Beatles' record producer and arranger George Martin—the Fifth Beatle—once 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 Beatles—and 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 bleed 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 Word—a very good British music magazine—that the Beatles in mono are—like George Martin implied—better 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 either—they are going to re-release them now, it seems, remastered—so 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 Ringo—my favorite Beatle—came 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 wrong to me.
The fact is that 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 the public.
I definitely liked the way the mono version sounded—a 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 shouting—Lennon going bananas at the end, and other bits at the beginning—that 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 rips—or 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.
Listening Test: It's music tech week at Gizmodo.