Quick question: Which is better, stereo or mono? You might be saying, “Stereo. Obviously. You silly man! Why do anything mono when it can be done in stereo?” But it’s not that simple of a question to answer. Obviously most of us are delivering stereo mixes to be played back on headphones, computer speakers, and car stereos. All of which are stereo devices. So of course we want our final mixes to technically be in stereo.
But what I’m interested in talking about today is stereo vs mono as it relates to the individual tracks we are recording. Specifically I’m talking about recording things like guitars, drums, and pianos, all of which can be tracked in mono or stereo. We might assume that stereo tracking sounds bigger and wider, and therefore is the better option, but today I want to challenge that notion.
Via ocean yamaha Flickr
The Issue Of Phase
It can be very popular to record acoustic guitars and pianos with a stereo mic technique. This allows a single performance to be captured with two mics and then panned out left and right in the mix giving a seemingly wide and larger than life sound. I’ve heard this done well before and it can sound amazing. One problem with assuming this stereo method is best is that it can introduce phase cancellation, which can destroy your sound quickly.
I’ve made the case for using fewer mics before and the reasoning is sound: the more mics you introduce into the equation (for recording a single source) the more likely you are to deal with phase cancellation, the issue of audio canceling each other out, leaving you with a thin and hollow sound. For the new home studio owner, it’s smarter to avoid the possible phase issues with stereo recording and instead capture a balanced mono recording. Less mess, and faster success.
The Issue Of Mix Wash Out
The other big issue with stereo tracking your instruments is it makes your mixes more easily prone to what I call “wash out.” This is when you have stereo tracks panned left and right and with such a “huge and wide” sound happening, that the ear loses focus and your mix loses clarity and separation. Starting with some stereo drum overheads, and then adding stereo acoustic guitar, stereo piano, stereo guitar amps, and things can become so big that you can’t pin point where any of these sounds are coming from in the mix and you are left with a sonic blur.
As much as I love the sound of a big and wide acoustic piano in my mind, most of the time in reality a mono piano or synth will sound better in the mix and keep your song sounding clear and focused. If clarity and separation are paramount to a great mix (and I believe they are) then you want to avoid washing out your mix whenever possible. Going mono on your instruments can help a lot.
Pick Your Stereo
“So what are you saying Graham? That I should never record anything in stereo? Not even drums?” Great question. I thought you’d never ask! My answer would be a resounding “no.” I am not saying that you should avoid stereo tracks of any kind in your sessions. What I would submit to you is that you simply pick one instrument to be stereo if you must and leave the rest mono. Take your pick.
For many arrangements this is best left for drums. Track your drums in stereo (although you can get a great mono drum sound with one simple mic) using any method you desire and then track everything else mono. Sure you can double tracks if you like (layering guitars and vocals for example), but no more stereo tracking. If on the other hand you are recording a song that features piano and no drums, then consider stereo miking the piano and nothing else. You get the picture.
At the end of the day you want a mix that sounds big, has clarity and punch, and displays all the instruments at their best. Stereo tracking everything won’t get you there. So don’t fall for it.