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July 7, 2017:

THE MONO NOTES

Bruce Kimmel Photograph bk's notes

Well, dear readers, in Thrill Ride I write about the oncoming stereo revolution that was just in its very beginning stages in 1957, in terms of public consumption. Yes, they’d been recording in stereo since 1953, but other than a few reel-to-reel tapes, mostly done for demonstration purposes, stereo LPs didn’t really come in until 1958 and didn’t completely phase out mono until around 1967 or so, maybe even a bit later. The first record player I remember in our house was probably around 1952 or so, a machine that not only played the various speeds but also recorded records – I have a portable model of a recording record player in the garage here along with a bunch of blank discs, but I’ve never actually attempted to see if it would work. I doubt that anyone in the family ultimately kept any of them, but we recorded several discs on that machine – my mother singing, both parents talking to me and my brother, that kind of thing. I know some of those discs were in existence in the 1960s but after that I know not what became of them. I only know I wish I had them now.

It was on that record player that I played my 78s for Sparky and the Magic Piano, various Danny Kaye albums, South Pacific, and other things I no longer remember. Those and my father’s castoffs from his juke boxes – both 78s and 45s as we neared 1954. We had that record player until the late 1950s, probably 1959-ish. That was replaced by a brand new expensive high fidelity record player console that sounded much better. If memory serves, that wasn’t a stereo console – still mono, although I do remember playing the soundtrack of West Side Story on it, and that was a stereo record, so I guess you could play a stereo record on a mono machine. But mostly in 1959 I was discovering classical music, thanks to my wonderful junior high music teacher, Mr. Williamson (who I wrote about extensively in Kritzerland). And so that was the hi-fi machine where I played my mono recording of The Moldau conducted by Ormandy (only ever released in mono), and Magoo in Hi-Fi and various other wonderful monophonic recordings. We weren’t a stereo household until I got my Columbia House Stereophonic Record Player, sometime in 1960 or thereabouts – the first stereo LP I got was the beautiful MGM box set of Ben-Hur. It was like a whole new world, and every month I’d get a new stereo LP from the Columbia Record Club, and I’d peruse the ninety-nine cent bins at our local markets for anything in stereo that looked fun. I loved stereo, of course, like most people, although there were diehard music fans who resisted for a very long time – they were mono purists and insisted that that was the way music was meant to be heard.

I bring all this up because in all this CD listening I’ve been doing I’ve been hearing an awful lot of mono recordings, the latest of which I was listening to yesterday – a box set of Adrian Boult’s earlier mono Vaughan Williams complete symphonies set. The entire set, save for the ninth symphony, is mono – the ninth was the final one to be recorded, in 1958. The marvelous thing about this set of symphonies was that Vaughan Williams was in attendance for all of them except the ninth – he was meant to be there, but he died just seven hours before the session took place. Now, a mono mix is a whole different kettle of tartar sauce than a stereo mix. As you know, Beatles aficionados swear by the mono mixes of most of the albums – same with the Beach Boys. Listening to a classical piece in mono is fascinating and I must say very pleasurable. Since the orchestra has no spread across the speakers, the detail is, depending on the recording itself, can be much clearer without your ears being distracted by things on the left or the right of the sound field. And there’s a purity and simplicity to the sound that can be very appealing. If one is only used to stereo it can be a huge adjustment to listen to mono – but when it’s the only game in town, the adjustment must be made, because clearly some of the greatest performances ever committed to disc are mono, some by artists who never made it to the stereo age. All that by way of saying that this set is fantastic. I find these performances, made a decade before Boult did his first stereo set, to be amazing and I prefer every one of them to the stereo set from the 1960s. Now, if someone from EMI would actually spend the dough and remaster those from the original tapes (they haven’t been newly mastered since they first came out in 1986 – well, we’re in a whole new world, baby, and they could sound amazing), I might feel differently about them, but the sound is muddy and I just don’t take to them much because of it. The mono recordings have all been newly remastered with state of the art equipment and they sound great. And that 1958 stereo ninth is amazing. I’m not quite sure how they included it in this set – it was originally released on Everest and I have a CD of it on that label, but this new mastering is better even than that lovely sounding CD. The set is on Decca and called The British Music Collection Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphonies 1-9.

Yesterday was a perfectly okay day. I believe I completed casting the Levi reading, and I think I’ve just got one person to go for the Kritzerland show, and I’ve begun assigning songs. I slept just under eight hours. I did all the usual morning stuff and then I went and had a Chinese chicken salad and bagel, then picked up some packages and came home. Once home, I continued working on various things on the computer whilst listening to the mono Vaughan Williams/Adrian Boult set. That took up the rest of the day. Around six I went to Von’s and got a couple of tiny snacks, came home, and ate them up. Then I sat on my couch like so much fish.

Last night, I attempted to watch a Spanish motion picture entitled Smoke and Mirrors, some kind of thriller, but it put me right to sleep, so instead I came back to the computer and watched The Body (El Cuerpo), the well reviewed film from the director of Contratiempo, his prior film. It was thankfully on the Tube of You for free and subtitled (I put a link to it in last night’s posts). Perhaps a little too much “now” atmosphere for its own good, but I enjoyed it thoroughly and although about ten minutes before it ended I began to see what the deal was, it was still really well done and I recommend it and Contratiempo. I’m shocked this director hasn’t been snapped up by Hollywood or that they haven’t remade these two films.

After that, I listened to more music, had a telephonic conversation, and that was that.

Today, I’ll be up by ten, and then I’m lunching with three of the four folks who are signing the Sharkansas CDs – so I’m sure that will be a two-hour deal and its on the other side of the hill, but I’m hoping if I can be heading back to the Valley by two-thirty I might just beat the traffic. Then I’ll hopefully pick up packages, and then I may or may not go see our Friday night show.

Tomorrow I’m relaxing and doing Kritzerland show stuff – not sure about the evening yet – if I don’t see the show tonight, I’ll definitely see it tomorrow night. Sunday we do our talkback and I think the missing signer for the CDs will come early that evening to sign. Monday will be very busy – I have to highlight fourteen scripts so that everyone knows which roles they’re covering when we do our private reading. I’ve got fourteen people for it. I’ll probably print out the scripts on Saturday.

Well, dear readers, I must take the day, I must do the things I do, I must, for example, have lunch and booklets signed, I must hopefully pick up packages, and I must decide whether to see the evening show. Today’s topic of discussion: It’s Friday – what is currently in your CD player and your DVD/Blu and Ray player? I’ll start – CD, mono Vaughan Williams, and then some Leos Janacek, who I’m discovering. Blu-ray, who knows? Your turn. Let’s have loads of lovely postings, shall we, whilst I hit the road to dreamland, hoping you’ve enjoyed these here mono notes. We’ll be back to stereo notes on the ‘morrow.

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