Another discussion of the eternal question for ultimate record nerds: "Which one sounds better?" Here are a few recent experiments, all from the very tail end of the mono era.
Phil Ochs: Tape from California
Occasionally, the unsuspecting listener will discover pressings that are supposed to be mono which actually play stereo. Mercury Records is notorious for this in the mid-'60s; I've read somewhere that it was because they were re-using worn stereo stampers for their mono pressings, and they certainly sound like it.
One odd case along those lines I've unearthed is Phil Ochs' Tape from California, released after most companies discontinued mono but extant as both mono and stereo radio promos -- sort of. It turns out the "mono" version actually plays stereo if you slap it on a turntable with a stereo cartridge. That's because it's one of A&M's short-lived "Haeco-CSG" albums, an electrical processing of a recording which, in essence, was an attempt to create a fake mono signal for radio broadcast by slightly altering the phase in one channel, allowing companies to only prepare one mix and pressing of a record. The process was used widely by a number of companies for a few years on commercial releases as well, but was soon abandoned due to complaints about the sound being soft and fuzzy, a problem very evident on many Warner Brothers releases from the late '60s and early '70s. A&M albums that I've heard from the era generally sounded OK -- particularly promos -- but since the process was created by one of their engineers that makes sense.
In the case of Tape from California, the "mono" version is most certainly a different, often punchier stereo mix than the normal stereo, at least as compared to a mid-'70s version. If I had to make a guess, I would bet the separate mono and stereo promo versions of this are probably exactly the same but for the labeling, which was probably done mostly to reassure stations broadcasting in mono. As for the music itself, the album is a slight step down from its predecessor, the brilliant, baroque and bizarre Pleasures of the Harbor. But this is Phil Ochs we're talking about here, which means Tape From California is essential listening, no matter one's choice of format. It's also worth noting that this week, a recently released is screening in Madison. (A&M, 1968)
Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley: The Super Super Blues Band
A relic of the '60s genre of "let's throw some of our stars in the studio and see what happens," this is actually the second disc released in less than a year to combine Waters and Diddley, following 1967's Super Blues summit with Little Walter. The results on Super Super Blues Band may be somewhat chaotic and jammy, but they are undeniably entertaining, with the three singers trading vocals, riffing off each other, and generally sounding like they're having a good time. The wide separation stereo mix is carefully done, with Muddy on one side, Bo on the other and the Wolf coming down the middle. The only issue is that sometimes there's so much going on that some parts get sort of lost in the mix. That's largely replicated on the mono version, which sounds like it's probably just a fold-down of the stereo. That makes the mono version of Super Super Blues Band a rare but inessential oddity, since it's about as late a commercial mono pressing of a current release (well, in 1968 terms) as you're gonna find. (Checker, 1968)
The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request
Probably the album in their lengthy catalog responsible for the most controversy among fans, Satanic Majesties has both ardent supporters and detractors. Which side I come down on still depends on what day it is, but over the years I have come to really like the Glitter Twins' messy take on psychedelia, aimless jammy sections and all.
Years ago, a friend played me the mono version of the album at a late night, top volume session, and I have been looking for a copy ever since with the memory that it was an extremely different version of the album. As with The Beatles' catalog, a multitude of differences is the norm for many of the Stones pre-1967 American releases, but more often than not these sonic variations are due to some poor fake stereo mixes.
That's not the case for Satanic, which on its initial stereo pressing features a very crisply done, multi-layered mix that allows most all of the extra random instruments the Stones and studio guests were playing to be heard. (One notable exception: The incredibly botched mix on "The Lantern," which buries almost everything except the lead guitar and vocals.) Conversely, the mono version at times somewhat obscures a lot of those extra layers in a mix emphasizing punchier bass and guitar, making it sound more like, well, the Stones, particularly on tracks like "Citadel" and "2000 Man."
Ultimately the vision the band was going for is almost certainly found on the stereo version, but the mono is different enough that it's definitely worth seeking out by Stones aficionados, particularly those who don't particularly like Satanic's oddball flourishes -- or want to hear what "The Lantern" really sounds like. However, "Lantern" fans will have an easier time finding it on the B-side of the also obscure "In Another Land" single; since Their Satanic Majesties Request was a December '67 release, the mono is near impossible to come by in the wild. (London, 1967)