The Mavs in Mono

The Mavericks, perhaps the greatest non-country act to ever come out of Nashville (via Miami) and a band that writes terrific tunes, gives a powerhouse live show and has one of the most compelling voices in all of pop music today as a front man, decided, according to their latest official biography, to mix their second record since a 2011 comeback in mono. A call to their publicist confirmed that they recorded and mixed in mono. Very charming and brave on some level. In case there was any confusion, they also named it Mono.

With the band in Europe and not doing stateside interviews, I had to lift a quote from that same bio. This from drummer Paul Deakin: “As is often the case with The Mavericks’ plans, the idea to mix the record in mono came about spontaneously. During the recording process we would go into the studio around noon and listen to vinyl records for some extra inspiration. At some point, someone noted that almost all of the recordings we were listening to were mixed in mono. Our producer Niko Bolas said, off-the-cuff, ‘we should mix this record in mono.’ And we thought, we can’t get away with that – so of course … we had to.”

Needless to say, when I received my CD copy of Mono (only MP3’s and CDs so far) I was anxious for a serious listen. Before opinions, a slight disclaimer. Many mono mixes sound wonderful. Many older records exist only in mono. Arguments about the Beatles catalog in mono or stereo, are to audiophiles, akin to discussing politics or religion: Just Don’t Do IT! If you enjoy the sound of mono, savor a certain retro vibe, listen to your music on a car radio (?) and/or genuinely prefer the supposedly tighter, more meticulous mixes that mono at its best can offer—or just hate the multi-track freedom to twiddle that is recording in stereo’s biggest draw—more power to ya. I prefer stereo.

As far as the material is concerned, this is another record full of memorable pop tunes in now familiar Raul Malo modes of songwriting, all put over by Malo’s big voice, which to be honest, has never sounded better. He’s learned how to write songs and pitch them where he really has to stretch as a singer. The big Latin-flavored opener, “All Night Long,” is the great grandson of “What A Crying Shame.” “What Am I Supposed To Do” is the kind of big pop hit that Malo cranks out with amazing regularity. And in a very typical example of how this band has learned to write and play in an eclectic, multi-cultural style all their own, the Orbison-like ballad “Pardon Me,” leans country (“Wichita to Arkansas/and every mile in between/A lady friend in every town/Waiting for the phone to ring”) and yet has a Norteno accordion and a roots rock baritone guitar solo.

For a band like The Mavericks who favor a very large, rich soundstage, a focus on Raul’s voice and very full, some might say cluttered mixes with lots of instrumental tracks from the band’s eight musicians, the mono choice is an odd one. This is exactly the kind of ambitious act that multi-track recordings were meant for. Heard on a couple different pairs of speaker as well as a pair of Sony MDR-1R headphones, the mix is not unpleasant though I could have done with less monolithic bass thump on several tracks. It’s also not the sharpest mono mix I’ve ever heard as high frequencies can be muddled. Malo’s voice, which in mono sounds even more like that of Roy Orbison, still seems a bit stunted and sonically limited here. His building crescendos, perhaps THE Malo specialty, do not have the same drama here as they did on say the band’s last record 2013’s In Time. Back to Paul Deakin: “We recorded live in the studio with very little overdubbing. Some people might even be surprised to know that the tracking vocal is the vocal you hear on the record. Raul didn’t go back in and re-sing anything.” So it’s raw and in mono? I also found myself wondering just how skilled any engineer today, after half a century of stereo mixing, is really gonna be in creating mono mixes. On some tracks, the balances are noticeably uneven.

In the end, I suspect this was more of a cool retro gesture than any sonic conviction. I have a feeling that other performers like Bruce Springsteen who, for example, learned their craft from mono recordings, have also considered doing the same thing. Lastly, one much noticed and missed absence on Mono is founding bassist Robert Reynolds who has been fired from the band and is struggling with opiate addiction while his wife Angie is fighting cancer. In the following video from 2012, Reynolds can be seen idly strumming an acoustic guitar and staying well clear of the microphone. Hopefully, both get help, get better and find a brighter future.

willdao's picture

I still regularly watch and listen to the DVDs of public television's iconic "Sessions at West 54th St.," recorded at Sony Music Studios in Manhattan, in the late '90s and 2000. "Best of Sessions...Vol. 2" leads off with The Mavericks' "Dance the Night Away." With the arguably valid substitution of the utterly flat and lifeless Natalie Merchant offering (with 10,000 zombies?), the opening, lead-off Mavericks track is the worst on the disc, so airless at the top, compressed dynamically and two-dimensional as to be stultifying, notwithstanding all the obvious energy going on onstage. It just wasn't captured in the recording and mix. If it were mono, that would both explain a lot, and also be the least of its worries...

They might as well have had the several trumpets and saxes literally phone in their performances, to be played over an on-stage "full range" clock radio. Seriously: and I'm not even talkin' Bose Wave... Let's not even wonder how all these dancin' fools magically managed so much frenetic activity without passing out, early on, when there was obviously no air at all in the cavernous room...

Compare this relatively disappointing outing, at least in places (c'mon, Sony, the lead-off track?!) with the incredible sonic benchmark that was "Best of Sessions...Vol. 1" and you will hear the obvious differences in production values (or at least homogeneity at an excellent level with the first offering)--notwithstanding notable and well-produced performances on the second disc by the Afro-Cuban All-stars, Steve Earle, Ozomotii, Neil Finn and Lucinda Williams, among others...can't leave out Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach and a full string orchestra (first impression: wha?). The Costello/Bacharach, Afro-Cuban All-stars and Ozomotii tracks surely demonstrate that large, complex bands could be miked and mixed to excellent effect in the room--hell, the latter band offered a mobile parade around the studio!

I've always wondered the extent to which the bands/artists involved--rather than the Sony crews, presumably intimately familiar with the reverberant space--were responsible for those two execrable mixes. Perhaps now I can infer "quite a lot."

Deliberately mixing such a large, vibrant band to mono, as here, seems like a in, if you decide to do it, you have no brain. I don't even wanna give it a listen; I'm still depressed about "Vol. 2" fifteen years later. That first so-anticipated track hugely damped down my enthusiasm for the DVD the first time I spun it, right out of the frenzy-torn, onerous shrink wrap. I often skip it to this day: who needs a bummer?

I certainly cannot DELIBERATELY put myself through anything akin to that, again, sorry.

willdao's picture

Meanwhile, "Amen" about the Reynolds family.

dcolak's picture

How about writing about music that is not Jazz or 60's pop/mono/classical?

Manicure had a new album.
Motorama had a new album.
Susanne Sundfør had a new album.
Tindersticks had a new album in october.
The Handsome Family is still rocking hard.
FM Belfast had a new album.
We have a band had new remix/removes.
London Grammar had a new remix.


That's just looking at my current playlist, with no special order at all.

Do you guys even know there is music created in XXI century that is not jazz or yet another classical reproduction?

Do you understand that your HiFi/End equipment reviews mean nothing to your non Methuselah aged customers?

Whenever we go to Spotify to listen to the same music your writers used to review new speakers we are left flabbergasted asking ourselves "what in a world was he listening and how could he come up with the conclusions he had, from such a lame music?!"

Come on Stereophile! You are killing HiFi! Get some new blood!

Here, have a gift:

"Shut Up I am Dreaming of Places Where Lovers Have Wings" - Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade. Don't miss to check the rest of the Horns soundtrack.

The next time you review new speakers, hit them with that music and report back to us.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Agree, dcolak, choice of music on Stereophile is senescent. Mavricks were good ... 20 YEARS AGO. Their sole hit, All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down, was in 1995. Have posted elsewhere that the music here is aimed at a male demographic of 55 and older, corresponding to the decline of high end.

Lead singer, Raul Malo, has got a beautiful, liquid tenor, reminiscent of Roy Orbison, but the material he sings would fit perfectly on a Caribbean cruise for the hip-replacement crowd. And the guy they added on the Tele (not in the original group) is an irritating, emasculated prima donna, flicking his hair and gyrating his hips every 10 seconds like a wind-up doll -- his guitar playing is generic. They play live exactly what's on the recording, just stretching out the tunes forever: you might as well stay home and listen to the CD.

Do you have the $10/month "HD" Spotify? If so, what's the bit rate and sampling freq., and is the selection exactly the same as what's available for free?

dcolak's picture

I have the "HD" it's 320kbps 44Khz/16bit

Not bad, would like FLAC more but, it still sounds ok on:

NAD M51 -> NAD M3 -> JBL Array 1400

JoeinNC's picture

Well put.

Stereophile peaked in high school. Forty and fifty year-old recordings, vacuum tubes, vinyl, mono, etc. I'm an old fart who shares a certain nostalgia for some of that, but even I get bored with it after a while.

And then they lament that young people are not interested in their brand of audiophilia, when they have themselves present it as exclusive, expensive, and... just old.

willdao's picture

Well, whatever the Mavs are, it ain't "jazz."

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

They're a glossy, hyped derivative of Tex Mex.

carlosgallardo's picture

I'm totally agree with "dcolak", Using modern music as well, mean you are taking in consideration that not all the audiophiles are aged people. And of course not all of theme must to know the super rare and specifics tracs you use as reference. Music is going on in this very moment, with fantastics musician, as modern as the gears you review. So, why not been a little bit 2015 ???

deckeda's picture

So it's ironic that this old band would be "new" to me. I read and understand the disparagement here, but as with dcolak's list will check them out.

Robert from Guildford's picture

I do agree with some of the above, the recording on my equipment sounds OK but not brilliant. I personally like the Mavericks and still enjoyed the album.