In this article I’m going to explain everything there is to know about mono and stereo recording.
Mono recording is by far the most common recording technique since it’s much cheaper and simpler than all the stereo recording techniques.
However, recording in stereo can capture a lot more information, and make your mix sound a lot more impressive and professional.
The Difference Between Mono And Stereo
I’ll explain the difference as simply as possible so you’ll understand it and know how to use it for your advantage.
The full simple answer –
The difference between mono and stereo is in the number of channels that the speakers use.
Mono tracks send the same signal to all speakers. However, stereo tracks send one signal to the left speaker and a slightly different signal to the right speaker.
Let’s take a further look.
First, let’s understand the mono and stereo individually.
As written above, mono tracks send only one signal to both the left and right channels.
They can be reproduced through several speakers, but all speakers will still produce the same signal.
Have a look at this illustration to better understand it.
Most places who play music and use mono today are clubs, restaurants, and bars that have a lot of speakers that are directed in too many different ways, so they can’t define what speakers are the left ones and what are the right ones.
So, they play everything in mono in order to avoid phase cancellation and other issues.
Stereo channels send two signals, one for each speaker.
It uses two different channels, one for the left speaker and one for the right speaker.
Take a look at this illustration here to understand it better.
You can use stereo channels to create directionality, perspective, and a simulation of real space.
But, the primary use of stereo signals today is creating width.
By using stereo recording methods/stereo widening plugins I’ll talk about later in this article, you can make something that is mono – to be stereo and sound wide and big.
The vast majority of audio systems today support stereo signals, and it seems like it is just getting more and more of a standard of audio systems today.
Therefore it’s necessary to know how to use it correctly.
Is Stereo Recording Better Than Mono?
The short answer – It depends.
Whether stereo is better than mono or not depends on your situation and your perspective.
As an average listener, hearing a stereo recording would be a lot better, since it creates width, and it sounds better overall.
And, as a producer/mixing engineer, you’d want to produce stereo tracks as well.
However, you’d also want to dive in a little dipper and treat each instrument differently.
Since each instrument has a different job in the mix, some instruments should be stereo, and some should be mono.
Read the following section to find out which elements should be stereo, and which should be mono, and about how to take advantage of the stereo field as a producer/mixing engineer.
Should I Record Vocals/Voice In Mono Or Stereo
If you record one vocalist, your vocals should be mono. However, if you record two vocalists or more or if you record in a room with unique acoustics, the vocals should be stereo.
Moreover, recording vocals in mono would make them sound powerful, clear, and upfront. And, recording vocals in stereo would make them sound wide, large, and soft.
You record one singer in mono because you have nothing to record that will make a difference between the left and right channels.
But when you record multiple elements, you would rather record in stereo to get the difference of volumes between the elements in the different channels.
Nevertheless, there may be situations where trying stereo recordings might be interesting.
For example, if you are recording in a room with unique acoustics, you may want to try and record the lead singer in stereo.
But notice that this will make the mixing process much more complicated, and you may end up with some phase cancellation, so be careful.
I’ve actually written a fully comprehensive article about this topic, where I outlined all there is to know about monophonic and stereophonic vocals.
Should I Record Guitars In Mono Or Stereo
Whether you should record your guitar in mono or stereo depends on its part in the song.
Usually, if the guitar is the main instrument in the song and doesn’t have many other instruments/elements that play along with it, I record it in mono. Especially if it’s an acoustic guitar.
However, if the guitar is only one of many other instruments in the song, or if it fights with the vocals, I set it to mono.
Should I Record Drums In Mono Or Stereo
Kickdrum – Mono
Adams – Kick drum
Traditionally, the kick is a drum that shouldn’t be panned or have any width at all.
The reason for this is the way that stereo makes things sound.
Whenever you make something wider, you push it a bit more to the back of the mix.
And usually, you want the kick drum to be centered and upfront even if it is a super soft one.
Snare – Stereo/Mono
The snare is one of the elements that is totally up to you and your song.
Usually, snares tend to be stereo, but several reasons might make you consider making them mono.
If you want to put more focus towards your snare and make it more centered and impactful, you might want to set it to mono.
The reason for that is the same for the kick.
As you make something wider, you also push it back in the mix.
Therefore, it’s important to A/B test this on every mix that you work on, and determine that accordingly.
My recommendation – Widen the top frequencies of the snare, and keep its low-end frequencies mono.
This way, you can keep the snare powerful and save the sound of the real space.
You can do that with a multiband stereo imager.
Hi-hats/Open Hats/Crashes – Panned/Stereo
Hi-hats are usually panned towards the sides, and sometimes, they’re set to stereo.
But, you’re probably wondering – why not set them to mono?
The reason for this is the hi-hats’ frequency focus range.
Naturally, the hi-hats’ main focused frequency area is the top mid-range and the high-end.
Therefore, they don’t need to be powerful or impactful, and we can take advantage of that and place them far from the center in the stereo field.
Panned Hi Hats
Hi-hats are one of the most common panned elements.
Usually, you pan hi-hats to make space for the other drums in your mix, such as the kick drum and the snare.
But you can also pan your hi-hats to create special fx.
Nowadays, it’s super popular in genres like Hip-Hop and Future Bass to attach your panner to an LFO envelope, so it continuously shits between the left and right.
A plugin that allows you to do that super easily is LFO-Tool by XferRecords.
It has lots of amazing LFO-shapes presets, and it also allows you to make your own shapes.
Then it allows you to use them to control volume, panning, filtering, and resonance.
I was actually really surprised at how fast I got super creative results right after buying LFO-Tool from Plugin Boutique.
This is actually not that common to make your hi-hats stereo, but sometimes, you חו have to.
Sometimes you’ll not be able to make your hi-hats fit in the mix with panning, and you’ll not be able to keep them centered as well because they’ll interrupt other elements in the mix that way.
So, what should you do?
You should push the hi-hats more towards the sides, and widen them. This way, they won’t be at only one side at a time, and they won’t interrupt other elements in the mix.
Toms/Percussions – Panned/Mono
Usually, toms should be sort of in the middle of the mix.
They shouldn’t be too noticeable, but they also shouldn’t be far in the back of the mix.
Now, you might be asking yourself – How can I get this balance?
I’ll explain how to achieve that in the following paragraph.
There are three main ways that you can use to achieve that –
Panned Toms –
This is my favorite way to fit the toms in the mix.
Since opposed to other panned drums, the toms are focused on the low-end and mid-range and not on the high-end, you can easily fit them in the sides of the mix.
Plus, it also adds extra width to the track, so why not?
Mono Toms –
Sometimes, you would really want your toms to be dominant and upfront, and it would just make more sense to make them mono.
But, there is a big problem – when toms are set to mono, they fight with the kick and the bass.
Therefore, if you want to record your toms in mono and not pan them, you’d have to highpass their low-end and make sure that they don’t hit together with the kick.
Mono VS Stereo Microphones
Mono microphones use only one diaphragm, whereas stereo microphones use two (one for each side).
Therefore, a stereo microphone is able to capture a lot more information than a usual mono microphone.
Do You Have To Use A Stereo Microphone To Record In Stereo?
The short answer – no.
Obviously, a stereo microphone would make your life a whole lot easier since it usually avoids phase issues, and it requires a lot less post processing.
But, they’re usually a lot more expensive, and they won’t necessarily sound better than the usual ways stereo recording techniques.
I recommend you to buy one only if you’re planning on using it on live shows, or you’re going to record a really wide area.
Stereo Recording Techniques
The A/B Technique – Not Always Mono Compatible
What You Need:
For this method, you need two omnidirectional microphones.
How To Position The Microphones
Basically, you’ll need to position each microphone towards a different part of the thing you’re recording.
And record them both at the same time.
This way, you get ‘A’ and ‘B’ parts that you can combine and create a full, beautiful stereo image.
How To Mix Them
What I’ve found that works best for me is panning the ‘A’ channel about 75% left, and the ‘B’ channel about 75% right, and then fine-tuning from there.
The higher the percentage, the bigger the stereo image, and the higher the risk of phase issues.
The Mid/Side Technique – Super Mono Compatible
The manual mono-compatible way of widening recorded elements is using a Mid/Side recording technique.
Mid/Side recording includes 5 steps –
- Use a directional microphone and a bidirectional microphone, place them closely together, and record the same thing at the same time.
- Duplicate the recording that uses the bidirectional layer.
- Pan the original channel to the left, and the duplicated channel to the right.
- Invert the phase/Reverse the polarity of the duplicated channel.
- Balance the volume of the two side layers compared to the mid-layer.
Using this way, you can widen your recorded elements a lot and keep your track completely mono-compatible.
When you convert the final result to mono, the side layers will disappear, and the mid-layer would just stay the same.
There’s a great video about this topic –