What You Need To Know About Mono Vs Stereo

When it comes to recording, one of the most common questions that all musicians and recording artists have asked surrounds gaining an understanding of mono versus stereo. 

There is so much to understand in the world of audio recording, such as busses, compression, condenser, EQs, tracks, and more, it’s easy to overlook the simple things. 

There are several factors that determine whether it’s best to record in mono or stereo, including the type of instruments, the number of mics used, and the final goal for a particular track. 

Why is the Answer so Elusive? 

Many people in the music industry wonder why this is such a hard question to find an answer to. The answer is pretty simple: there is no right or wrong answer. There will be some situations where stereo will be your best option. On the other hand, there will be other situations where mono is your best option. 

Of course, before you can determine whether mono or stereo is better, it’s critical that you take the time to understand the difference between the two. 

Mono Vs. Stereo Defined 

When you have two tracks, even if identical, they can be spread out, which is referred to as panning. This creates the “stereo” sound, where the sound appears to be moving to both ears/speakers, but not coming from a center point. 

On the other hand, “mono” is a single track that can either be sent to the left or right speaker or left center. 

The difference is that with a stereo recording, 50% can be sent to one speaker and 30% to the other, which creates some subtle dynamics that end up resulting in a powerful effect. On the other hand, there’s only one option with a mono recording. 

To put it simply: 

  • Mono equals one audio source 
  • Stereo equals two audio sources 

Which Tracks Should be in Stereo? 

When deciding whether to record in mono or stereo, this is probably one of the most critical questions. What instruments are best for stereo recordings? Here’s the answer: 

If you have an instrument that is typically recorded with one mic, such as a kick drum, this is best for a mono track. On the other hand, a keyboard sends out a stereo signal, so a stereo track would be better in this situation. 

Sometimes a guitarist will have a stack of amps with dual speakers, and the sound produces a stereo effect, moving the sound from one speaker to the next. In this case, you’d be better off using two mics. You would set one up at one speaker and the other up at the other speaker. 

This would produce a stereo track. 

On the other hand, if a guitarist is only using one amp with one speaker, you would only need one mic. Of course, there are some producers that would set up two mics to record electric guitar tracks with only one speaker being used, but this doesn’t provide the result that you might think it would.

Some instruments that would benefit from stereo recordings include overhead drum mics, keyboards, acoustic guitar tracks, and special instruments and digital effects that create stereo outputs. 

Instruments that are best for mono recording are cymbals, individual drums, bass guitar sounds, and vocals, as well as other mono signal devices. 

Don’t Make This Mistake: Doubling Tracks 

Often, when someone begins recording, they end up running into some issues and asking more than a few questions. One of the biggest issues is finding a way to create a “fuller” sound for vocals. 

Since most recordings are done through computers instead of an analog tape deck, their solution is to “double” the track and create an artificial secondary recording. 

However, there are a few issues with this thought process. First of all, this does not create a stereo track. You now have two mono tracks, which basically just increases the decibel level of your recording. Sure, you can split it out, but this will have very little effect. 

No matter what you do, you will not have a true stereo effect. 

Can Stereo Sound be Created from a Mono Instrument 

There are a couple of ways to take a mono instrument track and create stereo sound. One of them is genuine and the other is artificial. When it comes to final mixing and in order to achieve the best possible final product, the best way to go is genuine. 

In order to do this, you’ll need to record the identical track with the same instrument two times. If it’s vocals, you’ll have your singer record the track a second time and if a guitar track, the guitarist will need to record the track a second time. 

Depending upon the experience of the musician/artist and the complexity of the track, this might take several takes. However, though it’s the same track being recorded a second time, there will be some subtle differences that will bring forth the full effect when mixed properly. 

Is it Possible to Create Stereo from Mono Tracks? 

Yes, it is possible to take mono tracks and create stereo effects. This requires sending the mono signal to stereo processors through an auxiliary send. Of course, in order for this to work properly, you’ll need a decent computer-based program or mixing console. 

You will need to remember that the effect will be what’s brought back. The recording is still going to be mono. It’s basically the same thing as a copied/duplicated track and it is not going to have the same sound that you’d want to have for the final stereo mix.  

Bottom Line 

The bottom line is, there’s no right or wrong answer to the question: “Which is better, mono or stereo”? The answer depends entirely on what you are trying to achieve in your recording. There are some situations where stereo will be a better option, while other situations call for a mono approach. Either way, it’s a good idea to become familiar with both of them so that you can make an informed decision.