Mixing in Mono: Why You Should Be (with some exeptions)


If you’ve spent any time behind a mixer, you’ve probably asked yourself if you should be using your pan knobs. You probably did some panning and then undid it multiple times because you were unsure. Well, I know the feeling! And so does every other mix engineer!

Should you mix in mono? Yes. You should mix in mono to help maintain the most consistent sound possible for the most amount of people possible in the audience.

With that said, is it really that simple? It is… but it’s also not. You see, mono versus stereo mixing is a widely debated topic in the live sound world. Keep reading to learn all about it and how you should make your decision!

Why You Should Mix in Mono

Like I said, mono versus stereo mixing is a highly debated topic both in person and online. It’s really a subjective decision that must be made by the mix engineer.

That said, it is however, a widely accepted practice that the majority of mix engineers agree with – at least to a certain degree.

So why? Why would you want to mix in mono when you have the ability to mix in stereo right at your fingertips? Quite literally…

Well, ask any professional mix engineer what their ultimate purpose is AS the mix engineer. You’ll probably get several different answers, but there will also probably be a lot of overlap in those answers. Something you’ll probably hear in every answer is – to make the best sound possible and most consistent sound possible for the most amount of people possible.

As the mix engineer, our job is not to make it sound fantastic for ourselves or for a select few people (unless specifically told to by the boss-man). Our job is to make it sound the best we can for the most amount of people possible.

Some of you reading this may know where I’m going with this. Some of you may not, but that’s why writing this article!

To answer the question, “why mix in mono?” –

No matter how you look at it, mixing in stereo is going to affect the consistency of the sound from left to right. And how drastic the panning is will determine how drastic that inconstancy will be.

Mixing in stereo will probably sound great for the few people in the center of the audience. But think about – if you pan the acoustic guitar left, then it’s going to either be too quiet or nonexistent to the people on the right, depending on how drastic your panning was. Now multiply that effect with 20, 30, 40 or even more channels… I can’t say it’s “wrong” or “bad” because it’s a subjective topic. But I can say that it will be very inconsistent.

It is for this reason that it has become a widely accepted practice to mix in mono.

Why Set Up the System in Stereo?

So you might be asking yourself – “then why do we set up our sound systems in stereo?”

Great question! And thankfully, this is a much easier question to answer. There are a couple reasons we set up our systems in stereo.

  1. Control

Typically in live sound, the more independent control we have of each component of the sound system, the better.

For example – If I daisy-chain 8 speakers together, but then my drive-line sending signal to those speakers goes out, I just lost 8 speakers. Versus, if I would have had a separate drive-line for each speaker and one of them goes out, then I only lose 1 speaker.

This principal applies to using a stereo sound system as well. Not only do you have separate control over the processing of each side of the sound system for tuning purposes, but also your entire system doesn’t malfunction because of the sharing of resources for each side.

  1. People Want It

Despite everything I’ve said about mixing in mono, it doesn’t change the fact that bands and mix engineers still want it… and require it.

A stereo sound system is an industry standard that is expected, and most of the time required, by bands and mix engineers in their technical rider.

And again, despite everything I’ve said about mixing in mono, there are a few exceptions to that “rule”, if that’s what you want to call it. But we’ll talk about those things a little later in this article.

Getting a Good Mix in Mono

Many people struggle with getting a good mix in mono. They have trouble creating definition and separation between instruments and vocals. This is a valid struggle and many people’s first reaction is to pan their problems away. But this isn’t the right answer. Why not?

Let me tell you a quick story.

I was talking to a guy once who likes to dabble in studio work. He mixed a song for a friend and made a comment about how he doesn’t have to worry much about EQ (equalization) because the panning takes care of all the problems. I can see why he’d say that, but the logic is flawed.

Sure, if you’re having issues with certain instruments and/or vocals sounding right, then panning can seem to make those problems “disappear”. But in reality those problems haven’t disappeared, you’ve just hidden them – much like sweeping the dirt under the rug instead of actually cleaning it up.

So I listened to his mix, and it sounded decent. But then, I heard it collapsed into mono… and found all the problems. There were a lot things clashing tonally with each other and even more phasing issues. The mix went from decent to… well, not good – simply by collapsing the mix to mono.

So how do we overcome this? By mixing in mono!

Mixing in mono will force you to deal with problems face-to-face rather than sweeping them under the rug. This is not only for live sound engineers, but is also a very popular technique in the studio as well. The difference is studio mixes end up stereo in the long run, but not before getting it great in mono first. But we’re getting off track here.

So how can you achieve a great mono mix? The answer is simple… by perfecting your techniques with the basic tools and principals you already have and use: Phase, EQ, and Compression – in that order.

Phase

Phase is arguably the most important variable to getting a good mix. What is phase? Well, I won’t get into too much detail here. I’ll save that for another article, but here is the idea.

Phase (not to be confused with polarity) is a time relationship. It is the amount of time-shift between two identical waveforms.

What does that mean? Let me explain.

Take drum overheads as an example. You may not think twice about them when you set them up, but you should. Overhead mics are not “cymbal mics”, they are “over the drum kit mics”. They will pick up the sound of the entire drum kit.

So take a look at the snare, for example. Unless you purposefully measured, the distance between the snare and the left overhead will be different than the distance between the snare and the right overhead. This means the sound of the snare is going to reach one mic at a different time than it reaches the other – we measure this time in milliseconds (ms).

This may seem insignificant, but it has a HUGE impact on the sound of the entire drum kit. Learning how to overcome phase issues will take your mixes to the next level – or two or three.

I will link you to an article concerning overcoming phase when I have it written!

EQ (equalizer)

EQ is your next best friend. Learning how to properly use it instead of making aimless adjustments will help bring clarity and definition to each component of your mix.

Sounds great, but how do we do it? Well again, I won’t get into too much detail here – that’ll be another article, but I’ll give you the big picture.

Oftentimes we, and I’m sure you too, as mix engineers find ourselves constantly battling for realestate in our frequency spectrum. We only have so much room to work with. But much of the time, to overcome this issue, we reach for the volume instead of the EQ. Now, volume could very well be an issue, but I’d venture to say that most of the time it isn’t.

Let me explain…

Let’s take an electric guitar and vocal, for example. These are two things many people find themselves battling with. The guitar sounds great, but now I can’t hear the vocal. So we turn up the vocal, but now we can’t hear the guitar. So we turn up the guitar. And the cycle keeps repeating itself until we’re in a huge mess we don’t know how to get out of.

The problem in this situation is normally not the volume, but the tone. So instead of battling the problem with volume, try clearing up some realestate with your EQ.

For example – Try putting a low-pass (high-cut) on your guitar around 6kHz and then applying -3 or -4dB cut in the 2kHz – 5kHz range. This should create some “space” for your vocal to breathe and be heard without even touching the volume.

Compressor

The next thing you will want to master is your compressor. Compression can take your mix to the next level… or absolutely ruin it. There’s usually no in-between.

While the compressor is not directly related to “mixing in mono”, it can certainly help you. When mixing in mono, it’s tough enough as it is to obtain clarity and definition to each part of your mix. Using a compressor will help control the dynamics of your instruments and vocals to help them sit at a comfortable level without getting too out of control.

With that said, master the first two before you start worrying about your compressors. The compressors are like the cherry on top!

Exceptions for Mixing in Stereo

We’ve talked a lot about mixing in mono and why you should do it. But like a lot of things in live sound, there’s another side to this coin.

There are, in fact, times you may want to run in stereo. There’s no hard-and-fast rules as to when this is, but you’ll probably know it when it comes. Either way, let’s talk about a few examples of when you’d want to mix stereo.

Keyboards

Keyboards are often an exception. Many engineers, including myself, oftentimes run keyboards in stereo. Running stereo keys can give your mix a sense of “width”, but without compromising the consistency of the sound from left to right. This often just depends on the types of sounds the keyboardist is using.

Effects

Effects are a great way to add some space and width to your mix; and again, without compromising the consistency of sound from left to right. Reverb is probably the best example of this.

Small or Narrow Venue

When mixing in a small and/or narrow venue you can usually get away with mixing in stereo. This is because the stereo image is so small the entire audience will benefit from the effect no matter where they stand.

I remember doing a show in a prison for the inmates and they had us set up in a long walkway outside between two buildings. The walkway was about 200ft long, but only about 15 or 20 feet wide. Because of how narrow it was, we could easily get away with mixing in stereo there.

VIP in the Audience

Having to please a single person, or even a small group of people, is something you may run into one day.

You may have a conversation that goes something like this –

Boss: You see that guy over there?

You: Yeah…?

Boss: He’s sitting right there in the center. That’s who you’re mixing for tonight. Make it sound great.

You: Ok… yes sir!

Believe it or not, this does happen. So, if given strict instructions to please the guy sitting front in center, you better believe I’m mixing in stereo!

Conclusion

Mixing in mono is something every mix engineer should be doing. It helps us maintain a consistent sound for the most amount of people possible. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t times that mixing in stereo is acceptable – because there are. At the end of the day, you just have to use your best judgement!

I hope I’ve helped you understand why mixing in mono is so important as a live sound engineer! Thanks for reading!

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