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Vinyl Cave: Mono vs. stereo with Frank Sinatra

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There's been a Chairman of the Board meltdown going strong in the Vinyl Cave for quite a few months. Sinatra albums sold a ton back in the day, so there's nearly always plenty of opportunity to pick up albums I'm missing and also track down better copies of certain titles. And when duplicates are around for vintage albums, that means mono and stereo copies are probably available to compare. In Sinatra's catalog, there are some albums where the differences are very apparent without even listening; a couple examples are early stereo albums such as Only the Lonely and Where Are You?, which included less songs than their mono counterparts. Many others leave the differences to be discovered on repeated listens!

Come Swing With Me!
Mono and stereo versions of this late-period Capitol disc make for a widely divergent listening experience, and one where the differences are very much intentional. The musical arrangements by Billy May on Come Swing With Me! were specially designed for stereophonic presentation, a fact that's noted on the stereo jacket. Perhaps more surprisingly, Capitol was on top of its PR game and altered the copy for the mono jacket, presumably so those buyers didn't get turned off by thinking they were getting a lesser experience. The stereo notes describe the brass as being "split ... into ping-pong answering and echoing sections" -- and a headphone listener may indeed feel a bit like his or her brain is a ping pong ball by the time this album is done, depending on one's tolerance for extremely wide separation.

That being said, it's fun to imagine May and the mixing engineer getting together to create this, and the stereo recording sounds really good. After some limited A-B comparison here and there, it sounds as if the producer and engineers were fairly careful to preserve all the various parts in the mono mix, though some can get a bit more subliminal in mono. And I do like the attack of the bass better in mono, rather than combined with the drums only in the right channel. (Capitol W/SW 1594, 1961)

Only the Lonely
Sinatra was one of the first proponents of using the LP medium in a conceptual fashion, and for most of the '50s had great sales success alternating between uptempo outings and downbeat ballad albums. Of all Sinatra's downer discs, Only the Lonely may be the bleakest, though making such a distinction really is a matter of degrees -- it's hard to find many examples of "pop" music that gets down quite like Frank could. Tempos are glacial, and hardly a ray of sunlight peeps through the clouds of dense, nocturnal fog -- or maybe cigarette smoke -- save perhaps on "Ebb Tide." For the most part, his vocals are as muted as the tempo and convey emotion by holding back rather than utilizing the full power of his pipes. As mentioned earlier, the stereo version is missing two songs: "It's a Lonesome Old Town" and "Spring is Here." The full version in mono runs about 54 minutes, a very long running time for a single LP.

Lonely also doubles down by being a quite different listening experience between mono and stereo versions. In stereo, Sinatra is by himself right down the middle, and to me that's always enhanced the feeling of isolation the song cycle is going for. In mono, everything is down the middle, with Sinatra out front leading the way rather than hemmed in by foreboding strings and mournful horns. That being said, the mono sounds fantastic and was the mix the engineers spent time on, and remains the way to go for listeners seeking out the LP for the first time. (Somewhat surprisingly considering the fumbles endured by the Sinatra catalog over the years, it's actually in print on LP, in mono, for the first time in decades courtesy of Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs.)

There's a very specific technical difference between the formats as well; as explained on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, Capitol at the time used separate microphone setups and mixing boards to record sessions concurrently in mono and stereo. In a reversal of what may be expected, only three mikes were used for the stereo (one per available tape track), with many more used for the mono recording. So, the captured sound itself is different, beyond any mixing or EQ decisions. It's also worth noting that the early stereo tape used to record Only the Lonely has a lot more hiss than the mono, which is clearly evident on early pressings before the advent of noise reduction technology. (Capitol W/SW-1053, 1958; the stereo was issued at least a few months after the mono)

Strangers in the Night
By the time Frank Sinatra had formed his Reprise label, which debuted in 1961, engineers had a better handle on how to record in stereo. For the albums I've been able to compare, the stereo versions are usually the way to go as a sonic experience, but most of the monos also sound very good as well (particularly September of My Years). It seems they were taking some care to keep the mixes similar in mono and stereo. To my ears, one mono mix that does sound somewhat lacking when directly compared to the stereo is Strangers in the Night. The careful separation and very punchy dynamics of the stereo mix sound lifeless, collapsed and sort of cluttered when all piled together in mono -- not a total surprise, since the mono era was drawing to a close.

I also thought I was hallucinating that the title song plays faster in mono, but it's not just me, as confirmed on the ever-reliable Hoffman Forums. This faster version is the same as the mono single version that vaulted Sinatra back to the top of the pop charts in 1966, so it's somewhat surprising they didn't adjust the stereo to sound the same as what people were hearing on the radio. (Reprise F/FS-1017, 1966)

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