Vinyl Spotlight: John Coltrane, Giant Steps (Atlantic 1311) *Mono vs. Stereo Edition*

January 19, 2015 /
  • Fifth mono pressing circa 1966
  • Orange & purple label
  • Box logo side 1; black fan logo side 2
  • Side 1/2 matrix: 11637-A “AT” / 11638-A “AT”

VERSUS!

  • Second stereo pressing circa 1960-1962
  • Green & blue label
  • Deep groove on both sides
  • White fan logo on both sides
  • Side 1/2 matrix: AVCO ST-A-59201 / AVCO ST-A-59202

Personnel:

All but “Naima”:

  • John Coltrane, tenor saxophone
  • Tommy Flanagan, piano
  • Paul Chambers, bass
  • Art Taylor, drums

“Naima” only:

  • John Coltrane, tenor saxophone
  • Wynton Kelly, piano
  • Paul Chambers, bass
  • Jimmy Cobb, drums

All but “Naima” recorded May 4-5, 1959; “Naima” recorded December 2, 1959
All selections recorded at Atlantic Records’ 56th Street studio, NYC
Originally released January 1960

Behold! Deep Groove Mono offers up its first ever head-to-head comparison. Here we take a listen to vintage mono and stereo pressings of the classic John Coltrane album Giant Steps. I had the mono LP first, but I liked the original stereo CD so much that when I saw this stereo LP for a great price I couldn’t pass it up.

Tom Dowd

Giant Steps was recorded at Atlantic’s infamous 56th Street “office studio” under the supervision of legendary recording engineer Tom Dowd. According to the album’s liner notes, it was recorded to an Ampex 300-8R eight-track tape recorder, the results of which are two distinct i.e. ‘dedicated’ mixes, meaning the mono mix is not a ‘fold-down’.

The mono: Coltrane is front and center in this dark, bass-y mix. Trane and pianist Tommy Flanagan sit in good relationship to each other, though Paul Chambers’ bass doesn’t have a whole lot of definition, and Art Taylor’s drums get a bit buried behind Coltrane’s screaming presence.

The stereo: No instruments are presented center here, which for better or worse takes something away from Trane’s presence. (I doubt that Dowd was not yet privy to the theory of the ‘phantom center image’, and I can’t help but wonder why he was still not utilizing the center at this time.) Chambers’ bass still lacks good definition, though the spread gives Taylor more room to cut through. My first version of this album was the original 1990 stereo CD and I always appreciated how well I could hear the nuances in Taylor’s drumming in the stereo mix (I especially love the detail of the ride cymbal).

Head-to-head: On speakers, both mixes sound quite full, but in headphones the stereo version’s wide spread and its emphasis on the bass and treble leaves the mono feeling quite thin. However, Coltrane commands more presence in the mono mix, not only because he has been shifted from the far left to the center, but the mono also seems to favor the midrange, where the saxophone’s timbre is largely defined. This is probably why I feel that Coltrane sounds a bit muffled in the stereo mix when compared to the mono.

The verdict: Through speakers, both mixes sound great to me and I’d be happy to own either copy if I didn’t have a choice. But while I can only assume that most die-hard Coltrane fans will prefer the leader’s stronger presence in the mono mix, I personally love hearing all the nuances of Taylor’s kit in the stereo mix through headphones, which is probably why this is my favorite listening experience overall.

To play us out, I have included “Naima” as an added bonus because it is simply one of my favorite ballads of all-time. I chose the mono version because I find that the tune’s sparse composition works better without all the ‘empty space’ inherent in the stereo mix.

“Naima” (Mono)

So what did you hear? Do you find that you have a preference? Remember, listening is a personal experience and there is no right or wrong!

  • GST

    I’d be happy with either as well, but would probably choose the mono if I found both at the same price, although I’m not sure I could provide a rational reason. It’s just that recording of a specific age I almost always choose mono assuming I can find one.

    • Joe L

      I strongly prefer the mono LP. In fact, last year I traded in my blue and green for a purple and orange white fan last year. I just can’t get over the wide spread and hard-panning of the instruments in the stereo version.

      • Jambo

        Kind of felt the same way, Joe L. With the mono cut through headphones, because the sound is all ‘together’ it ‘felt’, sounded to me more as if I was in the 6th row, center at a small club. There is definitely more detail in the stereo cut, but I found myself not listening to the whole but rather to separate parts. Can’t see the forest for the trees?

      • Alvaro Pinto

        Wouldn’t the mono/stereo switcher do the trick?

        • Only problem with that is you wouldn’t necessarily get the exact same mix as the original mono LP since Tom Dowd would have done different mixes for the mono and stereo versions…mastering seems very different for both as well.

  • Shaft

    Are the mono cuts played and transferred with a mono cartridge?

    • They are not. I used my Shure m97 stereo cartridge summed to mono using the mono function on my Marantz integrated amplifier, the signal of which was sent straight to my computer. I did rigorous tests a few years ago comparing the newer Grado mono cart, the Ortofon D25 summed to mono, and my current configuration and I couldn’t hear any difference. The Grado is supposed to reduce noise even more than summing but I couldn’t make the distinction.

      The only one I’m yet to try is the Denon DL-103 (the only ‘true’ mono cart in production with a single pickup), which I’m a bit hesitant of trying since my understanding is that the load is different than the standard load on my integrated amp. But I read something online that seemed pretty legit, that the Denon and other vintage single-coil carts can cause a ground loop in a stereo system (not always, apparently, but potentially), which would be a good reason to sum or get a cart like the Grado or the Ortofon 2M.

      Finally, depending on one’s definition of a ‘true’ mono cart, one really needs a vintage cart with a single pickup, a 1 mil stylus and no vertical compliance. But that sounds like a headache-in-the-making to me so I’m not gonna be going down that road any time soon. 😉

  • Guest

    I can do with either with headphones. I actually prefer the stereo with headphones as it seems more of an open sound but based on vinyl of Monk albums with wide pans I believe I would prefer the mono over speakers. It’s just really weird having things panned so far apart on speakers like the band is on complete opposite sides of the stage. With headphones the pan is not so bad because is does not sound as extreme being right on your ears.

    Just MO

  • Every Mann

    I’ve long been a fan of the Atlantic R&B albums which I prefer in mono, but a recent discovery of Atlantic jazz–specifically the ultra-cool Milt Jackson vibes LPs–and trying to find opinions on whether I should track down mono or stereo versions of them has led me to this page. Excellent job; many thanks for posting side-by-side links for easy comparison (I have always found it difficult trying to A/B different pressings of records, because in the process of lifting the needle, removing & replacing the record, and dropping the needle in the same spot on record #2, I’ve forgotten the nuances of record #1).

    I can hear the differences between GS in stereo & mono that you have so nicely outlined, though it doesn’t seem that either outweighs the other to anywhere near the point of altering the listening experience. Again I am a jazz neophyte, but your findings echo what has been my modus operandi thus far: Whenever I come across a VG++ or better copy of one of my targeted LPs, I purchase it irrespective of mono or stereo considerations. The one Coltrane album that I have is a blue/green stereo copy of Plays the Blues. While I can appreciate the Giant Steps album, the faster stuff isn’t quite for me. If I were to ever chance across a reasonable copy, however, I would buy it just for Naima.

    All of the pre-1968 labels are fine with me. For as irrational as it may sound, I feel that a big part of the whole experience is having the genuine artifact from a bygone era, and while naturally I would prefer a black- or bullseye-label LP of a 1950s release, I am content with a thick slab of 1960s red/plum vinyl that’s usually as much as half the price of a true first pressing anyhow. The thinner orange/green LPs from the 1970s and up look horrible and I avoid those.

    Thanks again for taking the time to put this blog entry together.

    • I agree that the way the media player works in WordPress, how it pauses and let’s you toggle back and forth between the two files, is great for comparisons like this. Thanks for sharing your experience!