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Vinyl Cave: Mono vs. stereo with Herman's Hermits, The Kingston Trio, The Beach Boys

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Here we go with another round of compare-and-contrast, super nerd style. We're doing the work so you don't have to, folks!

Herman's Hermits: Blaze Yes ... it's getting serious around here. Seriously goofy, at least. While most listeners would probably not bother to compare different Herman's Hermits mixes, in this case it's revealed a situation that's somewhat backwards for the majority of British Invasion albums, including nearly all Hermits discs -- the stereo version is actually better than the mono. Of course, Blaze is from 1967, by which time even most British bands were recording in true stereo. The mono version doesn't sound bad, but the stereo gets extra credit for separating out some double tracked vocals from Peter Noone, which sounds pretty cool. Going the extra mile, I also screened a very rare mono Capitol Record Club pressing, which was sonically inferior to the standard MGM mono. Otherwise this is one of the Hermits' more interesting LPs, as they at least nod in the direction of psychedelia. (MGM E/SE 4478, 1967)

The Kingston Trio: Close-Up The Trio was truly huge when this album was released, so it's no surprise that great care was taken to preserve a fairly uniform musical presentation with both the mono and stereo versions of Close-Up. In comparing two early pressings (both from before Capitol "upgraded" their cutting equipment and equalization procedures), the stereo gets the edge just on pure sonics. The presence of the group's instruments and vocals is really pronounced on the stereo version, but the mono's not too far behind it. The main distinction is in whether the listener wants a direct, clean mono mix or some extremely wide stereo separation, which can be interesting for listening to the way the group built their vocal harmonies. Close-Up is notable for the introduction of John Stewart into the group, following the departure of founding member Dave Guard; Stewart's songwriting would help them remain a viable act musically past the soon-to-begin crushing of the folk era by the British Invasion. Interestingly, the liner notes make no mention of the member change-up. (Capitol T/ST-1642, 1961)

The Beach Boys: Surfin' Safari Out of curiosity, I've been conducting some experiments with Capitol Duophonic releases lately after picking up a cheapie copy of Pet Sounds and being intrigued by the way it sounded. (It's not good, but it's certainly a different listening experience and comes across as livelier than the original monos. Cranked up over speakers, it's sort of like being enveloped in a dense and confused Beach Boys fog.) It's well known that Beach Boys honcho Brian Wilson didn't do any stereo mixes in the mono era, but some of the group's original releases were indeed mixed in true stereo, mostly by studio engineer Chuck Britz. For a time Brian stopped surrendering the multitrack tapes to the label at all and a stereo mix could not be created, so Duophonic versions were born.

In the case of their debut album, Surfin' Safari, the label apparently was too cheap and/or lazy to create a true stereo mix, which is not completely a surprise given the relatively primitive, occasionally inept (but charmingly so) nature of the Beach Boys' music at the dawn of their career. On this album, at least, the Duophonic version is relatively listenable, and doesn't stick out as extremely weird until making a direct comparison with the more natural-sounding mono mix; the extra reverb and screwy EQing of the Duophonic mix actually makes the mono version sound a little thin.

For a fan on a budget, it's a good thing this mix is listenable, since the easiest version to find in decent shape on vinyl -- the '70s reissue -- features the Duophonic version. And all the extra reverb gives Surfin' Safari more of a "surf-y" sound. For those keeping score, the album was reissued in mono in the '80s, but minus two tracks; the even tougher to find '90s pressing is complete but sourced from the contemporary digital remastering. Don't forget, The Beach Boys -- featuring all the surviving '60s members except Glen Campbell -- are playing Summerfest on Sunday, July 1! (Capitol T/DT 1808, 1962)

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