Some may find the notion of listening to Jimi Hendrix's music (or any from the psychedelic era) in Mono rather odd. There are however some very real considerations in favor of the single speaker option when considering music made in that transitional period between 1958 and 1970, a time when Stereo emerged and Mono began to fade from the sonic landscape. The problem was, not all of the people doing the mixing into Stereo had a good grasp on what the mix should sound like, especially in rock and roll (classical and jazz stereo mixes from that early period are actually quite desireable!). Often times, the Mono mix -- the mix that got played on A.M. pop radio back then, by the way -- frequently received the most attention from artist and producer alike.
For example, The Beatles' 1967 masterwork, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, sounds markedly better in Mono, with a more driving mix that tightly weaves bass and drum elements front and center to the point where it not only sounds fuller, but in general the music as a whole rocks harder. A friend of mine said, upon hearing the Mono mix for the first time after a lifetime of hearing the Stereo Pepper: "this sounds like they are a band playing together now!" Not surprisingly, the Beatles were actively involved in the creation of the Mono mix but left the Stereo mix to their young assistant engineer to knock out on his own.
So you can imagine my interest in getting my hands on the obscure and formerly very difficult to find Mono mixes by Jimi Hendrix, arguably one of the shining lights of all things psychedelic and rock 'n roll from the 60s.
Prior to this review I had purchased the official 180-gram reissues of Hendrix' Are You Experienced in Stereo, pressed on dead quiet (but not exactly perfect) black vinyl. It is a great sounding pressing (released in 2010) that is well centered and nicely expands the album cover to a lovely gatefold design with additional period pictures inside and a sweet LP sized booklet with additional photos and essays. My only nit with that edition is that they didn't recreate the period accurate Reprise Records labels (which I understand since at this point the recordings were licensed to Sony Music. So be it.).
Also prior to this review I had purchased the very spiffy 200-gram Mono pressing of Hendrix's second album, Axis: Bold as Love (put out by Classic Records, modeling itself after the original UK edition, replete with Track Records label and glossy laminated cover artwork). I also purchased the 180-gram Stereo edition put out by the Hendrix estate, again, on Sony. It has nice gatefold cover -- albeit, not laminated -- plus booklet and a good solid pressing. Alas, there are no period-accurate labels. (Details, details...)
How do they all sound? In general, real good! There are differences for sure. However, unless you are a hardcore Hendrix fanatic, you will probably be very happy with the Stereo mixes on these reissues.
Comparing the the reissue Mono US and UK editions of Are You Experienced?, the British Mono pressing sounds markedly better. I am not sure exactly -- and what I am about to say is pure speculation as a record collector -- but my guess is that somewhere along the line master tape got bumped down a generation or two to create the US edition master tape which has a different track listing than the UK. Remember, Hendrix got successful in the UK first so the UK editions were more likely to be the home of the original master tape vs. a slave copy sent to the US for domestic pressings. That's how it used to be in the pre-digital days (and frankly one of the reasons I started collecting original pressings and imports in the first place). This may be all entirely wrong speculation but then again anything is possible. People may have just grabbed whatever "best mix" they could find when preparing this series. I'm splitting hairs here, I know. But that is what we collectors do, right?
Comparing the two Mono versions of Axis:Bold As Love (Classic Records 200 gram and Sony Music 200 gram #276 of the numbered edition), I give the nod to the Classic Records. Overall, in both editions the Mono recording of Axis fares better than the first LP in terms of listening experience, with a very punchy mix that rocks pretty royally and showcases different details than the Stereo mix. "Spanish Castle Magic" smokes! Like Sgt. Pepper in Mono, the album rocks harder with kick drum and bass locked in dead center and higher up in the mix -- so it all hits you right betweeen your ears. Mitch Mitchell's jazzy drums on "Up From The Skies" sound fresh and natural, and you can really make out the swirl of his brushes on the snare heads and cymbals. I find the Classic Records pressing a slight bit brighter and a bit more pronounced so it is ultimately a more enjoyable listen (to my ear). Also, as I mentioned earlier, the physical package that Classic Records created shows that a lot more love and care when into its creation, from the gorgeous laminated cover art down to the rice paper lined plastic protective inner sleeve.
If I were asked to make a recommendation to a friend who wants a fairly definitive Hendrix listening esperience without having to search for rare original pressings, I would go for these:
If you weren't experienced before this, you will be by the time you finish listening to all of these albums!
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com