December 01 - Review Mono To Stereo - Complete RCA Studio Master '56

2021 seems to mark the definitive breakthrough of the Digitally Extracted Stereo technique with material from the fifties up to the seventies receiving a mono-to-stereo treatment.   

Experimenting with mono and stereo versions is nothing new, RCA Victor were already experimenting with stereo versions of Elvis' work in the late fifties. Now, seventy years later, the engineers are still experimenting. 

Following the good sounding stereo-releases with seventies material, the Memphis Recording Service released their first fifties stereo CD ''Mono to Stereo - The Complete RCA Studio Masters 1956' containing Elvis' '56 masters in both mono and stereo. Reason enough to give this new CD set a spin. 



The set comes in the standard MRS hardcover digi-pack format with a pink color-scheme. Inside are two pages explaining Elvis place in the rise of Rock and Roll and the evolution from “Electronically Reprocessed Stereo” to “Digitally Extracted Stereo” (DES). All illustrated with some great shots of our man in the recording studio and memorabilia, a complete package. 



Playing the CD over your stereo-set, the audio sounds fresh, with most of the music placed in the center and some of the instruments placed a bit more to the left and right in the mix, creating is a stereo experience. 

The mono versions are the same as on the 2017 MRS release ‘Elvis Studio Sessions ’56 - The Complete Recordings, this review covers the new stereo mixes. 

All tracks have been cleaned up thoroughly. The audio sounds very clean, a bit too clean for my liking as I'm used to the 60+ years old originals. The squeak in 'So Glad You're Mine' is gone too while most Elvis fans will "expect" to hear. You can pretty much hear every instrument, which wasn't always that audible in the original mix, as they blended in a bit more. During ‘Love Me’ you can actually hear someone cough in the background (at 00:25), something I hadn't noticed before. 

But when you listen through a good headphone, there are a few issues. The first one is that the separation between the left and right channel isn't 100 percent, and the placement of the instruments isn't steady. Some of the instruments move from the left and right channels to the center. Just listen to the guitar on 'Shake Rattle and Roll' filling in the licks from the left, but the solo is placed in the middle. The opposite goes for the drum, that sometimes moves from the right side to the center. 

The second issue is that the extracted instruments are cleaned and as a result some sound less complete. Listening to some of the guitars licks or backing vocalists adding their doo-wops, these elements simply sound a bit too short so they kind-off and then cut in hard like sound-effects. And sometimes the sound is a bit too "empty / hollow". Just listen to 'Heartbreak Hotel', it sounds too clean for lonely lovers walking down a lonely street, trying to find a room at the Heartbreak Hotel to cry there in their gloom. 

The last issue is that there is too little low in the mix. Perhaps the DES-technique used works better on the high frequency elements on these old recordings. The result is a mix with Elvis‘ voice, the cymbals and guitars prominently audible, including the typical "hiss" in the upper frequencies. Admittedly, this also is a matter of taste. 

In an interview with the Elvis - The Man And His Music magazine (issues 131 and 132) Scotty Moore said: “…. When you’ve got a symphony orchestra and things like that you get the ‘spread’ you need from stereo … But with smaller combos, if you put one instrument on one side and another on the other side… it just gets disjointed to me”. 

Perhaps I may add, you cannot add anything new that was not originally there … yet. 



After listening to the label's seventies material I had hope that the label found a way to make more Elvis recordings sound good in stereo. For now the conclusion is that this DES-technique isn't as mature as I had hoped, or simply doesn't work on all kinds of audio. 

Remember, DES-technology separates frequencies, not (yet) instruments. So the overlap in the frequencies of the voices and instruments may be the reason that the instruments wander back into the middle at certain points. Adding some filters or reverb to correct this doesn't always work, unfortunately. 

Listening to these new stereo versions leaves a mixed conclusion. Simply playing these songs on your audio-set, they sound fine, but if you're listening concentrated through your headphones, you will notice some errors. So for a mainstream release this set gives the casual buyer a fresh sounding stereo Elvis CD, but the audio-experts among the Elvis fans may be disappointed.   

If you take apart the engine of an old car, clean-up all the parts and put them all back together again, you may end up with a shiny engine, but this shiny engine don't make the same smooth sound the greased original had, and for me it is the same with these recordings. 

Back in the late fifties RCA Victor experimented with stereo versions of Elvis' early work, and now, sixty years later, the engineers are still experimenting. Perhaps one day they will get it completely right.