Bob Dylan's mono recordings, 1962-1967

The mono versions of Dylan's early albums went out of print in the 1960s. The new ones sound singularly terrific!

Columbia Records

"The Original Mono Recordings" box set features Bob Dylan's first eight albums, available on CD and in their original release format, mono LPs (and on MP3, sans box). The set runs from his first album, "Bob Dylan," released in March 1962, to "John Wesley Harding" from late December 1967. At that time most people listened to Dylan's music over mono AM radios in the car, mono portable radios, or mono home hi-fi systems. Sure, stereo Dylan LPs were simultaneously released with the monos, but it's my best guess that Dylan and his production team listened to the mono mixes in the studio. Besides, mono LPs retailed for $2.98 in the early 1960s, and stereo LPs were a buck more, so most kids bought the mono, even if they had a stereo (that would include me). "John Wesley Harding" was the last mono LP from Dylan; after that all subsequent American releases were stereo only. So unless you have original 1960s-era LPs, chances are you've never heard the mono mixes.

I spoke with reissue producer Steve Berkowitz to get more details about how the transfers were done. He assured me the 96/kHz-24-bit resolution digital masters were made from the original analog master tapes, played on vintage mono tape machines, and that the LPs were cut directly from the analog masters. I was relieved to hear that; most, no, nearly all newly recorded or remastered old analog music that comes out on LP is sourced from digital masters. "The Original Mono Recordings" on LP are pure analog discs, with no digital conversions whatsoever in the mastering process. The LPs were cut here in NYC at Sterling Sound by George Marino, a true master of the record-cutting lathe.

Berkowitz stressed the guiding principle for everyone involved, including engineer Mark Wilder and producer Jeff Rosen, was to make the new LPs sound as close to the first generation American LPs as possible. Berkowitz said, "We went back and forth comparing the new mono LPs and CDs with the original LPs. They were the 'masters' we served to replicate."

The stereo versions of Dylan's music sound fine, but as Berkowitz put it, "Up until the Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper," mono was the real production format, and stereo was an idea to comply with." I'm usually a stereo guy, but I have to admit that the single CD advance copy of "The Best of The Original Mono Recordings" convinced me, at least for Dylan, of the mono mixes' superiority. The differences aren't subtle.

The first three albums, "Bob Dylan," "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" stereo mixes are the worst "offenders" in that Dylan's vocal is centered, his guitar is all the way over on the right, and harmonica on the left. The mono mixes unite the vocal, guitar and harmonica in the center, and tonally sound richer and more natural. When Dylan started working with larger groups of musicians the mono mixes are no less interesting, and I was shocked by how much better "Like A Rolling Stone," from "Highway 61 Revisited" sounded in mono. The drums, bass and guitar in the mono mix are louder, so it sounds more rock and roll in mono. "Tombstone Blues" told the same story; the stereo versions are much thinner and the stereo separation feels disjointed after you hear the mono. The mono mixes aren't all superior; I prefer the stereo version of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35"; the mono seems a little closed-in and cramped by comparison. All in all, the mono mixes are better, so chances are I'll be putting the stereo versions in retirement.

"The Original Mono Recordings" box sets of 180-gram LPs or CDs are both accompanied by a beautifully illustrated booklet, featuring vintage photographs of Dylan and an essay from my favorite living rock critic, Greil Marcus.

Columbia Records will release Bob Dylan's "The Bootleg Series Volume 9--The Witmark Demos," "Bob Dylan--The Original Mono Recordings," and the single CD "The Best of The Original Mono Recordings" on October 19. Amazon is throwing in (for free) "Bob Dylan: In Concert, Brandeis University, 1963," an extremely rare and newly discovered Bob Dylan live concert CD to customers who preorder "The Bootleg Series Vol. 9" or "The Original Mono Recordings" on CD or vinyl.

Sundazed has offered mono Dylan LPs for years, but I haven't heard them, so I can't comment on which sounds better.

I'll review the other new Dylan release, "The Bootleg Series Volume 9--The Witmark Demos," tomorrow.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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