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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 8.0° F  Fair
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Vinyl Cave: Mono vs. stereo with The Cowsills, The Young Rascals, The Blues Magoos

Here's some reflections on comparing another trio of albums from the late mono era.

The Cowsills: Captain Sad and His Ship of Fools
I'm in the camp who believes you can't go wrong with The Cowsills. Their third LP, the sunshine pop-splosion Captain Sad is no exception. It was also their first album to be stereo-only as a commercial release. However, there was a mono version released only to radio stations.

Comparing the two versions on headphones, it sounds to me as if the mono LP is likely a fold-down -- a simple combination of the two stereo channels. For example, on the stereo version of "Indian Lake," the lead vocal in the choruses actually gets somewhat buried in the mix when the backing vocals come in. The lead is less buried on the mono though; since the lead vocal is in the center of the stereo field (and represented in both the left and right channels of the stereo groove), it gets a bit of a volume boost due to the combination of the two stereo channels. On the next track, "Ask the Children," the backing music is fairly quiet on the stereo version during the choruses when everyone's singing; it nearly disappears completely on the mono, other than a bit of extra bass (since that's also centered in the stereo mix).

Throughout the stereo album in general, the bass and lead vocal are typically centered, and these elements are often emphasized on the mono LP. That being said, in this case the emphasis of those elements actually makes for a nice blend, since on some tracks in the stereo mix the stacked harmony vocals panned to either side are quite a bit louder than everything else. The stereo may be the "right" mix, but the mono is an interesting counterpoint. The Cowsills' vocals all piled together coming right down the center in mono is lovely. Thanks go out to Kyle Motor for lending me the mono. (MGM SE 4554, 1968; the mono DJ version has an E catalog prefix on the LP but comes in a stereo cover)

The Young Rascals: The Young Rascals
For years I've avoided the stereo versions of the first two Rascals albums, even though I've always liked the stereo version of their third LP, Groovin'. My memory of why I made this choice is hazy, but I suspect I may have heard a crappy Columbia Record Club pressing of one of them at one point and the mono blew it out of the water. Curiosity got the best of me recently, though, and I picked up a stereo of the group's self-titled debut.

At this point, The Young Rascals hadn't yet hit their stride as songwriters and contributed only one original here; the other two new songs were provided by Pam Sawyer and Lori Burton, including the group's first medium-size (and stone classic) hit, "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore."

Throwing the stereo LP on and listening to it last week I thought it sounded just fine, and many tracks are really good for a '60s rock stereo mix; there’s no dreaded vocal-on-one-side, music-on-the-other going on. The ping-pong vocal mix for "Good Lovin'" is goofy but fun on headphones; conversely, though, the stereo mix for "I Ain't Gonna ..." is weak in comparison to the powerful single mix. But when actually going back and forth between the two versions track by track ... let's just say the mono ain't going anywhere.

Overall, the stereo mix sounds more "natural" than the mono mix, but you have to goose the volume on the stereo LP or it sounds very wimpy on some tracks. The compressed, sort of muddy mono mix would probably make audiophiles cringe, but those qualities give it a depth and punch missing from the stereo. The mono just sounds right to me, and the music hangs together better. The stereo is a fine listen, but the mono makes you want to dance. (Atlantic 8123/SD 8123, 1966)

The Blues Magoos: Electric Comic Book
The Magoos' second long player is another album in which I'd never heard the stereo mix, other than some compilation CD tracks. Like the Rascals LP, this stereo mix has some winners that are just as good as the mono and others that are just okay. The mono LP was definitely specifically mixed for mono, and is a solid presentation of the music; everything's there, so to speak.

The stereo mix on side one is very wide with elements really separated clearly in the mix, presenting the individual parts better than the mono does. The lead guitar parts and the prominent organ, for a couple examples, come across clearer than on the mono without burying the rest of the music. Most of the mixes on side one are built in a somewhat atypical fashion, with drums and lead vocals panned hard left, and the lead guitar and organ holding down the middle or slightly right. Side two, however -- in classic '60s fashion -- sounds as if it was mixed by someone completely different, with drums, bass and lead vox most often right down the middle, a more traditional mixing style. It's still not bad, but not an improvement on the mono.

The fact that the stereo is a solid mix is a good thing for listeners, since a mono copy of Electric Comic Book can be tough find a mono; many discs labeled mono actually play stereo. (Mercury MG 21104/SR61104, 1967)

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