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If you’re an audio enthusiast or just a casual listener, we all tend to get terms mixed up in our head sometimes. Mono and stereo are two of the most basic words in the music industry that tend to get misunderstood.
As an audio engineer who has released dozens of music albums and worked in live sound reinforcement, I will use my knowledge and expertise to tell you all about the differences and similarities between mono and stereo.
In this article, I’ll detail what mono and stereo are, what makes something mono or stereo, what typical uses are there for each, and much more.
I won’t delve into complex technical aspects of the history of mono and stereo. Instead, let’s laser-target the issue at hand and check if there is such a thing as stereo vs. mono.
Table of Contents
- What Is Mono Audio & What Is It Used For?
- What Is Stereo Audio & What Is It Used For?
- Mono vs Stereo: Major Differences
- Stereo vs Mono: Which One to Choose?
- What’s The Stereo Field & How Can It Help Me?
- Should You Record Vocals In Mono Or Stereo?
- How To Make A Mono Recording Stereo
What Is Mono Audio & What Is It Used For?
The word “mono” comes from “monaural,” meaning “single sound.” However, to be more technically correct, we would refer to mono as a “single signal” instead of sound.
Mono audio is a type of sound that gets transmitted over a single channel. For example, if you have a sound and transmit it through a cable with only one wire (besides the shielding/ground), it means it’s a mono signal.
Anything you transmit over that cable would also be a mono signal. This includes a fully mixed song with many instruments. Even if you couple a few speakers to that mono signal, you’ll hear the same sound on them.
This gives the impression that the sound is coming from a single source, not multiple. This can make the audio sound narrow but there are a lot of places where this sort of audio is useful.
Many old recordings, including radio, were done in mono. In fact, mono is widely used today in modern settings as well.
Mono is ideal for any place where its best not to divide the audio. Examples of this include shopping malls, clubs, churches, conferences etc where there will be a large number of speakers pointed in several directions.
Using stereo or surround-sound systems would be counter productive, since there are speakers all over the place. Each speaker should play the complete music, not half, so that’s why they’re in mono.
What Is Stereo Audio & What Is It Used For?
Stereo audio is the opposite of mono audio. In this case, the audio signal is transmitted through two channels, left and right. Any cable capable of stereo audio must have two wires beside the ground/shielding wire.
Without getting into too much technical detail, this works when the audio signal is mixed in stereo, meaning everything is divided into two parts. For instance, if the mixing engineer pans an instrument to the right, that means they’re giving more presence of that instrument in the right channel than in the left one.
Later, these two signals are transmitted through specific cables and connectors, each going to a different speaker. This is why we use two speakers for stereo sound — each one reproduces either the left or the right signals.
This, then, gives more directionality and perspective to the audio, not to mention a ‘surround sound’ effect.
Classic examples of stereo audio include the early Beatles’ stereo albums where Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s voices were on opposite sides, Led Zeppelin gave a panorama of a live band, and Queen’s iconic Bohemian Rhapsody. .
Something important to stress is that stereo means “two signals.” In reality, it can be anything you want or need, so it’s not necessarily used to create a panoramic effect 100% of the time. For instance, you can use stereo to transmit music on one channel and a lecturer on another.
Mono vs Stereo: Major Differences
Now that you know what mono and stereo are, let’s dive deeper into this comparison. Since my specialty is music production, I’ll exemplify some instances of when and how mono and stereo are used with music examples, but note that the same principles apply to broadcasting, cinema, and other media too.
1. Mono and Stereo for Recording
Both mono and stereo can be used for recording music. It depends on the number of vocalists and the effect you’re going for with the music that determined which one is used.
Since a bass, a singer, or a guitar are all a single sound source , they are recorded in mono. In the mixing process, they get spatially located where it suits the song best (i.e., the guitar to the left, etc.).
Stereo recording occurs when the source has panoramic sound or there are two or more vocalists. This is the case with an orchestra or a piano, where the lower notes come from the left side and the higher notes come from the right. There are many stereo techniques to capture these sound sources, and they all involve stereo microphones or a pair of mono microphones.
The good thing about stereo recordings is that the mixing engineer generally does not need further tweaking regarding the position. If it was well recorded, sound is correctly located throughout the whole left/right panorama when the engineer sets one channel to the full left and the other to the full right. For wider audio, the microphones just needs to be angled further away from each other.
2. Mono and Stereo for Audio Playback
Intuitively, mono looks as if it’s easier for playback, but there are some important considerations to be made here.
If you want to play mono signals, only one speaker is needed, but you can use as many speakers as you want, such as in the shopping mall. They will all reproduce the same sounds and there won’t be any phase distortion as well.
Stereo playback implies that it’s necessary to use two speakers to reproduce the panorama that was developed in the mixing process. The audio appears to have three-dimensional qualities, adding to its effect on the listener.
It is important to note that since most audios are made with/for stereo, mono-compatibility for the same is vital. For example, some sounds might be completely absent when listening to the song in mono if they aren’t made compatible.
3. Mono and Stereo Tracks
The difference here is very simple. Mono is a single channel audio while stereo is dual channel audio.
The mono track reaches your ears at the same time while the stereo is split. You cannot accurately tell where each individual instrument/sound is coming from in mono since they are all from the same speaker.
In stereo, however, since there are two speakers, the instruments and sounds are split between left and right and the listener can discern where each of them are located. It gives a three-dimensional listening experience.
Stereo vs Mono: Which One to Choose?
Mono and stereo are two different aspects of the same thing-sound. We have highlighted some uses for each, but there are still some specific situations to analyze. In this section, I’ll walk you through some of these scenarios.
1. What’s better for gaming: Mono or Stereo?
Undoubtedly, the preferred format for audio in gaming is stereo or surround sound. This is because sound coming from many directions is much more immersive than listening to sound always coming from the center.
It’s crucial for certain genres, such as first-person shooters, where it’s advantageous to determine a gunshot from somewhere you don’t see. As in real life, sound is an important ally.
You might think there are no mono gaming platforms, thus making mono useless here. This is mainly so, but there are some exceptions, such as with old TV screens or in mobile gaming. Many mobile devices have only one speaker, so the two stereo channels get summed up and transformed into a single channel when that happens.
Also, some old video game consoles were mono. Thus, when retro game developers want to capture that feeling, one of the ways to do it is to use mono sounds.
2. What’s better for listening to music: Mono or Stereo?
Stereo is the way to go for music listening. Like with gaming, it gives a more immersive experience, allowing the listener to feel as if they’re in the recording studio with the artist.
Music in stereo has many advantages over mono, such as offering panoramic sound, which creates a better listening experience.
An excellent example of this are drum fills. These happen when the drummer hits the snare drum and toms in succession. Typically, toms are panned (meaning the audio signal gets distributed from left to right), so each occupies a different position. When this sound sequence happens, it feels like you’re next to the drummer.
Stereo sound’s advantages don’t end there. Another vital issue is that since sounds occupy different places, you can hear more detail on each instrument through stereo. This is much harder to do with mono recordings, since all sounds are superimposed in the center.
3. What’s better for producing music: Mono or Stereo?
There’s no “better” choice for music production, since mono and stereo are used throughout the entire process. What most people often think of when they think about “producing music” is just the final aspect of it: getting a product ready for distribution.
When delivering music, the preferred choice is stereo. But this is not always the case.
For example, a band with several instruments should have music delivered in stereo. But a guitar player who wants to record their playing might be better off with a mono mix. A rockabilly tribute band may even demand their product to be mono to sound more authentic.
Even if you produce stereo music, you must take mono-compatibility into account. That is, you need to ensure that not much is lost if somebody listens to it with a mono device.
The key here is that music needs to be produced considering what it is being produced for, who is the target audience, and what the requirements are.
Also Read: Best FM Transmitters For Churches.
What’s The Stereo Field & How Can It Help Me?
The stereo field ranges between the left and right sides of the audio. It consists of the left, right, and mono elements. When used right, the audio can sound powerful and concentrated but wide at the same time. The stereo field is used to make space for all the elements in the audio and ensure that they all sound prominent.
The stereo field gives the consumer a smoother, fuller listening experience by giving the producer LCR and 50/50 panning. Using LCR and 50/50 panning means that all the elements in the audio mix except the vocals, bass, snare, and kick are panned all the way or 50% to the right or left.
This means that there is more space for the main elements – the vocals, guitar, etc, to shine, and also makes the audio wider.
Should You Record Vocals In Mono Or Stereo?
There are many techniques for recording vocals, most of which are mono recordings. The important thing here is to get the concepts right. To record anything, you need to consider how many signals you need.
In the case of vocals, when dealing with one singer, mono is the way to go. There is no reason you should record the singer in stereo since both microphones would capture the same sound in an ideal condition.
However, stereo is a fantastic choice if you need to record a choir. It would allow the recording of the entire choir at once while also capturing the room’s acoustic characteristics. Conversely, you could record every single person in mono, but you would need many microphones and make them sing individually, losing the unique dynamics of them singing all together.
How To Make A Mono Recording Stereo
There are two methods for making a mono recording stereo – use a stereo imager plugin, or duplicate the audio channel, pan them to either sides and delay one side by 5-30 ms.
Getting a plugin is by far the easiest method to make a mono recording stereo. Unless you’re an expert, using the plugin will help you achieve your desired audio faster since it is created by other industry professionals.
Opting for the manual method is challenging but it’s free as long as you have a DAW. as mentioned before, there are only three main steps to this method, but it will require a lot of fine-tuning on your end since nothing is pre-set by professionals like in the plugin.
- Create two new channels: The original channel will be for your main vocals. The new ones will be for the left and right signals.
- Copy the track and pan them: Here, you’ll have to pan them as much as you desire for your particular audio.
- Add a slight delay between the signals: Make sure one side is delayed between 5-30ms, depending on how you want it.
Check out the guide on Best Home Stereo Systems
No, stereo is not louder than mono. It can create the illusion that it’s louder than mono because it has a wider, more three-dimensional sound. But, if you compare them on even speakers with equal volume settings, you’ll see that they are both at the same dB level.
Yes, and most producers do combine both. In many cases, it’s mandatory. For example, in typical music productions, most instruments and vocals are often recorded in mono tracks. Nevertheless, some instruments which benefit from stereo recording, such as pianos, are commonly present in conjunction with their mono counterparts. This means the engineer works with both kinds of signals simultaneously.
Hopefully, the differences between mono and stereo are clearer after reading this article. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg, since there is much more ground to cover. The most important thing is knowing that the only winner is the listener in the battle of mono sound vs. stereo. Both formats are perfectly valid and used for different applications.
They provide different listening experiences and have equal audio quality. To say one is better than the other would be unfair since each have their own unique qualities and it comes down to the listener if they like either stereo or mono.
If you liked this article, check out our blog for more posts like this. We hope your questions have been answered, but if you have any queries, feel free to contact us!
Hello, my name is James Longman.
I’m a writer and editor at AudioReputation. I disassembled my first portable AM/FM radio when I was only 8. At the age of 11, I burned the circuit board on my old boombox cassette player. I’m not going to explain how but it was reckless and stupid.
Since then, I have become much more careful around radios, boomboxes, and other audio devices (at least, I like to think so) but I have never lost the passion for audio equipment. Throughout 20 years of my professional career, I’ve been working for various audio equipment manufacturers and even started building speakers on my own in my little workshop.
I love the work we do here at AudioReputation. Testing, comparing, and evaluating all kinds of audio devices (speakers, soundbars, headphones, home theater systems, etc.) is something I truly enjoy. I try to be unbiased and give you my honest opinion on every piece of equipment I test. Still, you should take my reviews with a pinch of salt and always be just a little bit skeptical. The fact that I liked some speaker or soundbar doesn’t mean that you are going to love it. If you have the opportunity, you should test it/hear it before buying it.