This article will look at the finer details of recording in mono and stereo and help you choose between the two in different situations. We will also spice things up with some creative tips to help you achieve a unique sound. Let’s dive in!
So, in short: when should I record in mono and stereo?
Record in mono when working with a deep vocal, a bass-heavy instrument, drum kick or a solo percussion element. Stereo recording is best for an acoustic guitar, multiple instruments, a band, and any sound source with greater stereo width and dynamic range.
You also want to consider the space you are working with and the gear you have to produce the best results. Sometimes it’s best to stick to a mono recording if you don’t have a microphone that can make the same quality in stereo. After recording in mono, you can mix the track more effortlessly and adjust the dynamic range and wideness that stereo generally captures better.
But deciding between mono vs stereo isn’t just about the type of sound source you are recording or the gear you have. It can affect your creative process and ruin or make your mix. There are many more tiny details that you may miss if you don’t know about them. This article will help you with just that, so make sure you don’t miss the tips below!
17 Tips For Mixing & Recording 2021
1. Know your limitations
When you have to decide between a Mono or a Stereo recording, it’s not a choice of wrong or right but a compromise that ought to be based on your specific case and priorities given your recording situation. Are you recording drums or an acoustic guitar? The first will do better with a mono recording, while the second may sound better in stereo. But suppose your goal is to create a creative effect or use whatever you are recording for layering purposes. In that case, the stereo choice may serve you better, even if the instrument is typically recorded in mono.
You need to ask yourself what your gear is best at recording and what do you have available. If you only have mics that are suitable for recording in mono, you may want to stick to that and then work on the wideness of the track in the mix by adding reverb and other effects. But if you want a tighter sound that cuts through the mix more, try recording with an instrument mic at a closer distance. A directional or bi-polar mic would serve you better in this case vs an omnidirectional one.
And what about stereo? The best microphones for this task are the ones that capture accurately and equally all frequencies that they hear. It would help if you also considered how skilled you are at mixing. Mixing is far easier in a mono vs in a stereo recording. Here’s a chart that can help you choose and plan for what you want to do:
2. You can still get stereo with a mono recording
Did you know? Some records aren’t precisely stereo, even though they are marketed as such. Sometimes, audio engineers use only mono recordings to create the whole track, and then they artificially make it sound stereo by adding panning, width, and reverb. There are instances where you can add stereo reverb to a mono track!
These techniques were more common in the past century. In contrast, stereo recording is often preferred as it retains the naturalness of the sound, which is sometimes missing in digital recordings. Records mixed in stereo allow the listener to sense better the location of sounds and instruments within the music but may be more tricky to mix due to phasing issues and reverberation if different audio sources have been recorded in other locations.
3. How to mix in stereo?
Always make the separate channels as clear as you can. EQ any unnecessary frequencies. Then make sure you have similar spatial width for the sounds you want to be in the back of the track and, symmetrically, the same spatial width for the sounds in the front. Avoid muddiness or any other artifacts. Finally, make sure all the frequencies are balanced. An EQ compressor can go a long way.
4. Positioning matters
Let’s say you are recording a band. If you were to place the microphones near each other, you wouldn’t get the desired stereo effect. On the other hand, if you want to get a tight kick and clear vocals, you may want to place some mics close to those audio sources while keeping other mics away to capture the positioning of the band so the listener would feel as if the band was playing right there in front of them.
Using four mics for the drums is a good idea to capture a clear sound. Especially if you are after a crisp cymbal tone, it is also vital that they are kept at equal distances from the kit. Otherwise, you may run into phasing issues. You could position them 6 feet above ground level and adjust the lengths – a closer position results in a better attack of the sound or move them away to get more room ambience.
For a guitar, a single mic may be sufficient if directed closely to the speaker. If the guitar is acoustic, you may even want to consider piezo microphones to avoid bleeding. For the vocals, your most important task is to keep the dynamic range with the other sounds in check. So after you set up everything else, try recording with the mic in different configurations or even consider moving the instruments a bit to get the best dynamic range for the vocals.
Does positioning matter then for mono recording? Yes, as for a recording to sound authentic, it must be recorded in the right location, even when recording in mono. Sound engineers spend a lot of time learning how to put microphones in the right place, and experimentation is vital. Another reason to use a mono recording is to create an artificial positioning of the sound sources to get a unique effect.
5. Try going from mono to stereo as an effect
You can reengage the listener by switching quickly between mono and stereo, especially when using a solo vocal or instrument. To do so, you may pan the audio source to one side or other or by using a dedicated plugin for the task such as Izotope’s Stereoizer for added effect.
6. Record a part simultaneously into both mono and stereo
When recording a track with various instruments or vocals, attempt to mix a part of the recording both in mono and stereo channels together. Later on, you may combine the results to get a more lush and crispier sound.
7. Record twice the same part in stereo and then pan each hard left and right to create a fast and slightly distorted faux-stereo effect
Many professionals do this when working on drums. However, you can use this technique on most audio sources, especially acoustic instruments. It doesn’t always work as expected, but sometimes it can quickly get you a little bit of width out of a typically dry mono recording.
8. How do you record a lead vocal on a stereo vocal track and still retain the same stereo balance?
To get around this, you can add a mono track into your stereo mix and then, depending on your DAW, you will end up with a combination of the two tracks as a mono file (at max level) with no problems.
9. Don’t fall into the habit of just using mono
If you’re new to audio engineering and producing, and you’ve been mixing solely in mono to avoid issues, make sure to learn new methods to improve your recordings and skills. Yes, it takes more time initially, it is harder to mix, but it is just as worthwhile as the more you hone your “stereo ears”, the better your tracks will be.
10. Mono effects can save you
One of the most significant benefits of a mono recording is that you can use more effects on your tracks without thinking about phase cancellation. Things such as subtle compression, gentle limiting, and even distortion may be tricky in stereo. If you are experiencing a lot of phase cancellation, try changing things up.
11. Create an open centre for your main vocal or instrument channel
By doing so, the perceived “hole” actually creates more depth and width. One of the best sound sources for this effect are vocals, as when used lightly, the effect can make them shine in your track.
12. How to modify the stereo source such that the stereo field is improved?
In your vocals’ stereo track bus, choose a stereo strip with an effect, be that reverb, delay or EQ and place the plugin onto the stereo channel. Then insert a mono duplicate to the same stereo track.
13. Change your Mixing tools to mono right before the mastering process
By switching your tracks and grouped channels to mono, while sends and inserts remain in stereo, the master engineer will be able to process it in mono when you complete your mix. Doing so will help with any potential confusion between you and the mastering engineer.
14. It can be better to use a stereo compressor or a limiter on your vocals
When you need to control the mix’s dynamic range, the best plugins for the task are compressors and limiters. To make a vocal more consistent, add a stereo version of those plugins rather than a mono one. Doing so will maintain the vocal’s space but still control it nicely.
15. Use stereo reverb and stereo EQ on your mono tracks
This technique will create a broader sensation than when using the mono version of the plugins. A good rule of thumb is not to pan your reverb to the left or right side, so it appears to the listener as coming straight from the middle.
16. Create reverb with a stereo field mic
If you like a sound of a particular chamber or cave or even the room you happen to be in, you may want to consider bringing it to your music. You can turn such a stereo recording into convolution reverb using Ableton’s max for live devices or Reverence in Cubase, for example. However, the simplest way I’ve found in case you happen to be using Ableton Live 11 is the Hybrid Reverb plugin. Drag the audio sample that you have recorded onto the plugin’s interface, and it magically turns it into a reverb effect. I highly recommend experimenting with it!
A good mic for such a purpose is also essential. The Tascam DR-40X, which has dual recording, will do great, but if you are in a pinch, you could even use your phone (although most phones record in mono, so that would not be ideal.)
17. Know the Subtleties
Mono and stereo recording not only differ in width and dynamic range. They also differ in perceived differences, meaning that even if you have the best stereo microphone system to create a certain “feel” for your track, you may want to still stick to mono. This is because stereo recordings tend to be perceived as more “open” and “airy”. It can help create a sense of space, but it can also make a track feel distant. You may also want that effect in an ambient song but not in a hard techno one. You can hear the difference in the following video:
For your music, what sound would you prefer? Usually, there isn’t a genre that only uses a mono or a stereo recording and vice versa. It is a mix of both worlds, but it is the ratio of the two that matters. And it is worth mentioning that different people prefer a different sound, too, so if you are working with a client, you may want to see their preference and take that into account during the recording process.
You will often have to decide between a mono or a stereo recording and tackle those in your mix. Often, having a clear vision of what you want to achieve before starting the recording process will ensure you end up with the best results. If you are not so confident in your mixing skills, you may stick to mono as well. That is a good strategy. You may want to get good at mixing and mastering stereo to make the best possible tracks in the long run. Sometimes you can use the spatial width and perceived difference between mono and stereo to your advantage and create a unique sound effect. The more you try out different techniques in different situations, the more you will be able to pick up on the subtleties in mono and stereo and get the most out of your tracks.
Daniel Yordanov is an artist and music producer from Bulgaria. Having spent a few years in Berlin studying electronic music production and performance, he met many unique artists and producers, which opened his eyes to how diverse and vast the music world is. He is currently pursuing a physics degree while working on his own experimental and ambient music productions.