THE BEATLES IN MONO and STEREO: Why were the Beatles albums released in both stereo and mono and why do some people prefer the mono mixes?

AJ writes:

Good question.

This answer may help to illuminate general questions about people’s preferences for mono over stereo.

For most of the 1960s, mono was the default format in which most people listened to recorded music.

Radios looked mostly like this:

Record players (cassettes were not yet a thing, and digital music was decades away) looked mostly like this:

In other words: one speaker.

Now, for stereo, you have to have at least two speakers, and there has to be some separation between them, or you can’t tell that it’s stereo. Stereo record players were available in the 1960s, but they were mostly high-end models. The majority of music players in the 60s played only in mono.

Mono was also the format that the Beatles themselves grew up with, and were used to.

Obviously, when you see a band live, you’re not hearing them in stereo: the bass amp is over there and the guitar amp is over there and the drums are usually in the middle. (You’re not hearing them in mono, either: everyone listening to the music will hear it slightly differently from everyone else, because everyone is in a different place in the room.)

But everyone took mono for granted, when it came to playing recorded music.

The exception to this was in the classical world, which is where stereo was first used.

The earliest stereo recording of a piece of music is, I think, a 1934 recording of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 ‘Jupiter’, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and supervised by EMI recording engineer Alan Blumlein, who ought to be a hero to anyone who loves recorded music, as he basically invented stereo sound. (He called it ‘binaural sound’ and on some much older records, it’s still called that.)

Alan Blumlein, pioneer of stereo.

Where was this historic recording made?

In the EMI studios at Abbey Road, the same place the Beatles made most of their recordings.

Blumlein was killed in WW2, aged only 38: he was involved in the development of airborne radar when the test aircraft he was flying in crashed in Herefordshire.


The earliest stereo recordings were all of classical music, and by the 1950s and 60s it was increasingly popular as a format for classical recordings.

But popular music and jazz was mostly issued in mono, because it was less prestigious. (The Beatles helped to change this, as we’ll see.)

The difference between mono and stereo recordings is heard by the listener is a difference between, with mono, in/out, and, with stereo, in/out but to an even greater degree, left/right. This is especially noticeable on headphones.

With mono recordings, the instruments and voices occupy the ‘foreground’, the ‘middle ground’ or the ‘background’. This was how the Beatles heard most of the recorded music they grew up with, and it’s what they wanted to emulate.

I could go into details about how this was achieved, but it’s not strictly relevant. (Basically, if you want the drums to sound like they’re more in the foreground, bring up their volume; if you want the backing vocals to sound more background-y, lower their volume. Just make sure that you’ve recorded them each on separate tracks, so that you can actually do that.)

When the Beatles first went into the recording studio at Abbey Road, the assumption was that most of their record sales would be of mono versions. A very important part of the recording process is the ‘mixing’ session, where the different components of the finished recording are balanced off each other in terms of volume, tone, etc.

To begin with, the Beatles didn’t attend their own mixing sessions. The mixing was carried out entirely by George Martin and his engineers: this was the case with all their recordings up until around Beatles for Sale. The first mixing session that we know they attended was for that album, on 26 October 1964.

Here’s where it gets more complicated.

As time went by, and the Beatles took over more and more control of their own creative process, they also started to take over more control of their own mixing. Mixing itself became part of the process of creating the final track.

Before, they’d been concerned to make the best possible recording of a given song, and would leave it to Martin & Co. to fashion the final mix. From 1965 onwards, they were experimenting more with studio techniques, and songs were getting remixed on the fly.

The ultimate example is probably 1966’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, in which the weird sounds that come in and out of the final recording were caused by tape loops, the volume of each of which was manually controlled by an individual Beatle manning a fader on the recording console, while the master tape was rolling.

The group was literally mixing itself, live in the studio. George Martin commented later on that there was no way they could possibly have reproduced that particular combination of loops and shifts in volume. If they’d done another version, it would have sounded different.

Under the circumstances, the group was increasingly delivering finished recordings, rather than recordings that needed to go through the regular mixing process.

And the Beatles were still, as it were, thinking in mono.

Another example of this is their song ‘A Day in the Life’. The sound of the regular instruments on this track is interrupted twice by a rising sound of orchestral cacophony which grows louder and louder and louder—actually carefully planned cacophony, but that’s another story.

The idea was that this sound would gradually creep into the track until it became the loudest sound of all.

And, on the mono recording, it actually does. Because the mono recording was able to aurally ‘hide’ one track behind another, it’s very difficult to tell when the noise starts. It just grows out of the background.

But on the stereo recording, because of the way the tracks sound separated from each other, you can hear when the noise starts. One moment it’s not there, then it begins. And, in my view (and I’m not the only one), it’s not as effective.

The reason for this is that, for most of their career, the Beatles weren’t thinking in stereo.

Even when they mixing their own mono recordings, the Beatles weren’t all that interested in the stereo versions. Stereo sessions went on happening after the band had finished with the album: it would be Martin and the engineers having to decide themselves where to place the instruments in the stereo picture.

The Beatles never attended their own stereo mixing sessions—until Abbey Road, their first and last album to be originally recorded in stereo. Abbey Road is the only Beatles album that doesn’t exist in a mono version.

Which, perhaps, is why the resulting stereo mixes are sometimes…not great.

The stereo version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ has a very noticeable flaw in the lead vocal. In the opening of the song, the vocals are in both ears, but as soon as McCartney starts singing Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice… etc., for a fraction of a second his opening line is in both ears before it cuts to being in only one ear: Elea-nor Rigby, picks up the rice…

In many mid-period Beatles tracks, the stereo mixing is just weird. The vocals are all in one ear and the band in another. I wrote an answer about the mono and stereo versions of Sgt Pepper, which you can read here:

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Alex Johnston · Aug 10

George Martin once said,“You've never really heard Sgt Pepper until you've heard it in mono.” Do you agree or not, and why?

I agree. It's been known for some time now that the mono mixes were the only mixes that the Beatles themselves oversaw. Mono was the standard, back then: it was the one the band itself knew, having grown up with it. The only Beatles album that was designed and conceived in stereo was Abbey Road, the…


By the late 60s, stereo was becoming increasingly important, which is why they finally abandoned mono with Abbey Road.

Nine times out of ten, the mono mixes of Beatles records have more punch and impact than the stereo mixes.

As I argue in the above answer, the stereo mixes tend to make the band sound more ‘artificial’ and less organic than they intended to sound. I’ll say it again: Sgt Pepper in stereo is an art-rock record, but in mono, it is and always has been a rock record.

…At least, this was true up until a few years ago, when Giles Martin, George Martin’s son, started to remix the Beatles’ albums for stereo. Martin Jr has been bringing out details and impact that have been muted for years.

Not to diss Martin Sr’s genius as a producer. Without his skill and experience and generosity, the Beatles’ records couldn’t have been made the way they were. But Martin Sr’s 2009 stereo version of the White Album, his last word on the subject, doesn’t sound as good to me as Martin Jr’s 2018 version. (I haven’t heard Giles Martin’s mix of Sgt Pepper but I hear it’s really good. Edit: I now have heard Giles Martin’s 2017 mix of Sgt Pepper but not yet on headphones, so I can’t comment on it. But my first impression is that it’s a new version again of the album, and I was interested to see that Martin Jr used the mono mix as his reference for what the Beatles wanted the album to sound like. Edit #2: My brief comments on it are at the end of this answer.)

McCartney’s bass tends to be under-recorded on Beatles albums. In the last few years, it’s finally sounded more present. The 2018 White Album is like a formerly dirty fresco that’s been painstakingly restored.

Yes, I know it’s sad that I own four copies of the bloody thing. Top to bottom: 2018 version, 2009 stereo version, 2009 mono facsimile version from the mono boxed set, 1998 facsimile EMI 30th anniversary edition of the 1987 stereo mix.

I still happen to prefer the mono versions of nearly all the Beatles’ music.

But there is nothing definitive about any one mix of their music. Some people prefer this; others that.

People who just hate mono shouldn’t be made to feel like they ought to like it, simply because the Beatles preferred it. (George Harrison once commented that the band didn’t like stereo because it exposed all their imperfections: we felt naked.) It takes a while to get used to mono, when you’re used to stereo. I personally think that the benefits of mono in the Beatles’ case are pretty solid.

There are still some songs which I think sound better in stereo: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ IMO gains from its whirling loops being all over the stereo picture, and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is more disorienting and troubling in stereo.

But from 1962 to late 1966, I think mono is the way to go.

Thanks for reading.

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