- Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings
There have been many interpretations of the opening crack of the snare drum heard on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” released in the summer of 1965 on Highway 61 Revisited. Bruce Springsteen described hearing it for the first time as “that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” In his book-length study of the song, Greil Marcus has said of that moment, “on no other record does the sound, or the act, so call attention to itself, as an absolute announcement that something new has begun.” 1Until I heard the mono mix of the track, however, the previous quotes by both Springsteen and Marcus made little sense.
In the fall of 2010, Sony Music Legacy Records issued a limited-edition box set containing all eight of Bob Dylan’s albums released between 1962 and 1967. 2The biggest selling point for this collection remains the mixes of these albums, which appear in their original mono. Sony Legacy packaged each of the compact discs in individual slipcases, like the original vinyl album releases, including the original artwork and liner notes. The box set includes a handsome fifty-plus-page booklet with an essay by Greil Marcus as well as many photographs.
Regarding the significance of this release, Steve Berkowitz, who produced the reissues, noted, “the key thing … is the fact that this music was presented, recorded and produced predominantly in mono, and that was the way people heard it.” 3A description of the box set on the official Bob Dylan website emphatically states:
The Original Mono Recordings are comprised of these albums painstakingly reproduced from their first generation monaural mixes as the artist intended them to be heard: One channel of powerful sound, both direct and immediate. While stereo recordings had been available as early as the mid-1950s, mono was still the predominant—and often preferred—mode of recording and mixing by the top artists of the 1960s. As a result, artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan devoted their attention to the mono mixes, leaving the stereo mixing process to studio engineers [emphasis added]. 4
From 1962 through 1967, Columbia Records released mono and stereo versions of each Dylan album simultaneously, although the stereo versions cost slightly more. 5Beginning around 1965 record labels and artists began to experiment with and record in stereo. As a result of the wholesale adoption of stereo as the preferred recording and listening format by the music industry in the late 1960s, record companies began to delete the mono releases from their catalogs.
The music industry shift from mono to stereo makes the official description of the recent Bob Dylan mono box set even more intriguing. In 1968 Columbia began to delete Dylan’s previous mono releases from their catalog. With the 1967 release of John Wesley Hardingmarking the end of Dylan’s “mono period,” his [End Page 371]“original intentions” for those eight albums have been inaudible to the majority of the public for over forty years. 6
The mono and stereo mixes represent two different recorded outcomes, each resulting in distinct sonic artifacts. The underlying question becomes: how do differences between Dylan’s mono and stereo releases affect the listening experience? How the listener initially heard these particular Dylan recordings became an integral part of the aural bond between the listener and the artist. Hearing his mono recordings, as in the case of Springsteen or Marcus, resulted in a profound listening experience for many. Those familiar with the stereo mixes undoubtedly hold a profound listening experience, too; however, the differences between the mono and stereo mixes remain considerable.
The positioning of musical objects within what Allan Moore calls the “soundbox”—his four-dimensional representation of recorded sound—directly affects the significance of a particular track. 7The listener then interprets the overall sound and ultimately derives meaning from those sounds as well as their placement within the mix. Moore’s “sound-box” analogy will assist in highlighting some of...