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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 6.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Vinyl Cave: Mono vs. stereo with The Doors, The Rascals, The Beatles
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Here's another batch of relatively common to find albums -- at least in stereo -- as all three hit the Billboard Top 10. Are the mono counterparts worth picking up if you see them? Read on ...

The Doors: The Doors
The California rockers/artistes' debut justifies the entire idea of comparing different pressings of LPs -- and is a relatively well-known case due to some extra Jim Morrisonisms being much more easily audible in the mono mix of "The End." After hearing that version for the first time years ago, I've been searching for a copy that's not already partied-out, a difficult enough task to accomplish even for the more common stereo version.

Love 'em or hate 'em, nobody would deny that The Doors debut sold a ton and is also typically found in bombed-out, bongwater-encrusted condition. Comparing the two mixes back-to-back does show some significant differences in the presentation. Beyond that, as can be typical for an album manufactured in vast quantities (and constantly in print), the pressing quality also varies widely.

If one compares a later stereo pressing (I tested what would have been the last analog press from the mid-'80s) with a mono, the wide-separation stereo sounds muted, mushy and lifeless, with the mono much punchier. This stereo version also sounds like a bit of a rushed re-mix as well, since at times whatever is chosen to be down the middle (Morrison's vocals or instrumental leads) overwhelms everything else to a certain extent.

The reason I kept the '80s press is because it actually is better sounding than the really nice original '60s stereo it replaced ... a copy originating from the notoriously spotty Columbia factory. This weekend, for the heck of it, I picked up a beat up original stereo copy not pressed by Columbia and got a surprise -- it's incredibly dynamic and punchy, doesn't have any weird balance issues, and pretty much sonically blows the mono out of the water. That's because the mono's garage-y charm has a serious issue -- the various copies I've screened over the years have sounded very distorted at times. I'm pretty sure in this case it's not just due to the condition of the vinyl; the distortion also comes through in the stereo mix, but is not nearly as noticeable.

This year, for Record Store Day, the mono version was re-pressed for the first time since the 1960s, and seems to still be available. I'd be interested to hear what that sounds like ... but seriously, isn't it obvious I've already paid for this album way too many times over the years? (Elektra, 1967)

The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream
In which our heroes ditch the "Young" part of their name, and get way more spacey than the Groovin' album. While that disc was largely compiled from single A and B sides, Once Upon a Dream followed the tenor of the times and was conceived as an album. Despite that, to my ears it's always sounded far more scattershot than its predecessor, my favorite of their albums. After listening to Dream a couple times in a row to compare the mono and stereo versions, that opinion hasn't changed much -- but I'm starting to appreciate its ambitiously weird hybrid of blue-eyed soul and way mellowed-out psych rock.

Dream is a case where I've searched for the mono version for years, because every copy of the stereo version that I've owned has sounded flat-out atrocious. The current copy is no different. It sounds as if there was a problem with the master tape used to make the LP, as on some songs certain parts consistently break up and distort throughout!

I have a hard time believing they were all like this, so perhaps a batch of poorly pressed LPs got farmed out to the Midwest at the time or something. The mono version does miss out on the creative and carefully-balanced mix of the stereo, but otherwise is sonically a major improvement, sounding much punchier and losing all the weird distortion I've encountered on stereo pressings. For those keeping TotalNerd score, the copies I compared were both pressed in a Columbia plant. (Atlantic, 1968)

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine
Right now, you may be asking yourself, "There's a mono version of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack?" That's what I thought when I ran across this disc. Somewhat more strange, judging by the cover style and inner sleeve, this copy appears to be one of the late '70s-early '80s Parlophone mono Beatles reissues.

So, I guess they must have done at least limited runs of all of the originally available monos, though I've never seen reissue versions of Sgt. Pepper's or the highly desirable mono of the "White Album." However, despite the fact that several tracks on the Beatles side were in fake stereo, the mono LP is reportedly just the stereo version mixed down to one channel rather than a true mono mix. A listen seems to confirm this. "All You Need is Love" -- previously mixed to mono for the singles market -- sounds like fake stereo with phase/cancellation issues, while the vocals for "Hey Bulldog" are slightly buried, and so on. And really, since the only egregioiusly bad stereo mix is "Only a Northern Song," the mono Submarine is one for the "rare but unnecessary" file. (Apple U.K., 1969)

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