Dear Record Collector, Music-Lover, and Audiophile:
I'm sure you've noticed that the record bins are drying up, that you are adding few titles of any consequence to your collection, but instead only looking for better copies of what you already have, perhaps reduced only to purchasing new audiophile reissues? I have a solution that you may not have thought of, or having thought of it, dismissed it out of hand without investigation: Mono.
Mono phonograph records from the fifties and early 60's are frequently and demonstrably more convincing than their stereo counterparts, and often more engaging than many prized stereo recordings. Do not be alarmed. I am not proposing a competition between mono and stereo like that which has developed between analog and digital, though I am acquainted with very sane and respected audiophiles and music lovers who feel that just such a comparison is overdue. What I am suggesting is that for the music-loving record collector -- even the audiophile! -- there is a vast, unsung, relatively untapped abundance of recordings of musical worth and surprising technical excellence waiting to be grabbed up.
Like many record collectors of good music, I decried the demise of the phonograph record in the face of what was then, and many believe continues to be, a sonically and musically inferior replacement. After several years of resurgence, the used record bins are now pretty much picked clean by other serious collectors. Very few new collectors have come along to develop libraries more or less from scratch, so many used record stores have folded. Mail order companies still offer a good selection, but some collectors feel the need to handle and examine the merchandise before deciding. The price of collectible labels in stereo, as such, is going down, even though a few titles still hold their own in the marketplace. Mono recordings, you may have noticed, have begun to climb in price and value in recent years.
One explanation for this decline is that such reissues have concentrated on blockbuster orchestral recordings with demonstrable sound bites to show off one's system and reassure judgment of its purchase. Truth is, there's just so much Spanish and Russian symphonic music out there -- music whose musical interest does not, unfortunately, grow with each listening, so the value in playing such records tends to be less for musical quality and more for suitability of audio demonstration.
The recommendations that appear in my articles are broader in their appeal. While some will be of the spectacular nature that we have come to expect from audiophile sources, most will be more intimate, more profound, some even a little offbeat. All of them, I trust, will reward with repeated hearings in ways that yet another visit to Ravel's Bolero or Falla's Hat do not. I don't mean to disparage uncomplicated music; I cut my teeth on it. Yet it saddens me to know that there is so much other worthy and engaging music out there (and damn well recorded, too!), only to be ignored while we audiophiles rely on the quick fix. You should find in these columns music for solo instruments, piano and harpsichord; music for small classical chamber ensembles; opera; and plenty of symphonic music. My aim is to reward listening on both musical and sonic levels.
So, what about the concern that early mono LPs (unlike audiophile reissues) never expected to be tracked by stereo cartridges? Is not the sonic potential of an original mono LP seriously moderated by the modern stereo LP system? It is true that mono LPs were not designed to be played by narrow gauge, deep riding, high compliance stereo pick-ups, mounted on low mass tone arms and finely tuned turntables; nor did they expect to be fed through stereo amplification to a pair of stereo speakers. And yet mono LPs work surprisingly well on modern equipment.
There are those, such as Julian Pelling of Fine Records in Hove, England, who maintain you haven't heard mono until you have heard it with a proper mono cartridge, even better than a modern stereo cartridge rewired to achieve the correct phasing and all that. But at this point, while there are extant one or two respectable audiophile mono phono cartridges, I know of no audio manufacturer who is seriously planning to reinvent the monophonic playback chain, so the question really comes down to this: Are original mono records, musical value aside, worthy of the attention of today's audiophile? My answer, while there will be discrepancies between playback systems just as with stereo, is demonstrably and overwhelmingly, YES!
The Good News
The most important good news about mono is undeniably the music, by which I also mean the performances. The new LP technology, and its manifestation in homes across the country in post WWII America and Europe, spurred artists, producers, and consumers like never before. The CD was able to regenerate interest in recorded sound but, unlike the original LP, it did not have a correspondingly beneficial effect on recording technology or aesthetics.
The attitude about recordings differed dramatically a half century ago. For the most part, recording producers were more concerned with recording music as a document of performance; today's producers are more concerned with a product that will make a profit. Recordings of the last couple of decades have been more the creations of the producer than of the performing artists. (I would go so far as to say that much of today's recorded music is anti-performance, especially non-classical music.) At mid-century, all genres of music were treated with respect and with the intention of at least trying to recreate a real (rather than "virtual" if I can be permitted the distinction) performance, if not the precise acoustical environment of the recording. Today's recordings are self-evidently market-driven; decisions about musical content are made for commercial, rather than musical reasons. Given that today's artists sound so much like each other (again, I'm speaking mostly, though not entirely, of non-classical music), it is a relief to listen to a generation of musicians who felt that their function was to channel music through their unique understandings and passions rather than through the bank accounts of their producers.
The previous generation of producers and engineers supported this aesthetic. The music went from somewhere to somewhere; the journey was fascinating, engaging, entertaining. The pursuit of high-tech hasn't so much brought us better recordings as it has a kind of perfection that is little more than an absence of defect. It is no surprise that "new age" music is known as "acoustic wallpaper." The surprise is that this consistency of idea, performance, production and engineering has found its way into all forms of music, even classical.
The second piece of good news is that there are zillions of mono records out there, and with few exceptions, not particularly expensive. The audio and collectible gurus are just beginning to discover most of these titles, and I dare say they may be feeling their credibility on the line if they don't get seriously behind mono. Used record stores have therefore priced many of the titles I review within reason.
Third, playing vintage mono LPs on modern turntable systems will be quieter because today's stereo styli track deeper than where most of the noise occurs. Most distracting noise occurs right at the disc surface where lateral modulation would be sensitive. Stereo styli actually track slightly below such noise; and since the lateral modulation is about the same near the top of the groove as it is a little deeper, the "surface" noise would be suppressed.
Fourth, and this is the unholy surprise of it all, many of these titles are of demonstration quality. One of my guilty pleasures is the occasional visit by some audiophile friends, where I drop one of these mono gems on the turntable amidst a program of otherwise big-ass stereos. Observing the enthusiasm of my unsuspecting audience, I turn the knife a little and ask if they observe anything unusual in the recording. Only about one in four or five catches on that they are listening to mono... and this even with orchestral music!
By every audiophiliac measure of performance, save one, mono recordings surprise us: frequency response extension; authority of bass; lack of treble clatter; size and depth of stage; correctness of timbres; and presence (where a good mono is often better than stereo): the palpable illusion of a musician playing right there before you. The harmonic structure from a mono LP is likely to be more coherently presented, resulting in a timbral purity and convincing focus and power that stereo rarely achieves without painstaking setup (which of course you should have anyhow.) Vocals have the opportunity to bloom without strain or electronic resonance. In part, as in early stereo, this is because everything in the recording chain from microphone to tape recorder to disc cutter is tube amplified: the overload and distortion characteristics are more consistent with the dynamic expansiveness of live music. The sense of weight together with micro-dynamic resolution catches your average audiophile completely off guard; it's so unexpected.
The one area where stereo can be counted to improve on mono is instrumental placement, for obvious reasons. Locational cues, however, are not the only means to sort out what's going on; neither are they the best means to understand the musical argument on its own terms. My audiophile visitors puzzle about how it can be easier to follow the inner voices in mono than in the corresponding stereo version. I believe this is related to the mono LPs superior harmonic and melodic integrity. It's not that the principle of stereo is the problem. Far from it. It's that recording engineers have too much of a good time experimenting with the delights of re-producing an event than in recreating it.
Most engineers simply have never gotten over their kid-in-a-candy-store attitude vis-à-vis microphones. They indiscriminately use mike X for one instrument, mike Y for another instrument, and yet another for the voice, completely ignoring the fact that you can't mix microphones of different types and expect an harmonically coherent image at the other end, particularly when microphones are placed all over the space, unable to suppress or make sense out of instruments far from their target, no matter how directional the recording pattern. Not that mono recording engineers eschewed multi-mic'ing altogether: they simply didn't become obsessed with it. Of no small importance: monitoring the result was far less problematic. Once listeners let go of their dependence on purely spatial information, the emotional and intellectual payoff is quite profound.
A final note of unexpected good news for collectors: In the fifties especially, a number of albums were produced in evil gatefold editions where the disc could only be inserted behind the spine when the album was full opened. What a pain! So much so that owners would as soon not go to all the trouble of taking them out to play them! So if you don't see fingerprints embedded into the outer inch, they are likely to be in better than average condition.
The Less Good News
Both mono and early stereo records were easy prey to the habit of record stacking, which was more or less the norm. 78-rpm records, due to their brevity, would have required stacking in order to facilitate the remotest sense of continuity, but except for the habit of playing records in this fashion, the stacking of the much longer LP served to address a need for acoustic company in the home rather than the preservation of musical architecture. Indeed, people would not only stack their records, but also mix 45 rpm's with 33.3's, increasing the chance of damage. There is only a short step between stacking records and treating them like playing cards, so the majority of all records from 1950 to 1970 would have been so affected. We trust these discs get no further than the Thrift Store.
In the early fifties, the materials with which long-playing records were manufactured were only marginally more sophisticated (i.e., quieter) than 78's, though they certainly were heavy, some in excess of today's 180-gram standard. This is one instance where an early pressing isn't necessarily more gratifying. For example, you are often better off with a "six-eye" Columbia than its dark green, blue, or red counterpart (to say nothing of running into Columbia's idiosyncratic recording equalization in some pre-six-eye recordings.). Not that some of the earliest editions aren't demonstrably more highly resolving, more immediate, more dynamic--but there is the noise to contend with. My advice is to seek out the second editions to see if the music and performance engage you before you begin the hunt for virgin first editions. There are cases where such diligence pays off, as with Saint-Saens' Carnival Of The Animals with Felix Slatkin conducting the Concert Arts Orchestra (Capitol P8270); but then, isn't this what record collecting is all about!
To a far greater extent than the audiophile in me could have anticipated, a well preserved mono record has more than enough musical information to satisfy all but the most spatially challenged. Most of what difficulties are encountered is consequences of problematic playback equipment.
In stereo, I sense a sort of compression of timbres and a lack of commitment, melodically speaking.
Stereo is rather less good than mono at what audiophiles call "slam" (a reprehensible expression when you consider what it's being applied to). Even so, extending that quality to the moment-to-moment business of what music is about, stereo provides the outline, mono the substance.
The Stereo LP is to the Mono LP as the bipolar radiating speaker is to the dynamic speaker. The bipolar speaker is able to present a sense of unconstrained sound, a huge sound stage with good locational cues, but it lacks the focus and weight of a dynamic speaker. Similarly, the Stereo LP is best at conveying a huge space with convincing instrumental placement, but it is usually not as good as mono in conveying a convincing sense of corporeality. There is image in stereo, but it is more an outline than the substance.
The mono LP lasted about 15 years, during which engineers and artists devoted themselves to getting music recording right: Unfussy, unprocessed, spontaneous takes were the standard. Low-noise tape hadn't been invented, to say nothing of Dolby. Post-mixing was limited, with none of today's 32-channel stuff -- there is catastrophe waiting to happen! Musicians didn't yet wear earphones isolating one from the other and preventing the interplay that results from the physical sensation of acoustically modulated air. They had yet to give control of the production (an apt word, now that I think on it!) to producers and engineers. There was a sincerity of performance that went beyond the mere act of marketing yet another moneymaking record. The result: typically, an immediacy and purity that stereo recordings rarely achieve. Listen again.