A Dianese waferJesus Diaz at Gizmodo reports that the classic Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will be reissued in a remastered mono edition, which should satisfy fans wanting a digital version of the original mono mixed as supervised by the band prior to the stereo mix that was created by sound engineers for the upscale market.

What’s just as interesting as Diaz’ A/B comparisons between mono and stereo mixes of specific songs is what follows - a colourful batch of reader comments that includes restrained vinyl fans and an amalgam of digital purists, and a fool here and there.

The article isn’t about whether mono is better than stereo, but perhaps the correctness in A) presenting a work in its original format as well as the ‘updated’ version, and B) ensuring the original is always available in the event someone wishes to hear the original mix as intended by the original artist(s) or creator(s).

In the realm of DVDs and Blu-ray, the same goes for retaining the original mono film mix, which doesn’t always happen with older films. There are DTS and Dolby remixes so a home theatre owner can still use all the speakers in the room, and that’s a fair option for someone who feels the thousands spent on a big screen system is being neutered by a Dolby 2.0 mono mix, but regardless of the new mix’ quality, the original track should always be retained.

Most DVD labels carry the original mix – be it mono or an older stereo 2.0 track – and sometimes there’s use of the term “restored original mono” which reads like a marketing gimmick to sex up the word “mono.” Fox, for example, likes to use it, but it’s kind of redundant since the original mono mix was always in mono, and “restored” implies it was something else beforehand.

Fox’ engineers may in fact be paying stealth homage to an older single-ear system known as Mo. The late nineteenth century process worked like this: a leafless twig bent in half was dragged across a strip of curled bark containing raised pieces of cow dung. The music bark (called a Dianese wafer) could only be played once due to the dung’s poor bonding power to the coarse bark surface, but there exists three surviving recordings of a fiddle player that was transferred to Edison wax cylinders by a progressive technician in Pinikindu, Ontario.

This primordial sound system was later adapted using metal elements by Simon Woofing, a burly, baritone-voiced Alberta rancher who was known to experiment in his shed with all manner of oddities. Woofing discovered perforated tin foil and a rusty nail with butter drippings was just as effective as bark and wood fiber, and the foil’s natural bending power also gave the Dianese wafer the bonus of total portability, as one could fold the wafer into quarters and carry it in a back pocket to another player.

Woofing’s invention (initially called Woofing, but later changed to Woofer) was never patented due to a playback issue which made low notes far too sonorous, but the concept of carving sound waves into solid matter for playback endured, and eventually inspired the creation of wax cylinder and steel needle/acetate platters for sound recording and reproduction.

While the term “monophonic” is tied to the word “mono,” that’s actually a corporate appropriation, since the Mo method of aural reproduction and its limited lifespan wasn’t welcomed by Depression Era investors, and their common response to inventors (“No!”) begat the hy-fusion term “mono.” Stereo, however, does indeed stand for stereophonic (‘dual’) sound.

But I’m digressing.*

Diaz’ piece illustrates why choice is a good thing, and how sometimes efforts to improve a good thing for a new technology and audience expectations don’t necessarily make it better.

The sixties are filled with garbage pseudo-stereo mixes of fine mono albums, not to mention awful spatial enhancements that seemed exciting at the time but sound awful today. United Artist Records issued a number of bullshit stereo soundtrack albums (Tunes of Glory being a lu-lu), Tony Thomas used a then-novel device to add depth to old acetate recordings in his archival Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa and Hans J. Salter albums, and the ability to press 50+min. LPs didn’t always yield the best fidelity.

(I covered examples of good and bad ideas in an old Music from the Movies column, of which the multi-part, pro-vinyl biases can be read HERE.)

The other issue at hand is one of personal taste. In a nutshell, having the stereo and mono versions of the Beatles album lets people take the version that suits their listening quirks. Vinyl purists will opt for, say, 180 gram virgin stock and play back the LP using tube equipment, whereas digital enthusiasts will prefer high-end gear that maximizes clarity, error correction, and a broad sound spectrum.

A good friend from high school hated bass. Actually hated it, though I think it may have stemmed from growing up in a semi-detached house that couldn’t block the neighbour’s reggae music from bleeding through the cinder blocks. His gear consisted of an amp and speakers with the lowest bass reproduction on the market, something that ran completely against my taste, if not the musicians.

Blasphemy, I say.

Others prefer a hybrid that may be a record player piped through a high-end digital amp, or an iPod piped through a tube amp. Myself, I’ve compared piping a flac recording from a Rio Karma through a vintage eighties Pioneer amp (the blue fluorescent series), and neither the sound directly from the Rio or the Pioneer was wrong; they were just different in the way some sounds were processed.

The Pioneer’s age maybe softened the sharpness, but there’s a big difference between listening to a fat bass LP through the Pioneer, and an LP that’s been dubbed to CD without any digital enhancements; something just gets lost in the transfer, and it’s often that Big Warm Sound vinyl aficionados (aficionadi?) keep crying about.

Some of the commentators at the end of Diaz’ piece get colourful because there are polarizing stances on what’s best, what’s idiotic, and what’s true to the artist’s original intentions, and whether creating a stereo mix was right in the first place.

Is it wrong to alter a recording to suit one’s eccentric tastes? Not if it’s done by the end-user (you) as opposed to a producer over-excited about new gear that can transform mono to stereo. I’ve never been able to listen to the fake stereo tracks on those Fox DVDs because everything’s all mushy, and just as Diaz noticed in the Beatles album, there are details that get lost when frequencies and stems are reprocessed to create an environment that’s not natural to the original concept.

However, you can create a stereo mix from separate and discrete music stems (which is different from taking a mono track and processing the crap out of it to evoke stereo), but it will always require some imagination, and rational thinking to ensure the final results aren’t gimmicky or a mush of cheap effects.

This is again a reflection of my narrow realm, but labels like Film Score Monthly and Screen Archives Entertainment have issued some rare film scores – Alfred Newman’s Prince of Foxes (1949) and The Captain from Castile (1947), respectively – in stereo mixes made from extant recordings using a pair of optical tracks recorded by the composer initially to achieve a ‘fatter’ mono sound.

Similarly, when Columbia released Mysterious Island (1961) on laserdisc, it sported a startling surround sound mix created from surviving multiple audio stems – a feature foolishly ignored when the film was released on DVD. Bad Sony. BAD.

Contrary to some of the comments, stereo wasn’t regarded as a gimmick in the sixties – certainly not by jazz musicians and engineers like Rudy Van Gelder, who transformed the sound of music from the flat Decca Tree to an up close and personal style where every musician and an instrument’s nuances where heard; moreover, no channel was left dead and silent while another instrument played.

If you really want to hear fine examples of true stereo made by pioneers during the fifties and sixties, try the Capitol recordings (which encompass the Van Gelder Blue Note stream) as well as Liberty Records, Mercury recordings, RCA’s Living Stereo series as well as RCA’s sixties LPs that boasted not only superb engineering, but good vinyl stock.

Personal favourites include Capitol’s LP for Elmer Bernstein’s Staccato, and the RCA platter for Bernstein’s The Silencers. Both are mini-masterpieces of engineering on vinyl, and lest I forget, there’s also the brilliant work done by the Italians during the seventies that seemed to ignore the echoey processing British and American labels applied to recordings to create phony depth. Profondo Rosso is absolutely stunning, and many of Ennio Morricone’s scores – as well as contemporaries like Gianni Ferrio and Piero Umiliani – were recorded and engineered to make bass warm, and place the band or orchestra close to the listener without being invasive. They’re masterworks of 2-channel stereo, and I’m sure would still blow away any attempted Dolby 5.1 reconfiguring.

Many labels (including Mercury) were cheap, and they pressed finely engineered recordings on garbage vinyl during the sixties; that’s why it was so startling to hear the clarity and warmness of vintage Mercury recordings on lovingly remastered CD released during the nineties.

In regards to the affected Beatles albums, the release of the original mono mixes will give listeners a choice, it’ll give purists an opportunity to re-examine songs under a new light, and the label will have another opportunity to re-sell the Beatles to the world – the latter likely being the chief reason this is being done.


Of course not. We now have choice again.


(*) denotes an apocryphal historical footnote in an alternate universe that may be both untrue, and rather ridiculous.


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