In Daniel Pinkwater’s The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death (Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard, 1982)* there is a character who’s something of a p-rock chick, named Rat. Rat is a music freak; she has a kick ass hi-fi setup in a soundproofed room with one big mono speaker. When she listens to music, it’s played loud and it’s played monophonically.
I first read this book sometime about a year or two after its release. I was already a music geek, thanks to my dad and his booming component home stereo system. At the time, Dad was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the CD player and all of its technological wizardry (lasers!). So of course, I dismissed mono outright. Stereo had to better than old low-tech mono.
Nearly twenty years later, I question that notion. I have been listening to a blues show on the radio most Sunday nights for some time now, usually in the car on a very good multi-speaker stereo system. Last night I listened to the same show through the single speaker of my grandparent’s home intercom (remember this relic from the ’80s?). The difference in quality between the two audio systems could not have been greater, nor could the sound of the broadcast: It was better on that crappy little mono speaker. (In the same vein, I have a friend who has a stack of CDs next to his computer at work, a diverse collection of music selected because it sounds good coming out of the tiny computer speaker built into his workstation. He describes it as a “compressed” sound, with such a limited frequency response that the music shrinks in complexity while growing in sonic force.)
Yes, I’ll admit that blues is inherently more susceptible to sounding good in mono than, say, electronic music, but the question remains: Why has mono been all but replaced by stereo? I’m not sure stereo is really better; mono is certainly not inferior, just different. Thinking some more about the Sunday night blues show, a lot of the music played on the show is newer blues, multi-track recordings of electric instruments. It’s polished stuff, the sort of “blues” that leaves purists decrying it as nothing more than a sub-genre of rock. But on that small, mono speaker, some of those tacky tracks took on new life; much of the studio sheen was stripped away by the sonic limitations of bad equipment.
Not to advocate a sort of minimalist dogma here, but as we have seen the quality of sound reproduction increase to such incredible levels throughout our world (need I mention Dolby Surround or the Bose Wave radio?), the freshness of a mono recording played over a single speaker should have a rightful and useful place. There is beauty inherent in limitations.
*This seminal piece of counter-cultural literature can be found on at least two GloNo Team Members’ “50 Greatest Books of All-Time” lists. It’s a young adult novel—not to be confused with Young Adult Novel, another Pinkwater title—that takes its title from its high-school age protagonists’ practice of sneaking out to catch double features at an all-night theater. From Pinkwater’s Web site (www.pinkwater.com): “Walter and Winston set out to rescue the inventor of the Alligatron, a computer developed from an avocado which is the world’s last defense against the space-realtors.”