by Jesus Diaz
April 18, 2009
Beatles' record producer and arranger George Martinthe Fifth
Beatleonce said: "You've never really heard Sgt Pepper until you've
heard it in mono." As it turned out after hours of listening tests,
it's completely true.
The first article I ever got published was an opinion piece on Sgt
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was 16 at the time and, needless
to say, quite naive. I wasn't very much into non-Beatles music at
that age, mainly because I didn't have much access to it. It wasn't
until the next year that I was able to buy music regularly, having at
last my own stereo system. But back then, my music world was all
about the Beatlesand crap 90s radio pop. My dad had Sgt Pepper along
with the rest of the Beatles' records and some compilations of
classic rock, from Chuck Berry to bloody Kansas, so that was my music world.
I couldn't stop listening to Sgt Pepper. Non stop, I played it and
played it until my ears bled and then I played it some more. It was
the stereo version, not the mono mix, and it has lived with me ever
since. Then, a few months ago I read in The Worda very good British
music magazinethat the Beatles in mono arelike George Martin
impliedbetter than the Beatles in stereo. Apparently, the Beatles
didn't give a damn about the stereo mix, only about the mono. In
fact, they cared so little that they passed on the stereo mixing
sessions: Once the mono was done, they left the building.
So I started looking for them. Finding the actual mono mix in the
market was impossible. Not to talk about the fact that I don't have a
turntable anymore. For some reason, the Beatles company didn't have
the mono mixes of the Beatles' albums available eitherthey are going
to re-release them now, it seems, remasteredso I got into Torrent to
hunt them down. I couldn't find them in the first try. I found a
couple of MP3 rips, but I wanted to have FLAC rips of the original
vinyls. After some time I gave up, forgetting about the mono Beatles
until the Gizmodo's audio week.
I thought trying it would be interesting for a feature, so I started
looking for them again and got 192kbps MP3s, which I compared to the
stereo version at the same bit rate. Since Sgt Pepper was my album, I
started to listen to its songs in pairs, with my earmuff headphones on.
I was blown away. George Martin was oh so right: The songs do sound
different. I was so surprised, that at the beginning I freaked out.
"What? What? How? What the fuck?" was in my mind all the time.
When Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band came up, my first
impression was that the sound had more thump than the stereo mix. A
lot more thump, for a lack of a better word. It was like someone was
beating me with a hammer. It was kind of noisy, but it filled my head
and pushed me in a way the stereo version didn't.
Then good old Ringomy favourite Beatlecame up singing With A Little
Help From My Friends. Same effect. It felt weird, but so much better.
I kept coming back to the stereo versions for comparison and, before
I noticed, I was thinking: "These sounds a lot weaker. These sound
artificial." Gone was the separation of instruments in the right and
left channel too, which now feels so artificial. It was artificial,
since stereo was a novelty back then: Most people still listened to
music in mono and stereo was the "new thing." As a result, producers
overused it, just for the sake of it, like when 3D cinema came out
and everything was an excuse to fire arrows and rocks and monsters at
I definitely liked the way the mono version soundeda lot more, even
while I knew the stereo version till the last beat and note. LSD came
up: same result. The sound is crisper and nearer. The bass a lot
better. Again that special thump, even while this is such a delicate
song. Getting Better gets better, and so does the rest, Fixing a
Hole, She's Leaving Home, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite... I just
couldn't have enough.
But that wasn't all. In the mono version you can hear stuff that is
not in the stereo version. And not just bits, but quite a lot of
things. Instruments, notes, even lyrics. Take the reprise version of
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: It is full of shoutingLennon
going bananas at the end, and other bits at the beginningthat is not
in the stereo mix.
Maybe it's the novelty of listening to a "new" take on something that
I know by heart, but I doubt it. As an experience, I like it a lot
better. So much that I'm dying to get FLAC versions of good vinyl
ripsor the remastered mono versions, as soon as they come out. And
while your taste may be different, from now on this is the version
I'm keeping in my iPod.