March 10, 2017

Mono-holic Mis-Rememberment & Keith's Studiocraft

Several years ago I became peripherally aware of “analog vs. digital” skirmishes being waged among musicians, music fans and the recording industry. Respected artists like Neil Young were touting the superiority of analog LPs (“Long Players”) over the ubiquitous formats of CDs or MP3 files. In a 2001 interview, Neil tried to explain the differences: “Analog recording, Young said, ‘produces real emotion, because there are so many possibilities for the sound in that recording, so many variations in sound that are recorded, that it's almost like real life’ […] Digital, though, is a single, stable picture. Young described the record industry sitting in a room, changing the picture: ‘We don't really need to see the sky in all its detail – just paint that in blue…No one will know.'”

Analog recording used to be the recording industry's standard, from four-track tape recorders of the 1960s, to the monster 24-track tape transport machines, until the industry went virtual with digital, unlimited “tracks.” Neil Young's argument against digital sound was that it’s only an approximation, a computerized reproduction, of the air pressure variations of sound. Analog sound is similarly complex:

And here's a nifty analog vs. digital breakdown from the Recording Connection site:

These debates provoked me to start collecting analog sound again and the only format I find interesting are vinyl records – which have been achieving many new converts and laudatory audiophile reviews since at least 1988. The lure of vinyl now occupies my spare time, with my focus on monaural blues, rock and jazz recordings of the 1950s and '60s.

My experience with mono records was closely tied to my childhood and my first exposure to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, the Animals, and the Americans (Byrds, Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Kingsmen, Shadows of Knight). We played those records on monaural players, often portable, with a single speaker powered by small tube amps. The concept of stereo was exotic and wasn't fully accepted as universal until '69 or '70.

Parenthetically, the basics of how to “go mono” are easily found – here’s a good source. My solution was to buy an inexpensive modern turntable with built-in “preamp” and plug it into my receiver’s auxiliary (AUX) input. But from the experts: “In general, newer stereo gear, including most mini-systems, Bluetooth speakers, home theatre units, etc. don’t have phono inputs. [Phono stands for “phonograph,” a quaint term for turntable.] To use a vintage turntable with these newer units or to play through a computer, powered speakers or headphones, the turntable signal must pass through an external phono preamp. You’ll then plug the output from the phono preamp into line-level inputs on your gear (these may be marked Aux, Tape, Line, Video, CD, etc).”  

I had kept a handful of Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howling Wolf Chess LPs but I hadn't heard them in years. A couple were in mono and when I placed them on the turntable and “dropped the needle,” they sounded fantastic: bass, drums, guitars, blues harp merged almost tangibly in a centered shape between my speakers. Other mono-holics have raved about mono sound being concentrated, with a solidity that makes a band sound like a band.

Having long ago sold my record collection, bedazzled like many people by the hype of CDs, I prowled the few record stores available and did some “crate-digging.” To my surprise, I discovered lots of new vinyl by contemporary bands. Alas, none are in mono, of course. 

Then I remembered there was a 2014 release of Beatles albums in mono, newly mixed from the original, analog tapes. The prospect of hearing some of those was too tempting to pass up so I purchased the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver mono LPs from Amazon. What a pure joy it was to hear those familiar songs, that I'd only been hearing for years in stereo via FM radio or CD, in their glorious original mono mixes once again. (1)  

It was while rebuilding my lost Rolling Stones mono album collection that I discovered some tantalizing information. As you may know, 45 rpm singles were the path to success via the Top Ten for many rock 'n' roll bands on both sides of the Atlantic. I was surprised to learn via some Stones fan sites that a few Stones 45s were released with alternate mono mixes, some of which weren't included on the subsequent albums.(2)

This intrigued me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, if an “early” mix of a song was played on the radio but later replaced with another mix this could theoretically affect a listener's memory of the song. One would have forgotten which single we actually heard on the radio. In other words, if you heard that “later” mix played now, for instance, in an “Oldies but Goldies” program, your appreciation of the song would be flawed by this mis-rememberment.

Secondly, regardless of a Mis-Rememberment Issue, the fact that different “official” mixes of songs exist provides us a revelation about the record-making process. Traditionally, the goal of recording songs was to capture a performance. Early recording technology allowed only real time capture, but later multi-track recorders gave musicians the chance to re-do their song “takes,” to add tracks and other musicians, and these actions could be done any time. Sound technology further developed the aural manipulation of individual tracks so that equalization, volume and tone could be altered on each track. This was when the mix of a song became malleable and the point at which songcraft became studiocraft.

I admit that I became obsessed with the idea of Stones' original, as well as alternate, mono mix singles. Original copies of Stones' mono mix singles are somewhat elusive; they have been included on various compilation albums, but many of the songs suffer from “electronically re-channeled” mixes. What you want are the original mono mix singles but you will quickly learn if you peruse eBay, 45cat or Discogs that these legendary alternate mono mixes are very collectible.

Case in point: “Street Fighting Man.” Recorded in 1968, SFM hit the US airwaves in late August. The Democratic National Convention had just concluded on August 29, with its violent, televised clashes between Chicago's police and Vietnam War protesters. Because of this many radio stations banned SFM, fearing it might incite more violence. In actuality, the lyrics are decidedly apolitical with a chorus proclaiming: “what can a poor boy do / 'cept to sing for a rock 'n' roll band / 'cause in sleepy London town / there ain't no place for a Street Fightin' Man.”         

The studiocraft behind SFM involves guitarist Keith Richards' innovative use of an early Philips cassette recorder to record his acoustic guitar. SFM remains one of Richards' favorite Stones songs, he says, “because the music came together through a series of accidents and experimentation.”

Surprisingly, the only electric instrument on “Street Fighting Man” is an overdub of Keith on bass guitar. Drummer Charlie Watts played a small traveling trap kit, the kind that folds-up into a suitcase, with a snare like a tambourine. But it's the experimental studiocraft, the open-tuned, acoustic guitar overloading a cassette recorder's mic, merging with tambourine-snare and cymbal stabs, that makes the song so unforgettable.

Here's that alternate mono mix of SFM you may have mis-remembered:


1. If you have read anything about The Beatles' recording sessions then you know the Fab Four only cared about the mono mixes; those were the only mixing sessions they attended as they had no interest in the stereo mixes.

2. My research turned up some wonderful Stones sites, including Beat Zenith’s exhaustively detailed site, with full particulars on all the LP’s, both UK's Decca and the US London releases, including catalog numbers, release dates, highest chart positions, etc.

3. Both Richards and Mick Jagger had been in Paris in May 1968 during the student riots that nearly shut down the government.