Mono Versus Stereo: What You Should Know

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a situation like this: Browsing one of the hundreds of vinyl releases of a popular 1960s rock album on Discogs, you see wild price differences between a mono and stereo version of a record. What’s the deal? Is one better than the other? Does it even matter?

To fully understand the differences between mono and stereo, we’ll dig into the history of vinyl records and the valuable insight of Larry Crane, editor and founder of Tape Op Magazine and the owner, engineer, producer, and mixer at Jackpot! Recording Studio in Portland, Ore.

Mono Vs. Stereo: Some History

Back in the mid-20th century, there were no cassettes, no CDs, no MP3s. If you were a casual consumer of music and wanted to play an album at home, it was vinyl or practically nothing else. For modern releases, vinyl collectors might have to decide between a color, clear, or black release of a record. In the 1960s and 1970s, many collectors had a different dilemma – whether to buy a mono or stereo version of an album.

Let’s go back in time and view some of the major technological advances vinyl records went through for a better understanding of why this choice matters.

In 1948, LPs were introduced to the world. The days of flipping noisy shellac records every five minutes were over. It was a monumental improvement for music listeners, and it changed the way music was created and released. LPs showed the promise of advancements in vinyl technology and paved the way for more developments in the future.

Nearly 10 years later, in 1957, another major change was slowly making its way into record shops. Stereophonic records were now for sale, promising immersive sound and other auditory benefits. However, unlike the almost immediate shift from 78s to LPs, sales of stereophonic records would not overtake monophonic for more than a decade.

There’s a reason for this gradual change. Let’s just say that both collectors and engineers entered into a more complex world once stereo technology was introduced to consumers. To play a stereo record, collectors initially needed specialized setups, or they would risk damaging their equipment and records. On the production side, there was a steep learning curve and added expenses for releasing stereo records.

Albums originally released in this purgatory period between 1958 and 1970 – when many albums were produced in both mono and stereo versions, in varying degrees of quality – require some extra consideration from collectors.

To those interested in history, this is perhaps one of the most exciting eras in vinyl records. To decide which version is best suited for your collection, you’ll need to research how a record was originally recorded, mixed, and released.

Differences Between Mono And Stereo Records

Casual listeners will notice one main difference in the output of mono and stereo records. Audio playback of mono records is considered “centered.” A simplified way to picture this is to imagine a listening setup with two speakers – one to the left of you and the other to the right. Mono tracks will output the same audio from both speakers.

Stereo tracks will often pan the sound, driving different audio signals through the left and right speakers. This is a technique that can more accurately represent how live music is perceived by listeners. A good way to picture this is to imagine an orchestra being recorded with stereo microphones placed in different places in a performance hall. By mixing the audio picked up by these microphones, an engineer can create a more enveloping sound atmosphere on a record.

Technical Gray Areas

Larry brought up an excellent point in our conversation. There is a gray area here, as some records are not technically stereo despite being labeled as such. Stereo releases could sometimes have one mono microphone recording each instrument. Engineers could then simply pan the drums to one side, bass and guitars to the other, and center the vocals. There’s also a technique called “reprocessing for stereo.” An engineer could take a mono recording – hopefully off the master tape – and set up two equalizers to split audio into left and right speakers. Or, cutting even more corners, you could find mixes where stereo reverb was just added to a mono track. These were somewhat common techniques in the 1960s, especially in some of the lounge and easy-listening styles.

In reality, these methods are not technically stereo. Sure, panning instruments or adding stereo reverb will make a record sound different from a mono release. But it falls short of recording a session in true stereo. Understand that there’s ambiguity here, and the “STEREO” label on an album cover is sometimes a misnomer.

According to Larry, there were also pioneers of stereo. Individuals like Bruce Swedien were recording jazz releases in stereo and mono, even when the studios only wanted the mono versions. Bruce eventually worked on some huge releases, including Thriller. Again, history can guide your decision. Knowing some of these stereo pioneers will help you find great early stereo releases.

Perceived Difference

As for the qualitative auditory differences, mono releases typically sound more direct and pack more punch, with instruments often “competing” for space and layering on top of each other. Stereo tracks can allow for more “space,” giving room for the vocals and other key components in the center of the soundstage. You can sometimes get a sense for what the artist wants to stand out in a stereo release by listening for what occupies the “phantom center” of the soundstage. Larry had a brilliant take here: “to pan is to create space for what is important in the track,” and artists can “establish intent” by doing this.

Listen to the differences between the mono and stereo cuts of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds from The Beatles’ seminal 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band:

Mono Example

Stereo Example

I like using Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as an example of mono versus stereo, because both mixes were done well (though the mono mix received much more attention from the band). Just check out the 21 forum pages on the Steve Hoffman mono vs. stereo poll to see how widely opinions can vary for this one album.

Undeniably, there is a lot more nuance and complexity baked into the differences between mono and stereo records. When you get down to the nuts and bolts on the production side, the recording and mixing processes differ depending on the track, engineer, band input, and a collection of other factors. Though for the end consumer, it’s often a matter of preference.

What To Know When Making A Purchase

In these modern times, we often take conveniences for granted. Collectors in the 1950s and 1960s had to know whether their setups could play mono, stereo, or both. Today, any setup should be able to play both mono and stereo records – so don’t buy one or the other based on your listening equipment.

Bands often signed off on either a mono or stereo version of the record with engineers before it was released. This is part of the history you can typically dig into about a record. After this though, the band could walk out of the studio and engineers would mix a release for the other output. Recalling our history lesson above, creating both mixes was often out of consumer necessity – with the equipment at the time, many collectors could only purchase one version or the other. That said, it was also a technique sometimes used to further commercialize an album with re-releases long after the music had been recorded.

Take Piper At The Gates of Dawn, for example. Pink Floyd approved the initial mono release for their 1967 debut, but a stereo mix was later made. Listen to how different the mono and stereo versions of Interstellar Overdrive sound. Infamously, the stereo version of the song has erratic panning from left to right, which some claim the band would have never approved.

Mono Example

Stereo Example (fast forward to 8:40 for the infamous guitar pan)

The stereo version of Piper At The Gates of Dawn was much more widely distributed, but many argue that the mono is better. Larry lauded the mono version’s “better intent,” “focused energy,” and “strength” in sound. He does have both versions in his collection, though. The Steve Hoffman poll leans toward the mono release, but there are compelling justifications for liking either of the versions in the forum.

It’s generally recommended to stick with the band’s decision if you’re unsure of your personal preference. This signifies the creator’s intent when making the album; it’s the true representation of what they were trying to convey.

There’s certainly a novelty in going with the opposite version, and you may even find that some are rarer or more valuable. And if you’re into the sound or history of it, I encourage you to add that non-approved version to your collection. It’s an interesting talking point and can be fun to compare at home!

Here are some other pointers to help if you’re struggling. Keep in mind these are very general, and there are bound to be exceptions.

  • Anything released before 1959 was recorded at a time when stereo was not yet commercially available, so a mono release is going to be the most accurate. Any stereo re-releases were artificially created and are often subpar. As a general rule of thumb, be suspicious of any stereo releases of albums initially released before 1959-1960.
  • Between 1959 and 1970, you will want to consider doing research on the album. Look for the band’s intent when digging into the record’s history. When in doubt, go with your preference, or consider adding both versions to your collection.
  • For anything originally released after 1970, you are generally safe with sticking to stereo.

If you’re looking for further guidance, I recommend checking out the Steve Hoffman Music forums. Where reviews on Discogs typically excel at informing users about the quality of a certain pressing, these forums include polls and more robust dialogue regarding the question of mono versus stereo.

Lo and behold, mono isn’t necessarily dead. Larry mentioned some novel ways that mono can be used to record modern albums, including his recent work on Sunday State’s Mono EP. You can find some of his thoughts on the enduring benefits of mono in Tape Op Magazine, along with other deep takes from inside the recording industry.

What are your thoughts on mono versus stereo releases? Let us and fellow collectors know in the comments!

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20 Comments
  • Sep 24,2019 at 21:20

    Vinyl’s main competitor (prior-to the rise of portable formats in the ’70s) was consumer REEL TO REEL quarter-inch tape. The first semi-pro tape decks available in two channel came out in 1953 and, RCA had stereo tape on sale -to the public- by 1955 (though, dominated almost exclusively then by a Classical catalog and: at prices ranging from $9.95 – $18.95, at the time!). Before the retro fixation nowadays turned records into an (overpriced) “boutique”/niche item, NOBODY ever thought they were sonic technological marvels vs. what the audiophile of the ’50s/’60s *could’ve* had as an alternative -on tape- at greater expense. Tape had NO technical limitations inherent to itself like mass-market records (after all, without TAPE: the records COULDN’T have been made in the first place). However; COST, unfortunately, played a major factor in deciding which format garnered staying power: the standard price for a quality turntable 50 years’-ago was about $129 USD and stereo records $5.98 (USD) each…compared to: a heftily-built, stereo reel to reel tape recorder being -at least- $400 and pre-recorded tapes around $9 a-piece.
    Everybody knew the tapes beat the lesser-cost disc playback chain in performance…but, the consumer either complained about having to constantly thread the deck (which spurred-on the aural junk of 8-track becoming popular) or they didn’t want to go broke and; therefore, stuck with records.
    Pop recordings favored mono because the entire infrastructure to SELL THE MUSIC consisted of one-channel equipment: from AM radio to…allowance-dependent teenagers with $39 “suitcase” phonographs needing pennies on the headshell. It was more business than the idea of this “artist’s intent” nonsense.

  • Jun 16,2019 at 06:09

    thank you all! many good points in the replies, and i appreciate each of your informed opinions. another reason why the discogs community rocks! salute.

  • Jun 14,2019 at 17:18

    I find it interesting that no mention is made of the durability of mono discs vs. stereo. It has been my experience that a mono recording (on 45 or LP) can look and feel like it has been drug behind a truck for a few hard miles and yet still offer up a surprisingly good listening experience. A poorly handled mono disc will be MUCH more forgiving in audio play when it comes to “surface noise”, clicks, pops, skips and loops that a similarly mishandled stereo LP.

    I’m a musician, not an engineer, but it seems to me that any damage to the grooves in a vinyl LP are vastly more audible on a stereo disc. Maybe this is due to stereo grooves (which must carry more info in the same space) being more delicate and susceptible to audio degradation. Or maybe it’s simply a matter of the sophistication of modern equipment. A modern stylus might “dig deeper” into a mono groove, where LPs previously played on cheap gear possibly didn’t come in contact.

    I’m sure one of the more tech-savvy folks here at Discogs can expound on this phenomenon in greater detail.
    My point is not to say one format is “better” than the other which in most cases a subjective matter. It is to point out that a collector who has to deal with a limited budget can usually get a more pleasing experience from a roughly handled (hence FAR less expensive) mono recording than from a similar graded stereo LP. I also feel it is worth mentioning that if direct A-B double-blind comparison is required to find one format preferable to the other, perhaps the difference is not so important, and the decision could be made based on cost rather than which version garners more interest in the collector re-sale market.

    To sum up, my opinion (and we ALL know about opinions!) is that if the intent of an LP buyer is simply to have a pleasant listening experience, he or she can either look for a stereo disc in VG+ (or better) condition, or choose a mono disc in G or G+ condition that will nearly always come at a lower cost. Yes, there will always be some (usually small) details to be heard in one version over another, but these might only be a deal-breaker for a highly critical listener or collector. To paraphrase an old adage… beauty is in the ear of the beholder. Of course I might be wrong, and I’m sure many folks will relish the opportunity to point this out in incredible detail…

  • Jun 14,2019 at 09:01

    What a great read, thanks
    It’s a shame that “Quadrophonic” hasn’t been covered, as well, I remember as a young man finding my first Quad recording and thinking “what is that ?”

  • Jun 13,2019 at 17:38

    Great debate and fascinating stuff….So why, when I order a mono copy of any album (or single) from Discogs, it inevitably turns out to be the stereo version??

  • Jun 13,2019 at 17:02

    No mention of the Duophonic process here, which slightly predated Stereophonic. From what I have read about Douphonic was it was only enjoyed to the fullest listening through headphones though.

  • Jun 13,2019 at 09:55

    Reggae in its pure Jamaican form, even up to now, mostly recorded in multi track mono, mixed down to mono masters, meant to be played in mono for the dancehall sound systems. Listen to some of the stereo remix aberrations released either through legitimate or otherwise “international” versions by the likes of Trojan, Island etc throughout the 1970’s. Vocal in one channel, instruments in the other, totally killing the impact of the recording, and compare with the original Ja.(admittedly sometimes noisy) vinyl versions. Island also took to speeding up master and adding spurious overdubs and stereo effects in the UK to Ja. masters. Some Ja. producers, in particular Bunny Lee adopted the practice of not only insisting that licensed product was to be pressed only in the original mono, but that the album sleeves had to carry a note to that effect. (Virgin’s Frontline label was exemplary in sticking with this.)

  • Jun 13,2019 at 02:16

    Back when stereo cost a buck more, most buyers were willing to pay that extra dollar for Jim Nabors or Robert Goulet or some other bellowing baritone. But less “serious” recordings, such as comedy albums, no way. I recently replaced my mono copy of a Smothers Brothers LP with a stereo one, and what a difference. The stereo mix places you squarely in the middle of a live-and-laughing audience.

    I’ve run across a couple 45’s (oddly enough, both on Kapp) that were a mixdown of one stereo channel to both sides of mono. One is “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” by Cher; the stereo LP mix includes a jangling “Gypsy” acoustic guitar riff on one channel that was mixed out of the mono 45. The other is “Hawaii Tattoo” by The Waikikis, with an electric organ counterpoint on the LP, missing from the 45. This mix sounds particularly different from the single. I’ve never seen a stereo 45 of either…

    The early days of stereo were big on gimmicky mixing; RCA Victor’s “Stereo Action” series being a high point in something or other. The weirdest example I own is “Voices In Motion” by Simon Rady (on Epic,) which pretty much sounds like a 24-voice mixed chorus chasing each other around an oval track on roller skates. Because of the way his records were made (piecemeal, due to the tape speed effects,) David Seville’s original Chipmunks LPS have voices and the orchestra constantly shifting from left, right, and center. The stereo LP mix of his “Alvin’s Harmonica” contains a completely different harmonica riff than the mono 45, though nobody but me seems to be wacko enough to notice. (My guess is that it was a work tape that got lost or erased before the stereo mix was made.)

  • Jun 13,2019 at 01:50

    “Anything released before 1959 was recorded at a time when stereo was not yet commercially available” This statement from the article is untrue within the classical genre. RCA Victor was making orchestral three-track recordings starting in 1954. They began releasing true stereo vinyl records in 1958. Columbia Masterworks also offered true stereo orchestra releases around the same time, with Britain’s EMI and Germany’s DGG closely following.

  • Jun 13,2019 at 01:45

    Interesting thread!

    I am an audio restoration engineer, my skill involves taking an existing recording (usually from vinyl) and making it OK to repress… with ALL the potential trouble that it can bring. Trust me, I am on a permanent learning curve.

    So far as I’m concerned the real value of mono/stereo is not so much which format you prefer but which one was better made.
    Yes there are simple quantity/rarity examples that collectors would say (rightly) increases the value of one over the other but for me the most important thing is how it sounds.
    The best example I can come up with is the Beatles White Album. The true Mono mix is exceptional. The stereo version is.. well.. it’s ‘gimmicky’ and simply doesn’t answer any questions the music sets.
    If for no other reason than the sound quality I would recommend you at least try and find a good copy of the mono version.

    There are plenty of other titles to discuss… I won’t but just bear in mind how the original engineers/artists had a job to do… and it wasn’t always stereo. Some mixes really are better in mono… precisely because they were meant to be that way.

    A lot of funk/soul/reggae is better in mono because you just can’t be interested in ‘where’ so much as ‘what’ you are listening to. Everything has its exceptions though…

    ‘True stereo’ agreed that multi-channel master tape mixed to stereo = trickery but hey, no problem with that. If done well.
    Classical recordings that use the actual space in which they are recorded to produce the stereo sound are different for so many reasons… none of which means that using a multi-track rock band’s master tapes to make a mix-down is a ‘bad thing’ It is, literally, what it is.

    My job as an audio restorer is actually helped by stereo… even in mono. Let me explain:
    If there is a click on only one channel I can take the majority of the signal of the opposite channel to paste-over.. with a gazillion varieties… it really helps on MONO recordings where there is no stereo signal to be damaged… only a mono mix to be preserved… stereo recordings are much harder to restore when there are so many other variables to deal with: phase, timing, stereo pan, etc. Am I making sense?

    Listening:
    I am a lifelong audio Nerd and proud of it. Stereo listening is not as straightforward as any old marketing may have you believe.. to be in the true ‘hot seat’ of a stereo mix is lovely but you have to make your own effort to be there – to be a part of it.. just being in the same room doesn’t qualify.
    First of all you have to make sure your equipment is putting out equal levels across the channels. Then you need to be sure they are adequately spaced, with at least 35 degrees of angle between the ears and the speakers from 90 degrees dead-ahead.. then you need to be sure there are no weird anomalies in the listening space to create extraneous effects such as the treble bouncing off only the left speaker’s signal because it’s right next to a window… etc.
    And not least, you need to get your head, not only equidistant between the speakers, (timign is SO crucial for stereo imagery you also need to be sure that both your ears are working properly AND that you are not tilting to one side or not facing straight towards phantom mono. It’s a minefield. Once you navigate it though, it’s audio nirvana.
    A good stereo recording listened to on a good system with the right amount of attention and comfort is… unbeatable. It also accounts for probably about 0.1 of listening time… so… mono.. better?

    Certainly easier.. you don’t need to be so concerned about situating yourself.. although it’s also fair to say that if a mono signal is coming out of a stereo setup, you may get phantom effects from delay across two speakers if you’re not equidistant from them, say, or maybe that one is near the window (again) and is creating a ‘fake’ stereo image…
    At theh end of the day all you can really so is experiment with the equipment you have and hope that it works in the situation you’ve put it it in!

    Hope that helped… :P :P

    Colin Young – Seewhyaudio

  • Jun 12,2019 at 23:33

    look here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7t4GMZxlMM
    some songs sounds better in mono – some sounds better in stereo.
    it’s indiidual sensation. but for beatles’ “white album” there’s no perfect version for ALL songs.

  • Jun 12,2019 at 21:21

    Onteo is correct. Back in the day, there was a big difference in the pocketbook between a $4.98 Mono album or a $5.98 Stereo one. As I recall, record stores put the same titles in the bin, and the buyer had to choose–in my case mostly based on price. For a while, record sleeves also contained a disclaimer saying that you could play mono records on stereo equipment, but warning that stereo records might not play properly on mono equipment.

  • Jun 8,2019 at 00:48

    The post above from willyrobinson raises a very good point and also highlights how many music lovers today don’t understand the difference between simply folding a stereo track down to mono, versus a dedicated mono mix. They are not the same. If you simply combine the 2 channels of a stereo record, what you end up with is certainly a mono audio track, however, whatever elements are in the center of the stereo mix (usually includes the vocal), RISES in volume by around 3db. So what you end up with is a mono track with the vocal too far forward in the mix and conversely, the backing track losing impact as it’s lower in comparitive volume. On the other hand, a dedicated mono mix prepared by the engineer on the same song, has no such problem as he has created that mix from the multis by setting the volume level of each element in his mix, including the level of the vocal.

  • Jun 3,2019 at 22:33

    @spacecaptain That is certainly true with regards to LPs, but dedicated mono mixes were being done even into the late ’70s for 7″ releases (singles). It’s true that most stock 45s were stereo by the mid-’70s, but there were some (especially R&B titles) that utilized dedicated mono mixes. There are also examples of late ’70s promo 45s that have dedicated mono mixes and not simple fold-downs, although they aren’t as common. For instance, the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy” promo 7″ has a dedicated mono mix on one side with more reverb than the stereo side.

  • Jun 3,2019 at 19:58

    “To play a stereo record, collectors initially needed specialized setups, or they would risk damaging their equipment and records.”

    Excuse me? There was never a danger TO THE EQUIPMENT of playing a stereo record on a mono setup. To the record, yes, if it was an old-style pickup…but never to the equipment itself.

  • May 31,2019 at 11:53

    I just wanted to clear up a few things about their closing pointers.

    First, hardly anyone was doing dedicated mono mixes in the US by 1968, plenty of mono titles from that year are actually folded-down from the stereo masters. The UK began phasing it out that year as well, but most of their mixes are still dedicated (and often essential). Not so by 1969 – there are only a handful of true mono UK mixes (the US was totally done with mono by then), and I can’t think of any from 1970 that can definitively be considered true mono. Stereo mixing had grown so much by late 1968 that the few mono mixes that were still being made were so close to the stereo balances, it’s hard to tell if they’re dedicated or not (with a few notable exceptions).

    The US majors began phasing out mono in fall 1967 by making them more difficult to find in shops, but they didn’t instigate the hardcore phase-out until the first few months of 1968 (again there are some very notable exceptions). The UK was done by 1970 (really only Decca was still bothering by then, most of the companies stopped in early/mid 1969). The rule of thumb is you generally need at least the mono through 1966 (plenty of ’66 stereos are essential though), and 1967 is a case-by-case basis. You are generally safe with stereo in 1968, though I always want both from 1967/68 (when dedicated), since they can be quite different, revealing and interesteing. That said, I generally prefer stereo when it comes to all things psychedelic.

    Please bear in mind I’m really just thinking about rock and soul, not jazz. Blue note started folding down all of their mono titles in late 1958…

    I hope this helps someone somewhere. And hi Larry!

  • May 30,2019 at 03:13

    As you mentioned about fake stereo, there is also fake mono. Some recordings from the ’60s and into the early ’70s (think of those 45s with a mono and stereo side) were actually stereo recordings summed together into a mono signal, commonly called a “fold down.” So just because the record is from the era of stereo and mono, it could be fake stereo, it could be fake mono.

  • May 29,2019 at 08:34

    The point is made in the article, but not as clearly as it could be – a true stereo recording creates a holographic soundscape – providing the listener with time and space , up and down location information. It’s like one is there in the hall or the studio.

    The most accurate way to do this is to record a performance live with a single pair of microphones positioned to capture that time and spatial information. Many classical recordings are done this way.

    Most modern pop /rock recordings create an artificial soundscape with multiple microphones, direct injection and so forth., Whilst they can be fun to listen to, it’s not the same as a well recorded true stereo recording.

    Mono recordings can only record “back to front” information (distance), though when well done can be very enjoyable, possibly, as the article suggests, more so than an gimmicky use of panning and other two channel trickery.

  • May 24,2019 at 02:33

    The number one factor back in the day for making the mono versus stereo purchase was price. Stereo was usually a dollar more. We knew the potential was there that at some time we would own stereo equipment but for most of us, all we had at the time was a mono player. Now those records sell for big bucks and were originally played on machines that were as good as today’s Crosley Cruisers. We were also misinformed that a stereo record on those players wouldn’t sound good and could ruin the record. I searched though several stores looking for a mono Monkees. Pisces Aquarius Jones LTD and didn’t find one. Bought the stereo copy and asked for a stereo player that year for Christmas. It wasn’t until years later I found several copies both of them sound much better than the stereo version. Good article.

  • May 22,2019 at 10:57

    I would add a note about radio: Stereo FM radio broadcast of ‘album oriented rock’ came in in the US in the late 60s, and became over time the most popular type of radio (FM was more popular than AM by 1978). The trouble with playing stereo records over AM radio was that when the left and right channels were folded down to mono, the stuff in both channels (the vocals for example) became too loud. For this reason, many late-60s/early-70s stereo-only releases had mono promos for AM radio play, and obviously they’re expensive because they’re rare.

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