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Massive box set of Rolling Stones in glorious mono takes you back to 1960s

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Everybody knows stereo recordings sound better. Right? Maybe not. This new remastered collection of Rolling Stones tunes is often more intimate and immediate than often-flawed stereo versions.

ABKCO has just released a 15 CD boxed set that collects 186 tracks recorded by The Rolling Stones, but in a format not heard properly for years: in the original mono. KPCC's John Rabe talks with Teri Landi, ABKCO's chief audio engineer and the restoration producer for this project.

There was stereo recording in the 1960s. Why were these mono recordings?

A lot of people still only had the capability to hear mono. People were hearing mono in their cars. People were hearing mono on a little transistor radio. And a lot of people only had the ability to listen to mono recordings at home. So they might have had a small record player. They had to be able to service that area of the market.

A mono photograph of The Rolling Stones
©Terry O’Neill / Iconic Images 2016
A mono photograph of The Rolling Stones

Describe the sound of the mono mixes.

When they would mix, way back then, they would mix with the intention of making this sound great coming out of the small speaker. Every instrument had to be heard, if they wanted it to be heard. With mono, your entire image is going to be fully centered. It's basically mixed down to one channel. One channel, one speaker; even though we can separate it out into two speakers for our ears. But everything is in one channel and fully centered. Including your bass ... not just your bass but your entire rhythm section. Especially in rock n' roll, that rhythm section is really driving the entire recording. So it's a completely different listening experience.

You'd think that a stereo recording would sound more natural because we have two ears but these mono recordings have an incredible intimacy. It almost sounds more real somehow, like you're closer, more there.

If you could have put yourself in the studio while the Stones were making these recordings, even though yes we have two ears and hear in surround, I think mono might have been a greater representation of what they would have been hearing themselves and listening to in the studio because when they were mixing in mono that's what they heard.

There were some good stereo versions of these songs but there were some lousy ones too. I'd like you to explain how they screwed it up, or made lesser choices on some of the stereo mixes on these tapes.

You have to think about the method of recording at the time, multi-track. Between '64 and '67 recording the band to a 3- or 4-track multi-track tape would dictate how the instruments would be panned in a stereo mix. In those days, they were doing what would be known as wide stereo. I think they wanted to make it clear to you that this is stereo

If you have your rhythm section (guitar, bass, and drums) cut live, printed to one track of a three or four track tape and you have vocals and maybe other overdubs of other instruments printed to the other tracks, there would be limitations to how you could pan that in a mix. If they were doing a wide stereo mix, many times that rhythm section would be off to the left and then in the right channel you might have an acoustic guitar, piano, and of course by 1966 when Brian Jones experimenting with different instruments the vibes might be in that channel, a dulcimer might be in that channel. Then you have Mick Jagger in the center. So your rhythm section is off to the side. It's not in the center driving it. It makes a difference.

In some recordings, they're called "reprocessed for stereo", they would simply screw around with the EQ for the right and left channel. And you wind up with tin, basically.

They would create a false illusion of stereo by way of equalization. One side you would have a bassier effect, and on the other side it would be more treble. And yes in the end when you were listening to it, it would create a really tinny effect on your ears. 

Make sure to listen to the audio player for much more of our interview with Teri, and - duh! - to hear all the music we're talking about.

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