| Although few are aware of it, many of the Beatles' albums were originally released in both monophonic and stereophonic mixes. Back in the Sixties, many people still did not own stereo record players; instead, they had turntables which issued all of the sound from one main channel or speaker. Stereo was available for the richer ones out there, however, and they usually preferred to listen to music which was especially mixed for their record players.
With the recent rerelease of the Beatles' albums, newly remastered, fans now have the opportunity to purchase a boxed set of all of the Beatles' songs which were originally released in mono, as well as buying their individual albums in stereo. Some might be interested enough to wonder if there are any differences. The answer is yes, there are; notable differences. In fact, some of the original releases sound better in mono than they do in stereo.
So which should you buy? That's a complex question, but I hope to give you a foundation for some answers. Currently, the mono releases are not available as individual albums, unfortunately; it's all or nothing. Also, those wanting every Beatles song will have to at least buy Abbey Road, Let It Be and Past Masters, all stereo releases. If you don't want stereo and mono duplicates of the rest of their albums, you'll have to choose between buying the mono box or buying the remaining albums in stereo.
Following is a brief summary of each album in order of original release with an explanation of some of the ways that the mono and stereo mixes differ, and which one I believe is the better choice for the average listener. Unfortunately, it would take too long to go into great detail; this is meant to be more of an overview. Devout fans, of course, will want to own all of these in stereo and mono.
PLEASE PLEASE ME, WITH THE BEATLES. No question but that mono wins here. These two albums were originally recorded in two-track due to the primitive recording equipment at EMI Studios. George Martin, the Beatles' producer, compensated for this by recording the backing tracks (primarily instrumentals) on one track, and capturing the lead and backing vocals on the other track. He then "folded down" the two tracks onto one mono recording. When EMI released the stereo versions of these records, they merely preserved the original two-track recordings. What this means is that the stereo records feature the instruments on one speaker and the vocals on the other. Not the optimal listening experience for music fans. In fact, when these albums were first released on compact disc, Martin insisted that the stereo versions not be used. Mono is definitely the preferred mix here; the impact of the songs, such as "I Saw Her Standing There", "Twist and Shout" and "All My Loving" is far more powerful. I will say that "Money" on WITH THE BEATLES has a better stereo mix, since it was recorded in an overdub of two tracks, resulting in four tracks total. Still, if you have your CDs from 1987 and don't have the money to buy (or don't wish to buy) the mono box, I wouldn't replace them.
A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. Stereo triumphs on this one. At this point, the group was recording in four-track, and the mixing for stereo was far better. Modern fans might gripe about instruments being panned hard right and left in the mix, and they have a point; but for the most part, the balance is well maintained and quite listenable. "And I Love Her", in particular, is a treat, with John's rhythm guitar on one side, George's riffs on the other, and Paul's bass and Ringo's bongos right in the center with Paul's vocal. "Can't Buy Me Love" also benefits in stereo in that I can hear George's chords on the chorus far more clearly than in the mono mix.
Another consideration is that the stereo mix seems to be more "finished" than the mono, with double-tracking of the vocals present on many songs which is not present on the mono mix. "If I Fell" may be slightly improved in mono, however, as it uses the take where Paul's voice does not crack on the word "vain". Listen to the stereo mix to hear his voice give out on that high note.
BEATLES FOR SALE. Close call, but I'd vote for stereo. Most of the songs seem to have a better definition, and the mix again has a good balance. "Rock and Roll Music" and "Kansas City", though, really hit hard in mono.
HELP! Stereo. But "Ticket To Ride" in mono is absolutely overwhelming. In general, the hard rock songs benefit most from their mono mixes.
RUBBER SOUL. Ooh, this is a toughie. The stereo mix pans the vocals hard right, which is distracting on some numbers, such as "Nowhere Man" and particularly "The Word", which sounds much better in the mono mix. On the other hand, the stereo mix seems more finished in that "Norwegian Wood" loses the cough in the first chorus present in the mono mix, and gains the guitar solo at the end of "What Goes On" which is lacking in mono. Still, overall, I think the mono mix wins here.
REVOLVER. Even tougher. Most of the songs differ noticeably in stereo and mono. "Taxman" and "Eleanor Rigby" benefit most from the mono mix; the former really jumps out of the speakers, whereas the latter avoids the hard pan of Paul's vocal in the stereo. "Love You To" goes on several seconds longer in mono, so you get more of George's sitar solo. So does "Got To Get You Into My Life", with a slightly different vocal from Paul on the last couple of bars. On the other hand, I (slightly) prefer the stereo mixes of "I'm Only Sleeping" and "Tomorrow Never Knows", two of John's most psychedelic songs. Overall, a draw, since both mixes are absolutely amazing and are well worth hearing.
SGT. PEPPER. Like REVOLVER, a draw. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" has phasing on John's vocal in the mono that is absent from the stereo, and it's mind-blowing to hear. "She's Leaving Home" is sped up slightly in mono, which helps keep that draggy feeling from overwhelming me as it does the stereo. BUT..."A Day In The Life" MUST be heard in stereo to be believed, and "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!" sounds too cramped in mono. "Within You Without You" sounds a lot better in stereo, too. Then again, "Getting Better" and the "Sgt. Pepper Reprise" really punch out of the speakers in mono. Bottom line: Either one's incredible. You should own both.
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. Stereo. There are backing vocals on "Blue Jay Way" and "Flying" that are absent from the mono, and "Strawberry Fields" sounds cramped in mono, again (although the fade-down and fade-up are shortened, which makes it interesting). "Baby You're A Rich Man" has some neat tape spin effects on the mono mix, though, and "All You Need Is Love" goes on for ten extra seconds in mono. And "I Am The Walrus" sounds a bit different, especially since it doesn't go into fake stereo after that weird break in the middle. However, I think the stereo mixes win this time.
THE BEATLES (THE WHITE ALBUM). Another draw. "Back In The U.S.S.R." and "Birthday", as you'd expect, rule in mono. "Helter Skelter", however, is noticeably shorter; it doesn't have the fade back in with Ringo's "I got blisters on my fingers!" "Don't Pass Me By" is sped up in mono to the point where it sounds bizarre. "Revolution 9" just sounds wilder in stereo (in fact, the mono mix is simply a "fold-down" of the stereo; it wasn't ever mixed for mono). But there are a lot of little differences between the two records. For instance, George doesn't sing "Yeah, yeah, yeah" at the end of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in mono. Overall: I'd pick the stereo, but I'm so glad I have the mono.
YELLOW SUBMARINE. Most non-fans won't even buy this, since it only has four new songs on it. They're better in their mono mixes, newly released in the mono boxed set. The stereo mixes pan the vocals hard right and don't sound as good; in fact, "Only A Northern Song" had no true stereo mix until Yellow Submarine Songtrack in 1999. However, I have serious issues with those remixes, so I'm not going to discuss them here. I do think "It's All Too Much" sounds excellent in stereo.
ABBEY ROAD, LET IT BE. Neither was released in mono.
PAST MASTERS vs. MONO MASTERS. There are a few songs on here that are duplicates, such as "She Loves You" and "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)", which were never released in stereo for various reasons. In the former song's case, the original master tape was destroyed; in the latter, the group just never bothered with a stereo mix. Leaving those songs aside, many of the singles sound much better in mono. "Day Tripper", "I Want To Hold Your Hand", "I Feel Fine", "She's A Woman", "I'm Down" and "Revolution" all nearly blow out the speakers. In fact, "Paperback Writer" has reverb effects on the choruses that are much clearer and more amazing in the mono mix. But "Hey Jude" was meant to be heard in stereo, and "From Me To You" and "Thank You Girl" have different harmonica riffs in stereo and mono. Overall, though, I think the mono album wins out, although it doesn't include "The Ballad of John and Yoko", "Old Brown Shoe" and the single version of "Let It Be" since they were released in stereo only.
In summary, there are many differences between the Beatles' mono and stereo records. Casual fans will be quite happy with the stereo releases. More devoted ones will definitely want to invest in the mono boxed set, and might even forgo buying the earliest records in stereo, unless they're collectors. Whichever way you lean, however, you're in for an incredible listening experience.
Interested in my views on Beatles remixes? See this essay: "You Can't Do That"