Here's a quick explanation of the differences between Mono & Stereo:
Mono is a single channel, used to convert a single signal to hearable audio. Stereo is 2 channels that are used to convert signals to hearable audio.
In Mono recordings/speakers, you won't have any depth, or width to your sound, because the setup doesn't allow for things like panning sounds left or right. It just plays them in one speaker, and one channel.
In Stereo recordings, you have 2 speakers, so you are more encompassed by sound, and can hear width.
Common speakers that are mono that you might have are:
- Google home
- Amazon Alexa
- Apple HomePod
- Phone speakers
- Built in TV speakers
These are great to test your mixes on, to see how they sound, and what is lost in the downgrade, from stereo to mono. Listening in mono during the mastering process is also extremely useful. It can help you hear how it would sound for someone else listening on those devices, and help you to make adjustment to your mix accordingly.
Mono vs Stereo Hearing
If you've ever listened to your favourite track on headphones, you'll hear that the sounds feels like they're around you, and different sounds can be heard more prominently in the left or right ears.
A lot of old 70s songs, when stereo started to become popular, used panning a lot.
This is why when listening to something like David Bowie's – Station to Station, on your phone speakers/laptop speakers, the song won't sound as clear.
This is because it loses its stereo information when converted into a mono signal, and played through a mono speaker.
So, when you listen in stereo, or in headphones, it will sound clearer, and, as if it's higher definition.
This is because headphones are stereo, and operate with 2 channels of audio, meaning you can hear sound from left and right, and pan sounds in different directions, creating the illusion, that they are encompassing.
However, if the recording doesn't have any panning, reverb, or stereo widening effects, your stereo recording won't actually be any better – it'll just be louder.
But, when the effect of left and right panning come into play, or reverb comes into play, this gives the song you're listening to space.
So, if you were to pan an item of the song to the right, the speaker would play more of that signal in the right hand speaker, meaning it would arrive at the right hand ear quicker, and therefore you'd perceive it as coming from the right somewhere.
If you were to use reverb alongside this, it would add more information to both channels in the stereo field, that would create an effect of atmosphere between the two speakers. Something that can't be reproduced by having just one speaker, or through a song in mono.
What is Mono and Stereo?
Mono, sometimes referred to as Monoaural sound is a sound signal with only one channel. While 90% of playback devices are stereo compatible, Mono used to be the standard for radio in the past.
A lot of vinyl records from the 1960's and 1970's came in both Mono and Stereo versions, since most people only had mono playback systems, like a gramophone, so a stereo sound wouldn't have made sense.
With a Mono signal, even if you have multiple speakers, the same signal will go to both.
This results in your sound appearing like it's coming from a single position in front of you, making for a less immersive sound.
If you were to listen to a band on stage, you hear the guitars to your right, the bass on the left, drums and vocals in the center, you have directionality. Mono has no directionality, it's all in the middle!
Stereo, or stereophonic sound is a much wider concept of audio. We'll be focusing on the more conventional 2 channel stereo for the purposes of simplicity.
It allows for L&R channels, that are able to create the illusion of space, when using effects like reverb or delay. You can also pan certain elements left or right, giving them more of an encompassing, immersive sound.
Stereophonic sound has to come out of two separate playback sources, and mix in the air, before reaching your ears.
It's an important distinction to make, and we'll talk about how this is important a little later..
That being said, Stereophonic sound applies to Quadrophonic and surround sound systems too, so there's essentially no limit to the amount of channels for stereophonic sound.
Stereo has been used widely since the 1970s, for anything from TV broadcasts, to popular music, cinema, etc.
The most common form of stereo, by a long shot, is two-channel stereo, which uses the channels to represent the Left and Right sides of your signal.
Music recorded and played back in Stereo, has a more immersive listening experience, when compared to Mono. Stereo gives the artists flexibility to shape not only their sounds, but the positioning of each sound source.
When it comes to audio files, telling the difference between a Mono Sound and Stereo one, is extremely easy.
Usually, opening a sound within a DAW will instantly show you visually, whether the signal has one or two channels.
If you don't have a DAW, you can use Audacity, to import your audio into, and check, whether it has a single channel, or two.
In a DAW you'll see this come up as two audio channels side by side, and they will bounce at varying levels. If it's mono, you'll only see one channel, or both channels bouncing at varying levels.
In Ableton it will look something like this:
Most of the devices you'll listen to music to are two-channel systems. Headphones, Speakers, Laptop speakers etc. are all two-channel systems, which support stereo audio.
The only real place you'll find Mono sound will be in phone speakers, however, a lot of newer phones are already moving to stereo sound.
Sadly, outside of music studios, Mono will be as good as dead in the not-so-near future. It's not all bad news though, since Mono is still incredibly useful, when mixing music.
Are Headphones Stereo?
So, yes, we did say that Headphones support stereo audio, and that is true. Any two-channel playback system can play stereo files.
That being said, when it comes to headphones and earbuds, what you're hearing is not technically a stereophonic sound.
What Headphones lack to be considered stereo, is the mixing of the two audio channels in air. There has to be overlap between the two audio sources, for Stereo, to technically be Stereo.
What headphones and earbuds are, are binaural listening systems. You might think this is just us being nerdy and trying to correct people, but pinky promise, this is important!
Binaural sound is much closer to how people actually hear sounds in the real world. True binaural sound is recorded with two microphones on either side of a persons head, to mimic the positioning of your ears.
This is important because, people are used to hearing music in stereo. When audio is recorded binaurally, it's done so for a reason. From ASMR videos, to Hans Zimmer's Interstellar soundtrack, whenever the actual source is binaural, you'll hear it – and it's extremely immersive.
When it comes to most music, the standard for playback presentation is two channel stereo sound. If you're mixing and mastering, you need the perspective of a stereo system, to get a mix that translates well to as many other playback systems as possible.
In simpler terms, headphones can reproduce both stereo and binaural signals, but speakers only do stereo.
If you're mixing binaurally, your mix instantly becomes better suited for headphones or earbuds, than speakers.
Recording in Mono vs Stereo
Recording is where Mono is still the king. Most of the audio content you'll record, will be in Mono. Vocals, Guitars, Bass, every channel you record with 1 mic will be mono.
Recording in stereo necessitates using 2 or more microphones, that are mixed together, to create a sense of immersive space in the recording.
A good rule of thumb is, if you're trying to capture a single element, you'll record in mono. If you're trying to capture an overall sound, with directionality and space, you'll need to record in stereo.
There are scenarios where a Mono recording just won't cut it and vice versa, so it's all about having a clear idea of what you're recording, and how you want it to sound!
There are also some really cool microphones that are capable of recording surround sound. These have 360 degree mic heads. If you want to look into these more a google search of Ambisonic microphones will help you learn more about them.
Mixing In Mono vs Stereo
While most people mix in Stereo, to have a full perspective of the Stereo image, there is validity to mixing in Mono. In fact, there are audio engineers who start their mixes entirely in Mono. Only after they're happy with the Mono mix do they start switching between the Mono and Stereo version.
This is because most of the “messiness” in mixing comes from having a cluttered Mono image.
All of your most powerful elements (kick, bass, etc.) are going to be in the center, competing for the same frequencies. Mixing in Mono means you're only hearing that center image, and you'll be able to perceive sound issues in your mix much easier.
Once you're happy with the Mono mix, you can start looking at the stereo image, without having an unbalanced center.
While it's absolutely fine to check mono tracks on stereo systems, there are monitors, that are made to serve as a Mono mixing reference, like the Mixcube. These can be useful both for checking your stereo tracks in mono, as well as referencing your masters.
True Stereo vs Pan-Pot
The last thing we want to bring up is True Stereo vs Pan-Pot stereo.
Also referred to as artificial stereo, Pan-Pot stereo is essentially using a mono signal, to be sent to both the right and the left speaker. This results in “artificial” direction and width in your audio.
True, or natural stereo, is meant to reproduce a live sound, e.g. recording a piano with two microphones, or recording a choir. True Stereo isn't identical in both ears.
Most Modern Music actually consists of Pan-Pot stereo, True Stereo recordings nearly always tend to feel more full and wide, however, they're much more of a chore to deal with, when compared to Mono signals, which you can pan wherever you want.
You might be thinking, how is this important, why do I need to know the difference?
A lot of beginner producers tend to create width, by doubling tracks and panning them left and right.
A full mix of artificially widened audio tracks will just sound narrow, dull and uninspiring. Rather, to get more of a “true stereo” feel, whenever you double a track, introduce little changes.
Maybe you're using a different amp setting for your guitar, or adding more compression.
Once there are differences in your Left and Right Signals, is when you start getting an actual stereo image, that sounds great, and creates immersive music.
Hopefully this look at Monophonic and Stereophonic sound has been useful. Even if you knew most of this already, it's always good to refresh on the basics of music production.
If you're just now starting out with making music, learning the basics will get you much further than any $700 plugin, so take your time, and get to know music production from inside out.
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