Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds doesn’t mess around. About once a month Fed-Ex drops off a clunky brown package that almost requires the skills of a swordsman to open. But the effort is worth it: inside are gleaming 45 rpm reissues of legendary Blue Note LPs. My most recent shipment included “Along Came John,” featuring jazz organist John Patton, whose records really swing.
Inside the LP Kassem has included a flyer explaining that numerous fans of his reissue series have inquired why Acoustic Sounds isn’t releasing them in mono rather than stereo. The answer is that after 1958, according to Acoustic Sounds, recording engineer Rudy van Gelder, one of the greats in the field (my other pick would be Lester Koenig of the Contemporary label), recorded the albums in stereo, then mixed them down to mono.
But which version actually sounds superior, mono or stereo?
I vote for mono. The original Blue Notes that I own—and, alas, I don’t possess them all—sound better, to my ear, in mono than stereo. I don’t know if this is because van Gelder always intended for the recordings to be heard in mono or whether it’s simply because mono has better bass authority than stereo. When Neil Gader of the Absolute Sound visited me recently, we even listened to “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in mono—and on one speaker. Neil loved it. A look of distress crossed his face when I switched to another disc.
I realize that this may sound like one more step backwards into the vinyl abyss. First LPs, then mono records. What’s next you may be wondering—78 recordings and cactus cartridges? Well, I haven’t gone that far. At least not yet. But my Continuum turntable does have the ability to spin discs at 78 rpm and all it would take is a phone call to order a special cartridge. An acquaintance of mine at the French embassy in Washington listens solely to 78s, foraging for them on weekends. I guess you could call him a monomaniac. But my guess is that if you take a moment to listen to monos using one of the many new cartridges available for specialized playback, you might well become one as well.