Two New CDs Reignite Stereo Vs. Mono Debate

02/21/2017 12:55 pm ET | Updated Mar 01, 2017

Stereo is better than mono, right? Two ears are better than one.

When I was a kid, stereo albums cost $1.00 more than the monaural release. There was a warning: "THIS STEREO RECORD SHOULD ONLY BE PLAYED WITH A STEREO CARTRIDGE AND NEEDLE TO AVOID DAMAGE." Capitol's "new improved full dimensional stereo sounds better than stereo ever did before." "Stereo" obviously meant "superior."

But wait a minute...

The Beatles lavished hours of studio time working on the mono mixes of their songs and often left the stereo mixes to others. Phil Spector's "Wall Of Sound" was strictly a mono affair. Brian Wilson was deaf in his right ear, so he never heard Beach Boys music in stereo. My Motown 45s sound much fuller than the stereo box set.

So perhaps is mono better, at least for vintage rock and roll?

Major labels began stereo recording around 1957, while the smaller independent labels took longer to retool. Rock and roll was kid music, not meant for serious audiophiles. Why bother with stereo? Mono was fine for AM radio, jukeboxes and cheap "record players."

When the kids of the 1950s grew up, there was suddenly a demand for ersatz stereo recording of early rock and roll. I own the "Elvis' Golden Records" LP with "stereo effect reprocessed from monophonic."

And '24 of Hank Williams' Greatest Hits" "Electronically Recorded to Simulate Stereo" (with overdubbed instruments to boot).

Records like these used time delay or EQ to simulate stereo. The result was generally a muddy mess.

[When I visited my big brother in Boston, I tried that EQ trick with my mono copy of the Mothers' "Absolutely Free." I cranked the bass on one side, and the treble on the other. The result: vibration from the bass speaker caused a glass vase on top of it to crash to the floor. End of experiment.]

So for early Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, classic sides from Sun and Atlantic, mono was the only available format.

Until now...

A process called "Digitally Extracted Stereo" (DES) allows audio engineers to isolate individual instruments from a monaural source and remix them in stereo.

Eric and Hit Parade Records have just released two new collections (both available at that feature newly-discovered true stereo versions of classic 45s along with several digitally extracted stereo versions of 1950s hits. The listening experience often lives up to its "amazing" claim.

"Hard to Find Jukebox Classics: The Fifties 31 Amazing Stereo Hits" starts out with a mind-blowing DES version of Bill Haley and His Comets' "Rock Around The Clock." Even if you've heard this record a million times, the near-perfect separation of each instrument will make it sound brand new. Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" is a bit more of a mush, but it still sounds great. The DES version of Paul Anka's "Diana" reveals the doubling of the sax and electric guitar I never noticed before.

I was interested in how the claustrophobic anguish of "Heartbreak Hotel" would translate into stereo. Good news: the engineers preserved the ominous vibe and the mix brought out the minute subtleties of the arrangement: where the drums come in and out, the complex interplay of Floyd Cramer's piano and Scotty Moore's guitar and how much the whole song rides on Bill Black's bass fiddle. Again, it's like hearing the record for the first time.

The song selection is weighted towards mainstream pop, rather than R & B or straight-ahead rock and roll. Nevertheless, this includes great DES versions of songs by the Platters, the Skyliners, Clyde McPhatter and Bobby Darin. Columbia was in the forefront of recording technology, so it was surprising that the stereo versions of the 1957 Johnny Mathis tracks ("Wonderful! Wonderful!" "It's Not For Me To Say" and "The Twelfth of Never") had to be derived through DES.

I find lots of 50s pop bland and boring, but the true stereo version of Perry Como's "Catch A Rising Star” gave me a new appreciation of his likable, easygoing delivery. Jim Lowe's "The Green Door" is quite catchy. The Kirby Stone Four's version of "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," with its deranged female chorus, is the most disturbing record I've heard in years. Listen at your own risk.

The companion 1960s compilation is "Hard to Find 45s on CD: Late Sixties Classics," features 21 tracks, mostly in stereo. No need for DES here, but Eric Records went to a lot of trouble to track down excellent stereo source tapes.

Every track sounds glorious, but the standout is track 21: a magnificent version of the Jimmy Webb's magnum opus "MacArthur Park." This pop symphony has a lot sonic activity, and this recording brings out every detail. Unlike The Beach Boys’ "Good Vibrations," a similarly-ambitious pop record that was spliced together from weeks of recording sessions, the basic track for "MacArthur Park" was laid down in real time (Take 10) with the best of LA's Wrecking Crew. Drummer Hal Blaine makes all the tricky meter changes sound natural. Richard Harris gives the odd lyrics ("someone left the cake out in the rain") a dramatic delivery worthy of Shakespeare. The song was originally intended for the Association: could you imagine 6-part vocal harmony on this song?

Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" also features a big orchestral arrangement. This stereo version adds depth and majesty. Above it all, Dusty still sounds soulful and intimate. What a moving performance!

This collection is nicely balanced with many musical styles from an era of innovation and experimentation in pop music. Garage band Nuggets from Count Five ("Psychotic Reaction") and 13th Floor Elevators ("You're Gonna Miss Me") sound positively trippy in their stereo debuts. "Incense and Peppermints" by the Strawberry Alarm Clock is also heard in stereo for the first time, so you can distinguish the fuzz from the Farfisa. The stereo version of Manfred Mann's "The Mighty Quinn" isolates the way-cool log drums. And the liner notes unearth who "The Mighty Quinn" is (hint: the 1960s movie The Savage Innocents starred Anthony Quinn).

"Gimme Some Lovin"" by the Spencer Davis Group (featuring a very young Steve Winwood) rocks like hell in stereo. "Color Him Father" by the Winstons and "You Were On My Mind" by We Five are fine records that have sadly been forgotten. Oddities like "Little Green Bag" by George Baker Selection and "Winchester Cathedral" by The New Vaudeville Band liven the collection.

These two collections feature great value for the money, even if you own many of these songs on other compilations.

Hearing many of these tracks in stereo for the first time gives me a new appreciation for the care that went into the original recordings. Mono or stereo, a good mix leaves room for each instrument and vocal part to occupy its own space in the sonic spectrum. It will sound good on a cheap transistor radio or a high-end stereo system. But all the digital enhancements in the world won't rescue a lousy record.

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