Here's a batch of relatively common to find albums -- at least in stereo. Are the mono counterparts worth picking up if you see them? Read on ...
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs: Li'l Red Riding Hood
Album four overall from Domingo Samudio and company was the second longplayer for the second version of the band, at least for their MGM recordings. According to the liner notes of Rhino's greatest hits CD, Sam's new band was really a New York group formerly called The Gypsies. The coasties did a good job of replicating the border stomp of the group's Texas origins, as well as a somewhat looser form of the Memphis groove, particularly on the lyrically goofy "Deputy Dog."
Really most of this is pretty lyrically goofy, even by the standards of a band with hits like "Wooly Bully" and "Ring Dang Doo," but it's all fun -- and I have to admit, turning "Little Miss Muffet" into a minor key garage tune from the spider's perspective is pretty awesome. This is an album that's far more rocking in the mono version. The stereo version is mostly true stereo (the title hit sounds rechanneled), and isn't a bad mix, but also removes some of the punch from the bass and drums. (MGM, 1966)
Bee Gees: Horizontal
The second international disc by the Brothers Gibb (and, at this time, Vince Melouney and Colin Petersen) includes the U.S. hit single "Massachusetts" and the European hit "World," along with a whole bunch more ballads, and a couple good rockers. To my ears, it is possibly the least distinctive early Bee Gees album, but does have its moments, such as the odd wordplay of "Lemons Never Forget" and "Birdie Told Me." In fact, while the songs all sort of flow along and run together, this is definitely one of their albums where the listener may start to wonder just what the heck they're singing about if he or she stops and listens to the words.
As for comparing the mono and stereo versions, I have to give this a grade of incomplete -- the stereo version I picked up plays mono! This is a copy pressed by Columbia for distribution through their record club, and since those discs are notoriously unreliable sound-wise, I'm not entirely surprised. Once again, lesson learned as far as picking up a Columbia-pressed Atco or Atlantic disc, and the same goes for Elektra and various other indie labels which licensed their albums for CRC.
Nerd alert: One can identify these pressings fairly easily; they'll normally be machine stamped in the dead wax rather than hand-etched, and will have some variation of C/CT/CTH/CSM/CP/etc. in the matrix number, which will end with a dash and number/letter combination (i.e. -1A, -2B, ...). Readers wishing to delve way into the subject of where old LPs were pressed will find a good starting point in the online forums on the website of legendary audio engineer Steve Hoffman. (Atco, 1968)
Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced
Now, here's a couple widely different mixes. When this album was originally released in the U.K., it was mono only. After it finally hit American shores following the group's incendiary performance at the Monterey Pop festival, mono was on its way out in the U.S. So a stereo remix was prepared for North America, and that's far more common to find; however, mono was still being issued, so for the first several months the album was available, a mono version did exist here.
Overall, the American mono features more prominent bass than the stereo, and on songs where it's particularly cranked up ("Purple Haze," "Fire"), the bass overtakes the guitar and drum presence in the mix. The guitar also had quite a bit of extra reverb added in places, and the complete fade-out/ins of the stereo version ("Manic Depression" and the title track) are not here. It's also worth pointing out that the mono copy I spun was occasionally very flat and muddy sounding, at times to an extreme level -- "Love or Confusion" and "Foxey Lady" sound as if they were mastered from a millionth generation tape. "I Don't Live Today" actually is a tad slower, seems to have some vocal double tracks replaced by extra reverb, and is also really muddy. Everything coming right down the middle on "Third Stone From the Sun" makes for a much different listen as well.
While the U.S. mono may not exactly sound "better," it such a different animal that it's an essential listen for Jimi fans. And I'd bet the U.K. version -- also a different track lineup -- is sonically a lot better than this one. Considering the number of times this album has been reissued, and the fact that the only mix supervised by the producer and Hendrix was the original U.K. mono version, it's staggering that it hasn't been reissued by now. (Reprise, 1967)
Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons
One of these mixes is clearly better. But, judging by many early Stones discs, it wasn't the one I was expecting. For the U.S. version of the album, the stereo mix is far superior to the mono. It's a well balanced mix, with the parts coming through more clearly in stereo -- particularly the lead guitar and other hook-playing instruments, which are often somewhat buried on the mono. The stereo is also a much brighter sounding and often louder mix as well. One place the mono does have an edge is in the bass sound, which is much more present. The prevalence of the bass is the only thing that keeps me from thinking this mono mix is just a stereo fold-down rather than a separate, correctly done mix, which would better explain the muddy, muddled, lifeless sound. That's not the case with the U.K. mono originals, which sound fabulous.
An addendum: I'm going the extra mile here, folks. I was surprised how crappy the mono sounded, and poking around online reveals that most opinions are that the U.S. mono is a great mix. So I tried it out on a different turntable/cartridge. Take two brings the different mixes a bit closer together -- removing some of the brightness and clarity of the stereo and also some of the mud of the mono -- but the stereo still wins. Perhaps I've gotten hold of a crummy copy of the mono (possibly)? Or it's one of those albums that's gonna sound better cranked way up and not on headphones (probably)? Either way, it was a fun experiment in how much a different cartridge can change the sound you get from a record! (London, 1967)