Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Mono music and why it keeps startling me

   I've been putting a lot of thought into this mono vs stereo debate...you know, the one you've never had with anybody.  But I debate a lot of things with my other brain and this is how it has progressed:
   Originally I only knew stereo music.  Born in the 70's, mono was dead.  I actually arrived in my love for music about the time quadraphonic recordings reared their unusual heads and although Pink Floyd sounded fabulous in my 77' Cougar it just didn't work out in the long run.  Now 5.1 surround and all that other fussy stereo stuff has happened.  Mid Side processing has given a little more depth to recordings (or at times a LOT) and stereo width has become some sort of pecker measuring competition by most mixing and mastering engineers.  I've heard it said many times that 'this tool' or 'that tool' will help one "maximize the width of the sound stage" and I bought all these things as they were sold to me and they are all just facts of the music world...not something to debate. 
   The first thing I began to debate with myself was why mono recordings are so sought after by audiophiles when stereo versions of most of these records they covet are available and surely the stereo version must sound better.  This debate is easy to settle when one buys a record that was originally intended as a mono work and compares it to it's "stereo" counterparts.  9 out of 10 times it is clear that the "stereo" mix was not actually a stereo mix but indeed a mono mix that has been destroyed by some whacky ass processor that was the latest and greatest "fuck up your mono mix" tool at the time of remastering.  As the Beatles albums are being re-released in mono and audiophiles are shouting loud enough that the rest of the general listeners have to hear their cries it is actually coming to pass that a few people are accepting mono and I, for one, am very much sold on the idea that if the album was recorded mono and mixed in mono and mastered for mono release...you should get a copy of the mono record if you want to hear the music as it was intended to be heard.  And now from the experience of comparing pseudo stereo masters and "stereo" masters to their mono parents it's easy for me to say that mono not only wins because of authenticity...recordings of the time period that belonged to the MONO God actually do SOUND better in mono.  I have theories as to why but I'm not a scientist so I won't venture too far into that realm.  I will say that I think a lot of this phenomenon has to do with recording technique (as everyone already knows) but as well with other decisions inspired by those techniques which include microphone placement (and style) as well as room choice.  With no reverb to spice things up rooms were a HUGE part of the recording process (as they should be now) and those rooms dictate much of what we perceive in the way of tone...I believe.  Debate settled.  I understand why the audiophiles seek out mono.

   So...startled.  I said that in the title.  A recent discovery of mine came as a result of Frank Sinatra's 'Come Dance With Me' record.  (yes I listen to Tom Waits, Eminem, Dwight Yoakum, Radiohead and freakin Frank Sinatra).  I had heard several songs from this record in several formats.  The songs were good.  The band was on.  Frank did that thing Frank does.  Ribbon mics rock.  But it wasn't as "amazing" as history would have me believe and I couldn't make out why my mom and grandmother said over and over how mind blowing these records were.  And then...I got the original mono pressing on vinyl.  It sat for several months unplayed in my listening room.  I finally pulled it out of the sleeve, gave it a quick cleaning and dropped it on in an attempt to make myself tired enough to go to bed.  That's when it happened.  I suddenly realized that there was no point ever recording vocal music again because it would never be done this well for the rest of time.  This mono recording of Billy May's band playing back on my little 6.5" speaker sounded 40 feet wide and somehow Frank's voice was hanging from a thread right in front of my face in the middle of that band.  It was a spiritually enlightening moment.  No I take that back...it was a spiritually mystifying moment.  I didn't understand it.  I still don't really but I now realize that the techniques that great engineers of the day employed to make these recordings gave them dimension in a similar fashion to stereo and the process glued the tracks together in a way that stereo never could.  Mystifying.  Startling. 

   Once again.  The rooms.  The mics.  Instrument bleed, timing of signal reception and reflections...instrument relativity, equalization approaches or persistence in frequency placement...lots of stuff happening here that we take for granted.  All of the limitations that the format presented (most of which were insignificant to all involved, by the way) brought with them a long list of requirements that would force the production to take on very sophisticated and well planned techniques that ultimately would be conducive to great recordings.  Decisions, decisions.

   Where was I?  Debating things.  Why hasn't anyone gone back to mono?  Well, a very few have tried it.  Mellencamp did it in 2010 with the help of T-Bone Burnett and it sounds great.  I suppose it simple to say that technology has never been very good at regressing.  We tend to only move forward regardless of what the past has revealed as superior to the current trend although it's true that vinyl is relevant again and you and I (well just I really) are having this mono talk.  Instrument and musical tool makers are heavily invested these days in retro gear, good components etc.  I guess we're seeing a renaissance of sorts and perhaps mono will make it's way onto the scene once again.  I certainly will be providing mono mixes of my own work going forward, or at least providing myself with mono mixes.  I believe I'll start testing that very soon.  I've never done it.  Lots to learn I'm sure and I look forward to the lessons...kind of...no really that's going to suck, I haven't even figured out the modern stereo thing really.  damnit.  I'll do it anyway.

  Last debate that is troubling me:  While the audiophiles will always exist how do we account for the horrid methods of the consumption of music which first made it sound bad and then made people mix and master purposely for systems that sound bad (ie "mastered for I-tunes") and now that musicians have allowed the industry to degrade the products and fans, less impressed with music in general are becoming oblivious to the notion that music could actually sound better ...how the Hell are we going to fix this?  I thought about writing letters to people or doing a Ted talk about Nyquist Theorem, tape saturation, audible frequency response vs digital capacity, overtones in up and down-sampling, ear buds etc...but I don't think anybody wants to hear it.  It's kind of like music these days.  Nobody wants to 'hear' it.  There is plenty of demand for entertainers in the music "industry" but not a whole lot of concern over quality of art work done by musicians/engineers/etc.  Nobody cares.  So how are we going to fix it.  For the moment all I can come up with is write a blog to make a few people think it over, make better records personally (which I vow to do...sorry I didn't give a shit in the past) and hope that the trend keeps moving in the right direction.
   I'll be posting some comparison mixes soon to hash out my thoughts on a modern mono project versus the same ole stereo thing and I have a thought brewing about a "stereo" mix that utilizes mono instrumentation with stereo (probably Blumlein) room ambience to dictate room size.  I haven't thought too deep into this yet but as the light reveals itself I'll put it here for no one to read. 

side note:  I'm so tired of "Remastered" releases I'm ready to set fire to some record company headquarters.  If the record is legendary...stop screwing with it.  I've yet to hear a remastered project that was as good as the original and since "remastered" generally means, "compressed all to Hell and CRANKED UP LOUD" it's easy to understand why those records are exhausting to listen to and don't hold the appeal of the originals.  The other favorite thing to do is make the WIDER...again, penis size I suppose.  "That modern sound"...we'll get to that.  Soon. 

That was tonight's thought.  incomplete and incoherent perhaps.  Oh well. 

I'm out. 
Jefferson Fox

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