Mono vs Stereo Sound: Which Should You Choose & Why?
Every musician or producer wants to provide their listeners with the best listening experience possible, and planning your choices around your recording and mixing is key to delivering this. One key consideration to your success is whether you plan to record, mix and master your music in mono or stereo.
But which one should you choose - and why? Let us take you through things.
What's the difference between mono and stereo?
Let's start with some quick intros. Mono (monophonic) sound is single-channel audio where all the instruments are mixed into one signal, intended to be heard as if emanating from one position.
Stereo (stereophonic) sound is achieved by using two audio channels feeding 2 separate speakers. This creates a more three-dimensional sound, and better resembles how we hear things in the world at large.
What is stereo sound?
Most music fans and producers listen in stereo, either through headphones or speakers at their home recording studios. Stereo gives the listener a more immersive listening experience, with more clarity and detail. Instruments can be recorded in stereo and panned to the left or right, providing a more engaging and realistic audio experience for the listener.
Stereo mixing allows for precise placement and separation of different elements in the mix. By panning instruments across the stereo field, you make it easier for listeners to distinguish individual elements within the music.
Mixing in stereo opens up a world of creative possibilities. Moving sounds across the stereo field, or sculpting stereo sounds can create unique sonic landscapes making your music more engaging and dramatic.
Music in video games and movies for example is far more immersive in stereo and helps draw you into the 3-dimensional space on the screen.
What is mono sound?
But what happens if your music is played in a club, or a shop where there may be many speakers, with no clearly defined left or right speakers? This can result in the balance you spent hours perfecting being completely thrown depending on where the listener is stood.
When Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys, was told by Capitol that they wanted to produce a stereo mix of Pet Sounds, he raised an objection unrelated to his own hearing. Brian explained that he always wanted his records to be in mono so that he would be in control of the listening experience as the advent of stereo can sometimes take away some of the producer's control.
“With mono, the listener hears it exactly with the balance that the producer intended. With stereo, however, the listener can change the mix, just by the turn of a balance knob or speaker placement.”
Whereas the stereo revolution of the late 50s and 60s saw stereo listening become very much the norm, mono listening has seen something of a rebirth in recent years.
Many wireless speakers and sound bars are mono, so it’s important to make sure your mixes translate well on these.
Poorly placed stereo microphones, or some stereo width plugins, can sound fine in stereo but when the mix is played back in mono they can often sound considerably weaker and quieter in the mix. This is due to an issue called phase cancellation.
So what does that mean exactly?
When the left and right channels of a stereo mix are combined into a mono signal, if the phase of one side is 90 degrees and the other 270 degrees, then they’ll cancel each other out completely.
A producer friend once played back his mastered mix to me and when I listened in mono, he was horrified to hear that all the backing vocals virtually disappeared from the mix.
Mixing in stereo can also mask issues in the equalisation of the different components in your mix. A guitar placed in the left speakers may appear clear and present, but when listening in mono it may sound muddy and ill-defined.
Because of this, many engineers and producers often record and choose their sounds whilst listening in mono. That way they construct the production with sounds that naturally fit together well, without being flattered by a stereo sound.
Which should I choose?
There's little doubt that stereo sound is bigger and more dynamic. Having 2 channels instead of 1 gives the different components of a piece of music more space to shine. Imagine sitting in front of an orchestra. If all the musicians could somehow occupy the same space, then the sound would be nowhere near as clear and detailed.
Despite the resurgence in mono playback, most consumers still listen in stereo. For this reason, the majority of producers still produce music for stereo playback. It just sounds better right?
However, some things to consider are:
If you're making beats to be played in a club, then it’s worth considering that it will be played back in mono. Choosing mono, or at least mixing your main components in mono, will ensure your mix plays back as it should. AM radio broadcasts in mono, and coffee shops and stores often playback in mono so always make sure your music translates.
Focus on balance
Mixing in mono allows you to focus primarily on the balance and arrangement of your music. Without the spatial separation of stereo, you have to rely solely on the volume and EQ of each element to create a clear and well-balanced mix.
Looking for a punchy low-end?
Lower-frequency elements in your mix, such as bass and kick drums, often sound punchier in mono rather than stereo, so avoid width on your low-frequency elements if you want them to punch more.
Working in mono can help you identify clashing frequencies between different instruments and when you're mixing vocals. It's easier to pinpoint these issues and then make the necessary adjustments for a clearer and less muddy sound.
If you're looking for a more retro or vintage sound, working in mono can give a more authentic vibe to your music.
When I’m mixing tracks, I want them to sound great in stereo and mono. I usually mix in mono: I find I can process the elements more accurately that way and get a better balance and clearer sound. Then once I’m happy with that I can have some fun playing with the stereo picture.
This article was written by our guest author Jim Spencer, a freelance music Producer, mix engineer and sound engineer based in the North West of England.