Mono and Stereo: Some General Points


Stereo was not by any means a new technology in 1965-66, but its impact up until that time had been predominantly in the classical, jazz and audiophile market.  For popular music, mono was still very much the standard format.  Singles were always mono.  For LPs, while the trend towards stereo was definitely accelerating in the USA by the end of 1966, in the popular market they probably still only accounted for about 25%-30% of sales. Note  Radio airplay - all AM - would always be from the mono version of an album.

So even by the time of Blonde On Blonde, most artists and producers would devote their attention to getting the mono version of their album right, and would give very little thought to the stereo edition. Note  The stereo version would generally be produced by a different mixing engineer, often with little or no supervision, more or less as a sideline for a minority market.  The artist might not even hear it before it was released.

Because the stereo mixing process was less carefully supervised, stereo versions  of album tracks were often edited quite differently from their mono counterparts, with different length endings and different instruments given prominence.  And if any overdubbing or splicing was done to get the mono mix to the artist's satisfaction, frequently this would be forgotten or carried out differently on the stereo version.  There are numerous examples of these aberrations in the original stereo mixes of Bob Dylan's three electric albums, as you'll discover from the articles on this site.

Aside from this frequent lack of control over the quality of the stereo mixes, there were other technical issues which compromised the sound of stereo albums. 

Stereo disc-cutting heads of the time were prone to distortion when fed with high amplitude bass signals, and in any case most early stereo pickup cartridges couldn't track heavy bass signals without jumping.  So when it came to cutting the album, the bass levels had to be limited. Note  Sometimes the stereo mixing engineer would ignore this and produce a "flat" master mix-down tape; in these cases a second-generation "cutting master" would be made with the bass reduced as necessary.  More often, though, the adjustment would be made at the mixing stage, and the master mix-down tape itself was used for cutting the lacquered discs (also known as matrixes) from which the manufacturing stampers were cast.

The result of this technical limitation was that the stereo editions of 1960s albums usually sounded much thinner than the mono versions.  And if the records had long sides (say over 20 minutes) then even more compromise had to be made: the amplitude of the sound signal had to be limited to avoid one turn of the groove cutting into the next.  This was more of a problem with the physically more complex stereo groove, because of the added dimension of movement.  It meant that the signal had to be compressed so as to limit the dynamic range. In some instances (not Dylan records), the numbers of tracks on stereo editions were reduced to avoid compromising the sound too much.  Dylan's albums, including Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, frequently had playing times well over 20 minutes per side, so the stereo editions suffered accordingly. 

There were other factors which limited the effectiveness of 1960s stereo productions. One was the studio recording equipment itself: all three of these albums were recorded on only four tracks, with more than one instrument or vocal assigned to each track.  The other was that stereo was still to some extent treated as a novelty, and lateral separation of instruments was seen as the primary objective.  The combined effect of these factors was that the stereo mixes were pretty crude: everything was left, centre or right, with lots of dead space in between.  (The great thing about Michael Brauer's recent stereo remixes of Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde is that he's filled in this space with ambient information and brought the sound together again.)

There's no direct evidence as to whether Dylan listened to the original stereo mixes of these albums before they were released, but there's plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that he didn't.  The initial stereo editions of both Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde both had such glaring faults that they were re-pressed not long after their initial release. 

So the mono albums are undeniably the definitive original creations, and it's a fine thing that since 2010 they have been available again on both CD and vinyl.

However, I won't deny that things have changed over the last half century, and that the majority of listeners now view mono as inherently inadequate.  Properly done, stereo gives you a better sense of space and involvement, and allows you to hear more detail, to follow individual instruments more clearly. It is absolutely right that Sony should strive to give us the best possible stereo editions of the records.  It's a pity, though, that for want of closer attention to the original mono versions the mistakes and oversights made by the 1960s stereo mixing engineers are still with us today.  Highway 61 Revisited still gives us the 1965 stereo mix, just better reproduced.  Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde have been remixed to give a much improved overall sound, but Michael Brauer's brief was to replicate the original stereo mixes as far as possible.  No reference was made to the mono mixes, so many original editing details have been overlooked and we are left with many of the faults of the old stereo mixes.  This affects Blonde On Blonde in particular, as you will see from reading about that album in more detail.

Of course, Dylan himself has probably forgotten about the details he took such care with on the mono editions, but artists are not always the best custodians of their own work, and Dylan is famous for his apparent lack of interest in his own back pages.  Since the turn of the 21st century his record company have rightly lavished a lot of attention on the Dylan catalogue; but with just a little more thought they could have made the reissues more exactly reflect the artist's clear original intentions.


Last updated November 2017