Tuesday, April 30, 2019

the shape of songs: there's a lot more to stereo mixes than left and right channels

Wow, I haven't updated this blog in an extremely long time. My only excuse for the lag, really, is that I didn't want to post just to post. Instead, I wanted to give you, dear reader, content I actually cared about.

Anyway, enough excuses. I finally decided to sit down and actually write a new post and figured I'd talk about something I've done while listening to Beatles stereo mixes with headphones (the headphones part is important!) for a long time: tried to figure out the shape of the mixes.

The shape of the mixes?

To explain what the heck that means, let's start with the difference between stereo and mono mixes. For a mix to be mono means that all of the instruments come out of one channel, so you'd hear exactly the same thing if you only listened with the right headphone or the left headphone. If a mix is stereo, it means that the various tracks -- the drum track, vocal tracks, etc. -- are broken up over a few different channels, so you'll hear a few of them -- maybe only the drums, guitar, and one vocal track -- if you listen with one headphone, and the rest if you listen with the other.

Anyway, you might figure that the instruments are broken up in a sort of horizontal line. That's how people talk about stereo mixes, anyway. They'll say "the vocal tracks are in the left channel and the drum track is in the right." But that's not how all stereo mixes sound and it's definitely not how all Beatles stereo mixes sound. Herein lies an ingenious part of the Beatles' creativity that I haven't seen anyone else discuss.

Let's take an example that might help clarify what the heck I'm talking about. A great one is Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey. That mix is actually kind of on a diagonal! For reference, you can follow along by listening to the song:

The song starts out with the drums in the middle of the left channel. You should hear it right about at your ear's opening. The electric guitar starts out in the right channel, but it's near the top of the right channel, close to, say, the cartelidge of your right ear.

Then the vocals come in. John is basically on top of the left part of your skull, while another guitar track is in the right channel, but underneath where the first guitar was, closer to the opening of your right ear.

Notice that there really isn't anything going on in the upper right-hand quadrant (near the top of the right part of your skull). The mix is roughly on a diagonal!

Another great one is While My Guitar Gently Weeps. This one doesn't have a distinct shape, but is rather scattered across the field (which I imagine to look something like a semicircle).

So there you have it! The shape of Beatles songs. When it comes to the stereo vs mono debate, I'm typically a proponent of whatever mix the band actually worked on personally (and that means listening mostly to the mono mixes), but I have to say -- I've had ridiculous amounts of fun trying to figure out the shapes of these mono mixes. If you're as big of a nerd as I am, maybe you'll have some fun, too. Or maybe you'll back away from me slowly, completely freaked out. No worries if you do -- I completely understand.

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