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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Vinyl Cave: Mono vs. stereo with Frank Sinatra, Dave Brubeck Quartet, The Mamas & the Papas
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Here we go with another round of compare-and-contrast, super nerd style. We're doing the work so you don't have to, folks!


Frank Sinatra: Sings ... of Love and Things
Frank Fest has remained a way of life around the Cave the last couple years. Despite the fact that I've got at least one version of nearly all his Capitol and Reprise non-compilation LPs by now, it's fun to keep picking up different variations of key albums to compare -- particularly for the Capitol era titles, as millions were pressed and most stayed in print in some form for many years. Occasionally the label's mangling of certain albums is an incomprehensible mix of comedy and tragedy, as tracks are randomly chopped off or added to carefully constructed concept albums, and mixes are messed with to conform to whatever the label's engineering standard practices were at the time.

Sinatra Sings ... of Love and Things is one of Capitol's many, many compilations created after the singer had left the label. This one, however, is an essential title for anyone building a Sinatra collection, as it compiles stray tracks from singles and movie soundtracks not previously found on a Frank LP. Considering the sources, one may think the mono would definitely be superior, but that's not the case this time. Much of this is in very nice sounding true stereo, and of the two Duophonic tracks, one is the only song in the set previously included on a Sinatra LP ("Something Wonderful Happens in Summer," on This is Sinatra, Vol. 2). The mono sounds okay, and may be preferable for those who want the vocals more out front; I will say it does really come to life if played with a mono cartridge. But most of these tracks date from a period when Capitol was going heavy on the reverb, and to me that approach sounds better in stereo in this case. Ultimately, which version of this album is superior will be a matter of personal preference. (Capitol W/SW 1729, 1962)

Dave Brubeck Quartet: Time Further Out
The Dave Brubeck Quartet's legendary Time Out was the first jazz LP I ever owned, and as a kid I was fascinated by the push and pull of the instrumentalists against each other in the arrangements. The employment of different time signatures still sounds fascinating today in the series of LPs the original Quartet created in the wake of Time Out's massive success.

The second "time" disc by Brubeck, who passed away last December, was Time Further Out. It came with another eye-catching cover, this time a surrealist painting by Joan Miro. As with Time Out, both the mono and stereo mixes of this disc are excellent. The mono is very nicely balanced to my ears and matches the instrumental mix of the stereo well. The recording really comes alive in stereo, however; on headphones it can feel like you're sitting right in the middle of the band. It's an exceptionally well-recorded album, so you can't really go wrong with either version. However, as with Time Out, it can be very difficult to find an original copy that hasn't been heavily pre-loved during the past several decades. For the impatient crate digger, there is currently an audiophile LP of the stereo mix available from Impex Records. (Columbia CL 1690/CS 8490, 1961)

The Mamas & the Papas: Cass - John - Michelle - Dennie
The second disc by the vocal quartet continued the winning formula of their debut, mixing moody John Phillips originals with a few pop covers. Also like the first, the mono and stereo make for different listening experiences, particularly in headphones. The stereo mix of Cass - John - Michelle - Dennie is a classic case of wide '60s separation, with lead and backing vocals typically panned hard to either channel ... except for when the lead is down the middle and backing vox move around to either side ... or when all the vocals are left-center ... et cetera. The placement of instruments in the mix also bounces around from track to track; sometimes the various tracks are panned hard, sometimes seemingly all the instruments are down the middle or in one channel.

Basically, the stereo mix is all over the map. They clearly put some thought into it and had some fun with the mix, but the overall effect can feel a bit muddled and somewhat distracting on headphones. It's also worth noting that some of the tape edits really stand out in the original stereo mix. As could be expected with such a mixed bag, some tracks sound great, some not so good. The mono mix isn't always quite as bright and "lively" as the stereo, but it's punchier in the low end, and is a much more consistent listening experience.

The best sounding original pressings of either mix are the Monarch West Coast press, which can be identified by a small MR in a circle in the deadwax. Of the mono pressings I compared, one originating from the Columbia plant almost sounded like it could be a vinyl dub of a Monarch; a suspicious low frequency hum starts before the music and continues through both sides, and the occasionally boomy bass present on the Monarch was even boomier on the Columbia. Wild conjecture, and unlikely that's how it was sourced, but there it is.

The toughest challenge of all with this album is finding an original pressing that's not completely played to death. Also: Who knows why Denny Doherty's name was spelled that way in the title? (Dunhill D/DS-50010, 1967)

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