During the infancy of stereo – particularly in the mid to late 60s – albums were mixed in mono and stereo, respectively.
In many cases, the mono version was the main mix, with the stereo version being somewhat of an afterthought.
Stereo was new, and engineers took the opportunity to experiment with spacial separation.
In mild cases, the difference between the stereo and mono versions of a song or album can be summarised by the different mixing techniques used to give each instrument or part its own “space” in the mix.
There are, though, examples where things are a little more extreme. It’s not uncommon for the stereo version of a record to feature entirely different takes or a radically different mix, as engineers experimented with the format.
Here are just a few examples where the mono version of a recording is significantly different to the stereo release.
Got an additional example you can share? Let me know in the comments section.
The Beatles – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Besides the usual differences in instrument separation, the most noticeable difference with the mono version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a trippy flanging effect on John Lennon’s lead vocal.
The flanging effect seems to take preference over the vocal harmonies in the mono mix, while on the stereo version, the harmonies are much more pronounced.
Other differences include a much more buried lead guitar in the mono mix and a more gradual fade-out at the end of the track.
The Beatles – I’m Only Sleeping
The Beatles records are famously different in mono with many subtle differences, which, it appears, have been ironed out to a large degree on the recent mono remasters.
One example that still remains is the mono mix of “I’m Only Sleeping”, where the reverse guitar parts are mixed in at slightly different places. In some cases, they could even be different takes.
Also see the first 600 UK mono pressings of Revolver, where the mix of “Tomorrow Never Knows” was released which featured a “wrong mix” with differences in the way tape loops were mixed during the instrumental section. The Steve Hoffman forum is a good source of info on this subject.
Pink Floyd – Interstellar Overdrive
The outro of “Interstellar Overdrive” is drastically different on the stereo version.
The original mono mix is a natural dynamic lift based on the opening riff, while the stereo version is one of the decade’s most notorious examples of extreme psychedelic stereo panning.
Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow
The stereo mix of Surrealistic Pillow is often criticised for sounding washed out with reverb and unnatural instrument spacing. This is a common criticism of early stereo mixes, which often suffer from “new toy” syndrome.
Many fans feel a disconnect with the stereo version, instead preferring the tighter, more cohesive sound of the original mono mix.
When a technology is new, it’s often overdone. It’s not uncommon for instruments to be panned hard left or right in early stereo mixes; in extreme cases, the bass guitar might be coming from the left speaker only, with the guitar and vocals positioned almost entirely on the right. Take The Beatles – Rubber Soul for example, where you can hear this quite clearly.
This excessive use of stereo separation can sound unnatural, particularly when listening on headphones. Some listeners actively despise it!
Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
Dylan’s 1966 classic Blonde on Blonde is a classic example of how early stereo mixes were often an afterthought.
We know this, as Dylan’s producer famously went on record to say the mono version was their chief priority at the time.
In a candid statement, he claimed, “We mixed that mono probably for three or four days, then I said, ‘Oh shit, man, we gotta do stereo.’ So me and a coupla guys put our hands on the board, we mixed that son of a bitch in about four hours!… So my point is, it took a long time to do the mono, and then it was, ‘Oh, yeah, we gotta do stereo’.”
From the opening track example below, which do you prefer? This is an interesting comparison example, as it just happens someone has uploaded an original first-press mono rip of the opening track to YouTube.
Mono Vs Stereo Albums: The Bottom Line
One of the great aspects of collecting music on vinyl is the sense of history, that if not for vinyl releases, either original or re-issued from original master tapes, could be lost forever.
By the 1970s, the industry reached a consensus on mono vs stereo releases, with mono versions of albums (bar a few exceptions) all but disappearing from record stores.
Search any of the examples in this article on a streaming service, and it’s the stereo version you will hear.
The subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) differences between mono and stereo releases are all part of the fun of record collecting.
It’s often said that artists such as The Beatles & Bob Dylan preferred the mono mix of their albums, making them, arguably, as close as we can get to hearing these classic albums as the artist intended.
Things get even more interesting when you consider the potential sonic advantages of listening to mono records using a true-mono phono cartridge. More on this topic, here.