Stereo processing and panning: why?

I’ve found in my music production that I don’t care much at all about stereo effects or even about panning various tracks. The reason is that I generally listen to music on devices that are essentially in mono, or where stereo effects don’t make much difference (bluetooth speakers, car stereo, smartphone speakers, etc). I also suspect this is true for most listeners these days. (It is probably not true for most people on Lines but we are probably not a representative subset of music listeners.) Because of this, I feel like the issues that come from mixing in stereo (worrying about phase issues, spending time thinking about pan positions and widening techniques, etc) outweigh the benefits. However, I’m also aware that I could very well be missing something! So, my questions are: (1) why do you mix in stereo (if you do) and (2) do you think that mixing in stereo still makes sense nowadays even though most people effectively listen in mono?

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A nice stereo mix is always more appreciated than a mono mix to my ears.

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a good ole thread on this subject :slight_smile: (very difficult to search “mono” on the monome forum lol) I’m with you I very much appreciate a good mono mix, sometimes if something has a lot of stereo effects I’ll listen to it in mono because I find them too distracting (usually I try to listen to work the way the artist intended or at least on decent headphones first, but after that I might switch to mono to see what’s going on underneath). The sort of ASMR effects of swirly stuff going around your head can be very cool and I really respect it especially for ambient or similarly immersive styles of music, but it can get a bit tiring on my ears and I think it’s so sensually stimulating that it can be a bit fetishized especially in amateur music scenes which I think leads to its over use. That being said, the critique of “your music wouldn’t be very cool if it was mixed down to mono” i think is pretty weak. There’s lots of records and artists whose work is based around different effects—“U2 would be pretty wack without delay” lol. I think it’s just an effect and it can be used, not used, misused, and it can be effective or ineffective.

With no evidence to back up this assertion, I personally have the feeling that it’s more difficult to create that immersive experience in mono on headphones, whereas a good mono mix on speakers can be as immersive as any swirly stereo because it’s actually pushing air…

I’ve almost always worked in mono in the past, but my most recent release (and first long-form modular work and sort of ambient-y) I used some stereo effects on the mono modular signal and I enjoyed the bit of vibe they added to it. I listened to it in mono and stereo and ultimately decided it didn’t change the experience too much from listening to it in one form or the other, but it added a bit of extra sparkle on headphones to have it in stereo. It was just an additional effect and I didn’t feel like it was taking over, which is what I personally wanted to avoid.

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This is a great series talking about using ms to essentially great two different mixes for stereo and mono. Really nice!



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I love the spatialization you can get mixing to stereo or quad. Electronic music seems made for multichannel, since the sound sources don’t exist in physical space, and spatializing them can do beautiful things. Isn’t space as important as melody, timbre, and rhythm? It is to me, at least. I find it’s uncomfortable listening to music in mono through headphones–which is my preferred method of listening. Humans hear in binaural sound, so it makes mono unnatural through headphones.

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I was in the studio with a client last week tracking some organ/keys parts. Pulled up a software instrument in stereo and we spent a half hour being like, “yeah, the part works but that sound is terrible.” I pulled up a mono instance and it immediately “sat” in the mix and everyone was happy.

Stereo is super cool and all but when all the sounds are already football field wide then it starts to become meaningless after a while.

I mix in stereo but I rarely hard pan, push anything hard. With band mixes I feel it helps everything breathe a bit more but if it sounds cluttered there then stuff will disappear in mono. I still think it makes sense, you want to put your best foot forward when presenting anything. Good in mono and stereo.

It’s all a compromise. In an ideal world everyone would have super systems, linear amps with loads of dynamic range and compression would almost be unknown. We end up making art that’s both banging on a hifi and maximisizing a mobile phone speaker.

Or maybe my outlook is skewed being from Kentucky, Henry Clay and all that.

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I grew up favoring headphones over speakers, listening to stuff like Isao Tomita, and have never changed my mind on that. To me, serious listening means headphones – simply because it’s so much cheaper and easier than a good listening environment with speakers. I don’t really go to clubs, so I associate speakers with casual listening – in the car or background music forced on me at a store or something.

And headphones of course mean stereo.

I like a nice stereo field – balanced and centered overall, with a pleasant-sounding density distribution, if that makes sense. No hard panning, not too much autopanning or ping-pong delay.

If you want a part to sound wide, sometimes the best thing is to make it narrower in some frequency ranges. Mid/side EQ is a fantastic tool IMHO. And also, when establishing a sense of space with reverb etc., more distant sounds tend to have less stereo spread as the angles to your ears decreases.

I used to not really worry about mono compatibility and phase cancellation, but Nathan Moody convinced me otherwise. I think my mixes got a little better as a result even in stereo.

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This is so sad to read, even though you’re correct about current playback methods. Stereo sound is best compared to stereo vision. Both provide depth perception. It’s not just a left channel and a right channel, it’s also a forward and backward, it provides movement, or a sense of air in your mix.

There are some incredible things you can do with stereo panning. You can send a signal in a mix in a circle around the listener’s head, for example.

The move to MONO and mixing to lousy playback speakers is fun to see in a novelty sense, and a good mono mix should be anticipated in anything you’re putting out into the public. But should you really be working to match your work best on tablets that contain 50¢ speaker components inside? There’s no bass response for one thing. And anything high pitched becomes a sharp pencil, too. Not a great way to love listening to stuff.

I test most things on my phone or some really shitty speaker before posting and often find things I need to adjust that weren’t visible in better monitors or headphones. Good mastering services offer crappy speakers for playback on a switch, as well. But suggesting it’s the goal format for a final mix just feels like removing blue and red from your color palette and saying you’re only going to be mixing in yellow and black from now on. Go for color! Stereo is full color.

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@Smapti I think your missing the most listened to device bearing earbuds and that is stereo.

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I only use headphones when djing and even then only one ear.

My upcoming record is in mono.

I mostly listen to music in the car or on my 70s hifi. Stereo stuff there is cool but honestly I’d be just fine without most of it.

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I’ve been hoping for years that there will emerge a viable consumer surround format for music. It seems as though the movement is in the opposite direction. It makes me a bit sad.

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Mono is great for many systems, as you mention, and can sound amazing, but I way prefer the spatialisation and depth cues that stereo gives, and how it can sound on headphones.

L-C-R is worth looking into for a deliberate set of limitations for the stereo shy. Stereolab’s ‘Sound Dust’ album was all mixed L-C-R if you want a good example of how it can sound (not to mention hundreds of recordings from EMI/Abbey Road, where for many years you could only pan switched L, C, or R). Perfectly mono compatible too.

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Sitting here listening to the new Shirley Collins on a Bluetooth speaker whilst typing this, I feel the style of music adds context to stereo/mono deliberations. I don’t need any crazy panning or mind warping stereo when listening to Shirley’s voice and a single guitar.
I would prefer it however when listening to something like Nurse With Wound or say Abul Mogard. That’s when I want total stereo.
I can’t imagine mixing my own music in mono, although I do try and aim for a degree mono compatibility. Might give it and L C R a try though now!

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Shirley’s new album is great, but I also bought her False True Lovers (1959) from BC on the same day and have been listening to that more, absolutely beautiful!

For L-C-R you can still do things like have “stereo”/two channel FX Returns, but you are only allowed to pan each “side” either L, C, or R. I experimented a bit with it and liked the results a lot.

Yes, context is key for Mono vs. Stereo I think. When I had my big modular system I always wanted to try the Wiard JAG with five speakers (one in each corner and one directly above your head for a pyramid shape), and then panning around the pyramid with the joystick or at audio rates with VCOs/LFOs etc., but I never had enough speakers!

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Thanks all for the interesting comments! I may dip my toe into L C R – I like that Stereolab album and I had no idea it was mixed that way.

That thread is great, thanks! The Pitchfork article linked in that thread is also interesting.

This is a really good observation. As you and others noted, people listen to music on headphones and a pure mono mix on headphones does sound bad. I realized that I do (unintentionally) mix in stereo because the reverbs I use are all mono --> stereo. So, that helps with headphone listening because it’s not true mono. I like “reverberant mono” because it represents what we hear when we listen to mono sources in the real world.

Interestingly, I’m noticing more and more plugins that support full surround (Sonic Lab and Melda, for example). I work entirely in the box and I have a lot of possibilities for surround sound… but no speakers to play them on, so unfortunately it’s moot.

What do people think about widening techniques (beyond just panning)? Some of the fancier ones purport to stereo widen a signal in a way that preserves the original mono.

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The only stereo width adjustments I do are to M/S gain, and occasionally “monoing the bass” (high pass filter on the S signal), but all in a mastering context. I generally need to narrow as much as I need to widen, some people tend to go overboard with their stereo craziness and it can just sound phasey and naff if you are not careful.

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I think kind of romantic to me to see “wall of sound” as a viable method of production again for the reasons discussed in the OP.

I have a love hate relationship with stereo. There is something undeniably sublime about the effect of plugging in the second channel on a stereo mixer channel while monitoring, but I have poor hearing in my right ear (relative to my left) which causes confusion in a stereo setting. Sometime I have a hard time adjusting my headphones even when I can clearly separate the left and right channels.

This is interesting, I’d never heard of it. Found this, I like it!

Here’s how I would improve this concept. The one issue I see here is the stuck placement of everything. The ear is going to get bored with this, in my opinion. I’d make an LCR mix of something, and place a distinctly mono mix in there too, which you’d want to play gain on through the mix. Basically this would allow you to bring everything into the center, as needed. There’d be some gain balancing to figure out but this would still let you have some movement of the individual elements. Maybe an LCR mix crossfading with a mono mix back and forth gradually would be the easiest way to make this work. I’d also want to switch the L and R often, so you can probably do a pretty good job with a center mix, two pan channels for L and R, and then a composite LCR-mono in the crossfade side.

I’m a big fan of proper mono mixes, incidentally — Phil Spector’s wall of sound is probably the best mono mixing ever done; you can compare Spector’s work in mono to Quincy Jones or Shadow Morton’s stereo efforts at the same time. Fun conversation.

You want to see the value of stereo, listen to a good jazz recording of subtle stereo field mic’ing, like a Monk record. Compare the same to a mono mix of it. It’s just two microphones aimed at a a piano, compared to one mic, but the air and movement you hear in the stereo recording is incredible.

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Colin Stetson records come to mind as well. This bit of an interview with Pitchfork (regarding his breakout 2011 album Judges) is a really lovely articulation of what I’m seeking (whether I’m a listener or a creator) in spatialization, width, panning, etc.:

Pitchfork: The way you recorded and mixed the record-- with lots of mics and boosting certain sounds to make it seem like there’s more going on-- is also really unorthodox, and helps to make the album sound like nothing I’ve heard before.
CS: I didn’t want to just put up a stereo mic in a room and try to get some two-dimensional snapshot of an instrument. The set-up allowed us to capture it in three dimensions so we could then spread out and reshuffle and make our own surreal representation of that performance. There are mics inside the instrument, a contact mic on my throat, and countless mics clustered around the air of the horn and throughout the room. I wanted to make something that was specific to the medium of recording. I want to make albums that are like a Murakami novel or a Terrence Malick film-- something that explicitly states its own world.

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L-C-R incorporates mono into its very core. Just pan things C. If “the stuck placement of everything” bothers you, then look elsewhere than L-C-R. Go back to regular stereo, panning things where you like. It’s just a concept, that could either help or hinder. :slight_smile:

Love stereo micing of an acoustic source/space too, matched pair of KM84s here, into TG2 pre, it’s unrivalled, IMHO. That fits L-C-R too, just pan the two mics L-L, or L-C, or C-C, or C-R, or R-R. The only thing you are NOT allowed to do is pan things “between” the L, C or R. But again, it’s just a thought experiment. If it doesn’t work empirically, then try something else.

I have to be honest and say that I’m not really a fan of mono mixes, and usually prefer the stereo mix, given everything else is equal. I grew up listening to my dad’s collection of Beatles mono vinyl, and I still prefer the 2006 stereo digital remasters.

For great Jazz recordings in stereo, check any of Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings/mixes, especially the Bossa stuff, an absolute master, and took his techniques to the grave with him…

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