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Blasts From the Past: The Sound of One Speaker Clapping

Monaural Nostalgia

Blasts From the Past: The Sound of One Speaker Clapping

Kids listening to a record.

Bert Hardy/Getty

Does anybody remember mono? Monaural, monophonic sound?

I do, vaguely, from my kidhood in the Fifties. A lot of people remember the Fifties as stodgy, but in my mind they seem kind of looser and rowdier than today. For instance, when you played a record you weren’t always tripping over speaker cords. Or, when you bought a stylus it wasn’t a fragile “cartridge” couched in a jewel box, as befits today’s $55 price tag. They were called “needles” then, and they cost about ten cents apiece. You could put on a record without worrying about whether you were missing the stereo effect or if anything expensive was going to break. It was the Mono Age.

Mono never really had any champions because we didn’t even know we were listening to mono until stereo came along. Today you can hardly even buy a mono record player, outside the down-to-the-beach, any-body-got-any-batteries kind. And the records you play on them are stereo, anyway.

Until about 1968 records were available either in mono or stereo. You couldn’t play stereo records on a mono machine without making yourself sorry. The mono stylus reproduced sound by translating side-to-side wiggles in the record groove into electrical messages that could be amplified. The stereo stylus picks up both side-to-side and up-and-down wiggles. When you put a heavy mono stylus on a stereo record, it just tore through the up-and-down wiggles like a plow running over rough ground.

Record companies didn’t like the bookkeeping involved in selling two kinds of records. Record stores didn’t like having to stock two kinds of records, each with a different price tag. Nobody much liked having to worry whether the wrong kind of record was going to end up on the machine late some night.

So, by 1968, about ten years after the introduction of stereo, mono was about dead. Most people buying record players wanted the option of stereo. The record companies came up with a kind of compromise stereo disc that could be played on mono machines without being wrecked, though genuine stereophiles claimed it cut down on the stereo effect. Ultimately, people expected stereo so much that reissues of old mono recordings were regularly “electronically rechanneled to simulate stereo.” And by 1971, most 45 rpm records were stereo; likewise jukeboxes.

But now, a decade later, mono may be making a sort of comeback. Phil Spector has issued a collection of unreleased songs with “Back to Mono” on the cover and he has even printed “Back to Mono” buttons, as has Warner Bros.

In fact, there has always been something dubious about the aesthetics of stereo. A stereo recording doesn’t have any more notes than mono, only the stereo spacing. The question is whether your enjoyment of music is based on a successful illusion that you are present at the performance. If so, why stop there? Why not insist on hearing classical music in quad with rear channels full of people coughing and fidgeting in squeaky concert hall seats? Why not fill the room with pot smoke and patchouli oil when you put on the Grateful Dead?

“Rechanneled stereo” is particularly dubious. It gets separation, though not stereo effect, by arbitrarily emphasizing some of the original mono frequencies on one channel or the other. Among those with a soft spot for real mono is Barry Hansen, “Dr. Demento” of KMET in Los Angeles. “When I play a rechanneled record,” he says, “I fiddle with the equalizer a lot. I try to get it so it sounds the way it did in mono.”

Dr. Demento also criticizes modern sound-mixing practices: “Sgt. Pepper was recorded on four-track equipment. Phil Spector’s hits were recorded on three or four and mixed down to one. These days there are 16-track machines all over the place. What all those extra tracks do is make it possible for the engineer to postpone his decisions on how to mix.”

It was inevitable that somebody like “Mono Mann” should come along. Mono Mann is a Boston rocker known as Jeffrey Conolly outside his association with the group DMZ, and Mono Mann is serious: he’s bid as high as $20 for a mono copy of the Kinks’ Something Else. “I feel the downfall of rock & roll came in ’68,” says Mono Mann. “A certain aspect was lost- the structure was lost. They forgot the first Ronettes album. Stereo lets your monitors do your thinking for you, so they ignored tight arrangements because they could make their jams sound spacier than they really were. But there’s more spaciousness, really, in any Phil Spector mono record.

“Mono is not just one track. It’s a whole different thing, a different mix. It has more punch, which is why the old rock sounded terrific on a car-radio, and that’s where rock & roll is really at, driving around in a car with the radio on. In the old days they spent a lot more time on the mono mix than the stereo mix.

“But you can’t do it today. On our DMZ album I wanted to have two mix-downs so that some of the albums could be released with one mono track. But we couldn’t do it. It’s too expensive.” I don’t think this is nostalgia. I think it’s the old frontier spirit still alive. When I look at my gleaming jumble of stereo components, I remember the “portable hi-fi” my older brother owned. It was designed to mimic the fashionable luggage of the day, with a big suitcase handle and tasteful cream and maroon stripes. I happen to know you could kick that sucker down a hill and it would still play records, sort of. 

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