Little Boy Lost Takes Himself Even More Seriously in Mono

It's easy to understand why some youngsters don't get Dylan. Everybody sings like him now but no one did back then and at first only a few could take the unadorned voice (referencing the Dylan on these old recordings, not the current croaker).

It's easy to understand why some youngsters don't get Dylan. Everybody sings like him now but no one did back then and at first only a few could take the unadorned voice (referencing the Dylan on these old recordings, not the current croaker).

The real folkies embraced the gravel-voiced youngster and they championed him while mainstreamers dug his songs sung by others like Peter, Paul and Mary—not that there was anything with those other versions. They were like putting the bitter pill in the applesauce. Either way you got your medicine and the benefits to be derived therefrom.

Remember your first dose? I do mine. One day in the Spring of 1963 this banjo picking kid I knew named Kenny Levine came over with a Bob Dylan album. While Greil Marcus posits in his liner notes that everyone back then encountered and consumed Dylan in mono, not me!

I first heard The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in stereo on a Garrard Type A with Shure M3D cartridge. Marcus chides stereo as a "cult", aggressively promoted by Playboy Magazine (he never heard of Hi-Fi Stereo Review and Audio?) along with "gleaming components" and "wood paneled" loudspeakers designed to "show off" your "refined taste," your clothes, your liquor and "...your line: 'Baby, you haven't heard Brubeck until you've heard him on this'." 

Thus the long tradition of shitting on people who appreciate good sound, especially by music critics, continues! 

Do film critics dump on cinema buffs who prefer watching movies in big screen movie theaters with THX sound systems? No! In fact the critics insist upon screening movies in such places and so do the directors.

Stephen Spielberg doesn't hang a bed sheet in his office to screen his new movie. He goes to the Academy Screening Room or someplace like it. Yet music critics listen on the sonic equivalent of  wrinkled bed sheets and they are damn proud of it.

Worse, they take perverse pleasure in mocking people who prefer Academy Screening Room quality audio. What's up with that?

I don't get it! I'll never get it!

But I digress to protest. Kenny plays "Blowin' in the Wind" and I couldn't take the voice. I admit it. I remember kind of laughing at it. I'm sure Kenny thought i was just such a clueless a-hole and of course he was right! It didn't help that I had chickened out singing on stage in a PP&M-like folk group with him and Nancy Jacoby in a G.O. political campaign 'benefit.' I was afraid. I was afraid and a clueless a-hole! High school was not good to me, nor me to it.

Anyway, Marcus was correct in stating in his essential annotation that most people did hear and were introduced to Dylan in mono. The next time I heard Bob was a few months later in college on the monophonic juke box in a Cornell dormitory eatery called "The Barf Bar"—and for good reason.

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" was when I first "got" Dylan. Later, for a short while the same jukebox was serviced with a 45 of "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" incorrectly labeled as "Positively 4th Street." 

When Dylan "plugged in," most of the rest of rock fandom plugged into Dylan. The release of Highway 61 Revisited cemented the relationship and the double LP masterpiece Blonde on Blonde issued May of 1966 catapulted Dylan to exalted legendary status. Dylan's voice had yet again morphed, this time to a quizzical, sometimes strutting whine. The world's concerns had given way to more personal ones. There was humor, even as Dylan complained about the straight jacket into which he'd allowed himself to be put and there was heartache.

A year and a half gap ensued between the cramped urban visions on Blonde on Blonde and what appeared to be a totally different individual on the cover of John Wesley Harding. The diffuse, out of focus mystery man on the move on the Blonde on Blonde cover had given way to a grinning farmer standing in the woods with a pair of  Indians (from India—musicians Luxman and Purna Das brought to America by Albert Grossman) and a guy who looked like half of the Bartles and James team (ripped off by the Ocean Spray Cranberry duo). WTF? Unless you consider Hibbing, Minnesota where Dylan grew up.

The album played as it looked: written as if Bob had just stepped off The Mayflower instead of off the streets of Greenwich Village. It yielded a string of oft-covered classics, nonetheless, including "All Along the Watchtower." 

For many fans who signed on with the plugged in albums, the breathless Dylan progression left no time to go back to the earlier protest-based folk albums. Dylan's Columbia debut had sold but 5000 or so copies. I saw one original "6-Eye" stereo copy in my life. It was a promo copy with "Demonstration, Not For Sale" stamped on the label in silver.

The 20 year old's debut album is spare in every sense of the word and the "stereo" version is beyond weird, with Dylan's guitar mixed to sound as if the guy had ten foot arms and played it from across the room. Of course the mono version is superior as it puts the singer in the same space as his guitar. While announcing a new talent, the album was filled mostly with songs written by others and it gave little hint of what was to come in terms of Dylan's songwriting brilliance, though some like John Hammond and New York Times music critic Robert Shelton, among others, saw it.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was really the first announcement. The protest originals like "Blowin' In the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Masters of War"  proclaimed an unwitting voice of a generation while "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Talkin' World War III Blues" demonstrated wider horizons. The album even charted, though at a lowly #22. That hardly mattered though. PP&M took Dylan to the mainstream and he was all important with the young generation's future leaders who were profoundly influenced.  

Like Dylan's debut, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was a spare, pure recording of guitar, harmonica and voice. It's more intimate, coherent, powerful  and confrontational in mono. In stereo the guitar is in the right channel, Dylan's in the middle and the harmonica is in the left channel. It doesn't make spatial or artistic sense but in the early days of stereo that often happened just to show off the novelty of separation.

The same holds true for The Times They Are A Changin'  and Another Side of Bob Dylan, though he adds some piano there. With Bringing It All Back Home's added instrumentation  you can have a lively mono/stereo debate, though as we now know, Dylan, like The Beatles, was more interested in how the mono mixes sounded since that's how most kids would hear the album.

Stereo production had gotten more sophisticated by the mix of Bringing It All Back Home so even on the more simply arranged songs on side two, the guitar/vocal blend was more smoothly accomplished with none of the extreme separation found on the early albums. Instead, an acoustical space was achieved with echo that diluted the intimacy and power of the performance itself. So overall the mono mix is superior though on the electric songs a case could be made for stereo. A case could also be made for Dylan's having invented rap on "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." Certainly no one before had squeezed so many words into such a small space in a pop song.

Dylan plugged in completely on Highway 61 Revisited and backed by a full rock band one can easily make a case for the stereo mix, which by then is probably how most album buyers heard it—at least the ones I knew back then! But listen to the mono and you might be in for a pleasant surprise. Even though everything's locked into the phantom center channel, the instruments seem to be more clearly defined, particularly the tack piano, and there's an orderliness about it that the more haphazardly mixed stereo version lacks. Dylan's voice gets pushed more to the front and has more space and studio atmosphere around it. It's the version many of us last heard on the AM radio all those years ago and hearing it again will surely take you way back if you were back there to begin with!

By the time of Blonde on Blonde's release in 1966, stereo was well established, which is one reason original mono pressings are rare and collectible. Yet the story goes that Bob Dylan hung around Nashville for the mono mix and left town when the stereo mix was accomplished by others just as The Beatles had done with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band

When Sundazed Records began issuing the Dylan catalog in mono, we published this review of Blonde on Blonde in January of 2003:

Sundazed's decision to issue Blonde on Blonde using the much sought after mono mix is indicative both of the company's dedication to doing what's musically correct, and of the vinyl marketplace's newfound maturity. There was a time a few years ago when no "audiophile" vinyl label would dare issue a mono recording; audiophiles wouldn't stand for it was the conventional wisdom. Perhaps back then it was even true. 

Today, with Sundazed, Classic, Analogue Productions and others issuing monophonic LPs on a regular basis (and one has to assume selling them as well) listeners are appreciating the music for music's sake, and equally importantly, for the wonderful qualities of monophonic sound reproduction. 

The choice was also pragmatic, as the original stereo mix-master reel was rendered unusable back in the 1970's. It wore out from being repeatedly used to cut lacquers. That tells you that second, third and possible higher pressings were cut from the original tapes and probably sound pretty good, but there's nothing like an early "360 Sound." 

Subsequent remixes from the 4 track masters were made, including a particularly bad one used on Columbia's early '90s "longbox" gold CD - a must to avoid. A recent remix, supposedly supervised by Dylan is said to be much better, but even an original stereo doesn't hold up the nuanced, musically coherent mono mix.

Dylan's mono edition of Blonde on Blonde has long been a collector's item fetching well over $100 in mint condition. As with The Beatles, who were heavily involved in the mono mix of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band but left the stereo mix to others - almost as an afterthought - Dylan apparently had a strong hand in the Nashville-based mono mix of Blonde on Blonde (the tracks were recorded there as well) but didn't pay nearly as much attention to the stereo mix done in NYC.

As Bob Irwin told me when I interviewed him for Stereophile last year, the original mono mix-master reel was in excellent shape. Many mixes were attempted of each song, and when the final choice was made, it was spliced into the master reel, so what was used to cut the original and this re-issue was the actual mix down master. Back then, the concept of a mastering engineer who would do the final sonic "tweak" had yet to be developed, so what was on that mix reel was how the record was intended to sound, and aside from a few minor EQ tweaks, the LP was cut from the tapes "as is." See Dylan historian Roger Ford's interview with Bob Irwin at:

As for the music, not until Blood on the Tracks did Dylan invest so much energy in investigating love's intricate entanglements. Even the surprise hit single with the refrain "everybody must get stoned" (which would probably be banned from radio today) is called "Rainy Day Women #12 &35. Dylan at his most vulnerable even invented a new voice for himself, one that whined and pleaded almost comically over the top. Add Nashville's crack "Bradley's Barn" musicians plus Robbie Robertson and Al Kooper (the 1 1/2 Jews' blues team) and that's why this set will never go out of date.

If you're used to the stereo mix, you'll find the mono edition offers a cohesiveness, and a carefully drawn instrumental emphasis the stereo mix doesn't. Yes, you lose the width and separation, but you end up hearing more details - the ones Dylan is interested in you hearing - and you'll find it just as easy to follow instrumental lines stacked up centered between your speakers. For instance, even if you've heard the tune 100 times, the guitar interplay on "4th Time Around," will have you sitting up and taking notice. If anything drifts left or right when you play this set, you've got some speaker repositioning to do, or room reflections that need to be tamed.

Sundazed's reissue gives the original a run for the money and remains true to the original, though it suffers in the bass, which while deep and reasonably well defined, is not as tightly drawn or focused. The upper mids on the original also bloom in a way that the reissue's don't, giving the reissue a slightly darker, recessed sound, but there's still sufficient energy up there since Dylan's close-miked vocals pack an upper midrange punch. If the vocals or harmonica sound spitty and unpleasantly harsh, it's your system, not the record - though there's plenty of grit up there. On the plus side, the overall clarity and transparency of the reissue beats the original. A really fine remastering job.

Thanks to Sundazed for making this once again available - even if they couldn't get permission to use the unauthorized photo of Claudia Cardinale that appears in the gatefold of the original. Pick this up now, or kick yourself later.

What's in the Box

Sony's new box set sets a very high packaging standard that far surpasses the Rolling Stones boxes for instance. The box itself is of heavy stock and the black and white photos are finely rendered. The album cover art reproduction is superb with paper on cardboard jackets just like the originals and none of the over-saturated colors and/or harsh black and white contrast found on lesser quality reissues (I'm sure photography/graphics experts know the proper terms for what I'm trying to describe).

Even the original paper stock has been faithfully reproduced where appropriate as on the textured paper on The Times They Are A Changin'.  Sony even had the good taste to not put bar codes on the jackets! These jackets are remarkably faithful to the originals indicating great care was taken with their production. There are some slight color variations, but that's inevitable and in any case there were color and other variations originally (look at multiple original copies of any album and you'll see variations).

Various insert goodies show that the reissue producers were interested in showing buyers a good time even before they slipped a record on the turntable. I won't spoil the surprises. 

I spent a great deal of time comparing original pressings with this new box and with the Sundazed reissues. Believe me, reviews that were put online or that showed up in magazines within days of the release of this box were not done with careful, or any listening involved. We'd rather be thorough than first.

No doubt nothing beats a fresh tape—all other things being equal, which they often are not. That is why many reissues sound better than original pressings, while others don't.  In the early to mid-sixties Columbia Records did its mastering in-house and pressing in three factories in New Jersey, Terre-Haute Indiana and Santa Maria California. 1A, 1B and !C were all "first pressings," with one lacquer going to each of the three factories. 

While Dylan's albums were good sellers, they weren't the mega-hits that later albums by the likes of Simon and Garfunkel were, so no doubt greater production care could be taken with the originals, though as we all know there were mess ups like the unauthorized version of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan that snuck out or the alternate take of "From a Buick Six" that accidentally showed up on early pressings of Highway 61 Revisited

Don't believe what you read from goof-balls suggesting that you need the Columbia Records equalization curve to play back Columbia records from this era. According to my sources who were veteran Columbia Records cutting engineers from the '50s and '60s, the label switched in the mid-50s to the RIAA curve. Period. I've even read someone saying these new records should be played back with the Columbia curve. What? These were mastered at Sterling using a lathe with RIAA equalization. End of story. Okay?

The albums in this box were mastered AAA by George Marino at Sterling Sound using the "the earliest tapes in the production chain" that could be found, which in almost all cases was the original analog masters obtained by former Sony/Legacy producer Steve Berkowitz, with the exception of The Times They Are a Changin' for which no analog master could be found. For that reissue, Berkowitz and Mark Wilder remixed the 3 track master to two channel analog using an all tube chain, using a 1A LP as a reference. 

I spent way too much time comparing the original monos on hand (including Bringing It All Back Home, The Times They Are A-Changin', Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding) with the Sundazed monos and these new ones. Many of the Sundazed reissues were cut at Nashville Record Productions (NRP) by the mysterious "G" or "GN". Some of the Sundazed LPs have no lacquer cutting credits scribed into the inner groove area but interestingly, side 1 of Sundazed's Bringing It All Back Home has a "Sterling" stamp!

If I remember the timeline correctly, at the beginning of the Sundazed Dylan mono project, the UNI plant in Gloversville was still operating and it was pressing very good quality 180g LPs.  I do not know who currently presses the Dylan monos for Sundazed, nor do I understand how both sets can be available simultaneously, nor am I asking!

So look, here's the bottom line: Sony's new packaging is superior. The paper on cardboard duplicates the original cover construction and it has a superior look and feel. That said, the Sundazed is very well done for what it is. As far as the actual artwork reproduction goes, it's interesting: for instance, on Highway 61 Revisited the Sundazed has more natural flesh tones, while the Sony has a slightly green tinge. However: my 1A pressing also has that slightly green tinge! So this is analogous to the sonic issues involved in producing reissues: go for the original look and sound, or "clean it up." First you have to know what was intended! Was the green tinge intentional? Don't ask me.

The Sony version of The Times They Are A-Changin'  duplicates the original paper stock. The Sundazed doesn't (can't), but all three versions—original, Sony and Sundazed have slightly different tinges to the black and white photo. The original has a touch of brown in the black. The Sundazed is more a pure gray scale rendering. The Sony has the brown, but it's a bit more pinkish. Someone at Sony decided to airbrush out a couple of zits or tiny birthmarks visible on Dylan's chest on the original and on the Sundazed. Okay, I'm nuts and looked at this in way too much detail but better too much than too little! Sony's rendering of the Blonde on Blonde cover is more accurate color-wise and neither gets John Wesley Harding exactly correct, but the Sony is closer.

Buy the Sony and you get a card good for a free MP3 download of the entire box set and you get the full sized glossy, perfect bound booklet containing Greil Marcus's superb annotation (other than the gratuitous anti-audiophile shots!), some wonderful color and black and white photographs, album and single release dates and excellent and thorough credits. Sundazed doesn't offer that.


The Sony box's pressing quality is extremely high. I don't recall hearing even a single pop or click throughout the entire set and the physical fit'n'finish is also exemplary. The lacquers were plated and pressed at RTI in Camarillo. RTI also handled the box collation and final packaging. The Sundazeds are very good too, but not quite as uniformly excellent, particularly physically. And I'm not sure who is currently pressing Sundazeds's or whether they have sufficient inventories of their original pressings from the UNI plant so that what you might buy now is at least as good as what Sundazed originally issued.

Plating can have a profound effect on final sound, as of course can the mastering chain and the EQ choices used. In the case of the first side of Bringing It All Back Home,  the mastering chain variable is removed since both have the Sterling stamp. For whatever reason or reasons, the Sundazed's top end was not quite as "finely etched"—not in the sense of an EQ difference but in terms of transient sharpness, which might be a plating quality issue, but it's not profound and whether or not you'll even hear this depends upon the resolution of your system and the tracing abilities of your cartridge.

The Sundazed and Sony Blonde on Blondes were remarkably similar and the comments about the Sundazed above also apply to the Sony, though again, the Sony appears to be more finely detailed in terms of high frequency transient performance. Overall the sonic differences among the two reissue series were consistent, but minimal.  I thought the biggest differences were more about plating precision and EQ choices (minor) than anything else. The The Times They Are A Changin'  remix was extremely well done. What happened to the tape after Sundazed was finished with it that it went missing? I have no idea.

Meanwhile, take a look at the inner groove area of the original mono Bringing It All Back Home. How many kids with automatic record changers (virtually all of them!) got to hear the end of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"? Probably none of them! Columbia's mastering engineer cut that one to the bone!

You can buy the Sundazeds separately for $16.98 each ($30 for BonB) or bundled as a "10 pack" for $149.00 including the mono Nashville Skyline and Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits that are not part of the Sony box but you don't get the book, the box and the superior packaging and pressing and I'd say slightly superior sonics.

Breathless claims that the Sony box is far superior sonically to the Sundazed offerings are really blather. I'll put it to you this way: if I already had all of the Sundazed vinyl, unless I had unlimited financial resources I wouldn't replace it with the Sony box. There's too much other great new vinyl to buy.

But if you don't have any of these Dylan monos, I'd buy the Sony box and then add the two from Sundazed not available from Sony. As with The Beatles and The Stones, the best way to hear early Bob Dylan is in mono! Phil Spector was correct.

Music Direct Buy It Now

Shaina's picture

As you journey through this album you’ll find everything you are looking for a music. Not only can sing all these types of music seemingly effortlessly, but with equal ease as well. - Scott Safadi

carmined's picture

just got the numbered version brand new from 2011. the vocals on bring it all back home all the way to john wesley harding have a lot of sibilance, the early acoustic records sounds great. anyone else experience this? any solution for this?