releases, and those mixes have been remastered and are found in the new stereo box. They sound great.

Confused?

Then let me make it simple: Get the stereo box. Unless you're a collector, you won't regret it.

Here are a few more examples of the differences found between mono and stereo mixes. Notice how the pitch is shifted up intentionally on the mono mix of "She's Leaving Home."

Now, notice how they forgot to do that on the stereo mix of "She's Leaving Home."

Listen to the backward guitar that comes in earlier on the mono mix of "I'm Only Sleeping."

Now listen to the stereo mix of "I'm Only Sleeping."

What do you think?

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