For roughly the first decade that 33 1/3 RPM record albums existed, they all played in monaural, or as they’re commonly known, “mono.” There was one channel of information encoded on the disc, usually sourced from magnetic tape that also had one channel of information.
During recording, multiple microphones may have been used, but the signals from each microphone would be mixed into a single signal. Record players, even expensive ones, had a single speaker and that was sufficient to provide playback.
This format existed from the introduction of the long-play, or “LP” record in 1948 through the introduction of stereo records in 1957. As all records were pressed in mono, there were no choices to make for buyers – you went to the store and if you saw an album you liked, you bought it, took it home and played it.
That soon changed, and for the next decade, buyers encountered a number of complications when it came to buying record albums at the store.
Experiments in stereo recording and playback date to at least the 1930s, and the soundtrack to the 1940 Disney film Fantasia was recorded in stereo and played back in that format in some cities. Getting stereo sound in a home format proved a bit more difficult, however.
In 1952, an engineer named Emory Cook introduced what he called “binaural recordings,” which were albums that appeared to have two songs on each side. In truth, there was only one, as Cook’s binaural system made use of a tonearm with two cartridges and needles mounted on it that were carefully spaced to correspond to the distance between the beginning of each track on the album.
There were a few experiments with stereo recordings; Atlantic Records released an album by Wilbur DeParis in 1953 that was recorded in stereo and released as a “binaural disc.” This record required a special player that used a tonearm with two needles. Cook also offered an adapter, which he sold for $5.95 (about $55 today) that could convert a standard tonearm into one capable of playing binaural records.
Cook formed his own record company, Cook Records, which released about 50 titles in the binaural format. Atlantic Records released one title in the format by Wilbur DeParis and a few other small record companies released a few titles as binaural recordings. The format was a bit awkward, and the fact that each channel required its own track also limited the playing time for these records. Due to these inconveniences, the binaural system never really caught on.
In December 1957, Audio Fidelity released what is generally regarded as the first stereo record album – a recording of the Dukes of Dixieland on one side and railroad recordings on the other. This release attracted a lot of attention from the audiophile community, and other labels slowly entered the stereo market.
The decision to embrace stereo records was a difficult one for both record labels and consumers. For the record companies, it meant buying then-expensive stereo tape recorders in order to record their music in stereo. It also meant buying new mastering equipment or modifying existing cutting lathes to cut stereo discs. There was a learning curve for both recording and mastering engineers, who needed to figure out how to accurately produce stereo sound on vinyl.
For consumers, the issue was also about expense. Anyone who wanted to listen to music in stereo would have to replace their phonograph or turntable. They would also have to either buy a second mono amplifier or replace their mono amplifier with a stereo model. They would also have to buy a second speaker. Buying what was essentially a second hi-fi system in order to play stereo records was a non-trivial expense, and for the first few years that stereo records were available, they sold in tiny amounts compared to mono pressings.
Record companies also needed to educate buyers about the advantages of stereo records. This led many labels to release “stereo demonstration records.” These were usually albums that featured all manner of sounds – vocals, orchestras, locomotives, jet airplanes, and more, all recorded with deep, spacious stereo sound.
A huge headache for both manufacturers and buyers of record albums was the fact that there were incompatibility issues between mono and stereo records. Most players with mono cartridges had larger, less flexible needles that had a tendency to damage stereo records. Several record companies printed warnings on the covers of their stereo albums that said something like “this record should be played only on stereo equipment to avoid damage.”
Some records noted that stereo records could be played on mono players, provided that the consumer were to replace their cartridge with a stereo cartridge that was wired for mono. This presented another problem – stereo records played on mono players did not reproduce sound properly. Stereo records are mixed to give the sound a three-dimensional sense of space, but most recordings have at least some information, often vocals, that is present in both channels. When stereo records were played back in mono, any information that was present in both channels was amplified by 6 DB, making it louder than than it was intended to be and giving the record an unnatural sound, with vocals and drums sounding louder than intended.
For manufacturers, these problems meant that for many titles, they’d need to produce two different versions of the album – one on mono and one in stereo. This doubled the workload of the mastering engineers and employees at the pressing plants, who were basically making the same product twice.
Buyers then had to decide when they visited the store which version of a record they wanted to buy. While most mono players couldn’t play stereo records, stereo turntables could play mono records just fine. For buyers, it became a matter of making a decision as to which record they wanted to buy when they chose a particular album – the mono copy or the stereo copy? That, of course, assumed that both mono and stereo versions were available and in stock at the store, and that the record company had chosen to release that particular album in both formats.
A few companies went ahead and labeled their records as being compatible for both stereo and mono players, even though they weren’t. One such company called their records “Stereomonic.”
For the first few years after the introduction of stereo records, record companies were a bit skittish about releasing albums in stereo, due to the added expense and the fact that the stereo pressings were unlikely to sell in large quantities. Because of this, most companies that did venture into stereo in the 1950s only did so in the “adult” markets – jazz and classical. For popular vocal music and the up-and-coming rock and roll, many titles continued to be released only in mono, and rock and roll recordings from that decade are few and far between.
Classical, opera, and jazz fans, however, were often able to buy albums in either mono or stereo, and the record companies were all too happy to have these albums available to show off their ability to record in stereo. To this day, a number of classical recordings from the late 1950s and early 1960s are used as demonstration records, as they were recorded to either two or three channel tape recorders with a minimum number of microphones, producing an ultra-realistic, “you are there” listening experience.
As stereo records were largely a niche product when first introduced, the record companies added a one dollar surcharge to the retail price, making the already-expensive record album even more so. Atlantic Records charged $5.98 for stereo albums in 1960; a price that equates to more than $50 today. Not surprisingly, the high price of stereo records did not encourage more consumers to buy the equipment to play them. Most record companies continued to charge $1 more for stereo records right up until they stopped making mono records in the U.S. in late 1968.
When stereo records were first introduced in the late 1950s, they were expensive, and required a significant cash outlay from buyers for both the stereo records themselves and the additional equipment required to play them. At that time, amplifiers used expensive vacuum tubes, but by the mid-1960s, most amplifiers had transistors, which allowed them to be sold at much lower prices than tube equipment.
In 1960, only one album in 50 might have been sold in stereo, but by about 1966, the ratio of mono to stereo records in terms of sales became about 50-50, as stereo playback equipment became more affordable. By 1967, stereo records were outselling mono records by a hefty margin, and by 1968, most American record companies came to the conclusion that sales of mono records were decreasing to the point where it was not longer profitable to continue selling them.
By early 1968, the major labels in the U.S. had either discontinued pressing records in both mono and stereo or they made mono records available on a special order basis only. By the end of the year, all of the major labels in the U.S. had stopped producing albums in both formats. Due to a lag in consumers buying stereo equipment in the UK, record companies there continued producing records in both stereo and mono until early 1970, though mono titles produced after mid-1968 are fairly scarce today.
The shift over the course of a decade from sales of mostly mono records to sales of mostly stereo records makes it interesting for record collectors. Early stereo records from the late 1950s are quite rare and are often quite expensive, while their mono counterparts are generally quite common and sell for quite a bit less money. On the other hand, mono pressings from 1967 and 1968 are comparatively scarce, and in some cases, exceedingly rare, and a few mono titles from major artists of that time, such as the Beatles, the Doors, the Monkees, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix, sell for quite a bit more than their stereo counterparts today.