Like it or loathe it, Pet Sounds encapsulates pop music perfection for its time and place. In 1966, a dozen session players from the Wrecking Crew gathered at United Western Recorders in Los Angeles to take direction from Brian Wilson in his pinstriped tee shirt, seemingly knowing they were involved in something important. Recording through a legendary Bill Putnam-designed console, Wilson gunned to outdo John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The session has since taken on mythical status.
Like Lennon and McCartney, Wilson proved a master of innovative recording techniques. His music was as refined as anything pop had produced to date. Along with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds launched the idea of a concept album, and in so doing, became one of a small handful of records that shaped the future of pop and production. Wilson added depth to his hallmark compositions about the Southern California culture of cars and surfing, inviting listeners to look inward. He’d already started heading there on 1963’s Surfer Girl via “In My Room”, about a place where he could go and tell his secrets, locking out worries and fears. Without turning maudlin, that private location expanded to album length on Pet Sounds. He then took Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound idea and augmented it with more complexity, layering, and sophistication, spending a total of 10 months recording and mixing. The final result got mixed to mono without provision for a stereo track. (Whether it’s the way Wilson heard things or because it gave him more control remains up for debate.)
Not surprisingly, Pet Sounds has since been released in countless variations. The mono mix was reissued in 1972 as a bonus LP with Carl and the Passions—“So Tough” (the “Passions” LP). DCC Compact Classics released the first audiophile mono reissue of Pet Sounds in 1995. Mastered by Steve Hoffman, and long out of print, the LP still fetches a premium.
In 1996, Capitol engineer Mark Linett, under Wilson’s supervision, produced a stereo mix of Pet Sounds. He manually synced two and sometimes three original multi-track analog tapes using a Sony digital multi-track machine running at 16-bit/48kHz to produce an eight-to-10-track master. The latter was then mixed analog, and the completed version recorded on ¼-inch analog tape running at 15ips with Dolby SR noise reduction. In 2006, using the Linett stereo mix tapes, Capitol issued a stereo LP mastered by in-house engineer Ronald McMaster (the “Capitol Stereo LP”). More recently, in 2015, Analogue Productions produced mono and stereo 33.3RPM single-LP editions, and in 2017, released separate mono and stereo 45RPM 2LP sets. Both stereo releases are based off Linett’s master stereo tape. All four versions are pressed at QRP, mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, and tout high-quality jackets.
Controversy continues to swirl around whether a stereo Pet Sounds is kosher. Some believe that because Wilson only produced a mono mix, the decision represents a statement of orthodoxy from which mere mortals should not stray. Other listeners simply prefer the sound of the mono mix while acknowledging the stereo edition isn’t half bad. The (still) easily available “Passions” disc served as the default mono disc for many years. It sounds much like an original pressing and could be had without a hefty price tag.
It’s also important to note that Pet Sounds was not engineered to be an audiophile demonstration disc. One has to pay close attention to its charms to hear what all the fuss is about. The “Passions” disc presents a fairly hard mono sound all bunched in the middle, with a bit of depth to the soundstage. The DCC reissue does little to change that perception. Analogue Productions’ 33RPM LP, however, expands the mono sound—spreading it from one speaker to the other, all the while keeping the punch and dynamics of the mono mix. Tonal quality is also superior. By extension, Analogue Productions’ 45RPM edition makes the mono spread more seamless, slightly wider and deeper, and the instrumental texture more lifelike.
For those who always wanted a stereo Pet Sounds, the 2006 “Capitol Stereo LP” allowed a plausible argument that Wilson only mixed to mono because he ran out of time. It lacks the mono’s dynamics and shares the “Passions” LP’s somewhat thin tonal quality. Analogue Productions’ 45RPM stereo cut resolves these issues, presenting a continuous soundstage with a tonal signature similar to the label’s mono version—even if the soundstage sounds quite different in stereo.
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