My buddy Rob from Home Studio Center liked this article so much, he created a really cool cheat sheet. If you find the whole “mono/stereo” thing confusing, download his cheat sheet and print it out.

I see this question a lot, and today I’d like to set the record straight. If you’re like me, and you’ve been recording for a long time, you hear “mono” and “stereo” and you understand the differences and when to use each.

However, if you’re just starting out, all these audio terms are being thrown at you — EQ, mixing, compression, reverb, effects, tracks, cardioid, dither, condenser, plug-in, bus — and it can get very confusing VERY quickly.

The good news? You don’t have to memorize Sweetwater’s glossary to be able to make great-sounding recordings. You’ll learn the terminology as you go.

One of the first things you should get a handle on is the concept of mono and stereo.

A Simple Definition

It’s really quite simple.

Mono = one audio source
Stereo = two audio sources

If an element in your song has a Left and a Right, then it should probably be on a stereo track. That’s all stereo means: left and right. When working on a mix, you’re mixing all the tracks down to a single, stereo (left and right) file.

I regularly get questions like this:

“Should my kick drum be mono or stereo?”
“Should my lead vocal be mono or stereo?”

General rule of thumb? If it’s one microphone or one cable, use mono. Stereo HAS to have two inputs…that’s what makes it stereo.

If you’re recording drum overheads (two mics), stereo acoustic guitar (two mics), or the line output from a keyboard (two cables), you’ll record to a stereo track. Most virtual instruments are like keyboards. They’ll be in stereo, too.

Common Mistakes

Stereo Effects – If you want your lead vocal to have a stereo reverb or delay on it…you don’t have to make it into a stereo track. You can route it to any number of stereo effects using sends and auxes. (See my reverb video here.)

Doubling a Mono Track Makes it Stereo? Just because you duplicate a vocal track and pan one left and one right DOESN’T mean it’s now stereo. Just listen to it. It will sound mono. Why? Because it’s the exact same audio. If you want a doubled, stereo sound, record the same part TWICE, then pan left and right. NOW you’ve got a stereo sound…since the left and right signals are no longer identical.

Doubling a Mono Track Sounds Better – I’ve heard of some people double a mono track and claim that it sounds better, or bigger, or fuller. Unfortunately, that’s not true. All you’re doing is increasing the volume by around 3dB. Two of the same exact signal will just make it a bit louder, it won’t change the sound at all.

That’s it!

This is certainly not an exhaustive guide, but hopefully it shakes loose a few preconceived notions about stereo and helps you move forward with a little less confusion.

Questions? Comments? Ask them below…

[Photo Credit]

  • Chrisbal

    Could you or anyone please tell me if should I record my horns ( real ones, trumpet, tbone and sax ) mono or stereo? Im using logic pro X apogee quartet interface one a dynamic mic Shure SM7B for all of them . Thanks

  • Robin shepherd

    Hi
    Regarding acoustic guitar ..Is it common to record the first rhythm guitar in stereo And the second rhythm guitar layer in stereo also or one stereo one mono?
    I’m just wondering what people find works best
    Thanks

  • Parda Cyan
  • Sanjay Shelar

    for recording interview with DSLR camera, which format is better mono or stereo ?

  • Audio guy

    There is a trick to turning mono recorded vocals into stereo and getting a cool effect for hooks and wide vocals.
    Record the vocal in a mono track, duplicate that track. Pan the tracks one to the left about -45 and one to the right +45. If you listen to that it will just sound like the same audio with more gain added… here’s the trick. Move the vocal panned left back -10 to 20 milliseconds, then move the vocal panned right +10 to 20 milliseconds. Wallah
    There you have it a stereo effect using one mono vocal recording, in 2 different tracks. The reason you get a stereo effect is because once you delay and speed up the vocals tracks they are no longer simultaneous with each other thereforey they are no longer identical in the mix. You can play around with it as well the wider the pan or the more time you delay and speed the vocal the wider the effect.

    • This is potentially risky. Yes it sounds more stereo, but it’s also out of phase. You’re using phase differences to create a fake stereo effect.

  • Yes. Everything will feed the stereo mix bus.

  • D Prinz Gh

    This is helpful. I understand it clearly now..thanks

  • Jamie

    I have a small 4-mic mixer with two XLR mics connected going into a Blackjack USB interface, then into my Mac via that USB. I’m recording for a podcast and all seemed ok, but my brother in law said it sounds like it was recording in mono. Now I noticed that the mono/stereo button was pressed on the Blackjack. One I depress it, I get sound out of only one side of the headphones. I’m VERY new to this and winging it, basically. Can you help describe what I should be doing from here in order to record in stereo, or am I doing it right by simply hitting the button, and hearing only one side while recording is normal? I do notice on Garageband that only the left side shows anything on the meter when recording. Thanks!

    • Why are you wanting stereo? Podcast vocals are typically mono.

  • Ale

    Hello,

    I have an M-Audio fast track and apprently it only records in mono.

    Is there anyway I can make my recording stereo?

    • If it doesn’t allow for two simultaneous inputs, then no you can’t record in stereo.
      But honestly, I record almost everything in mono and it usually works better in the mix for me.

  • does this same principal apply to recording audio for video? This is new to me. I have single a wireless lav mic plugged into a Tascam DR-60D II. Should I be recording in Mono? Thanks

  • ClikFire _

    So should all your tracks just be mono until you master them? As far as for it to be mono/stereo compatible?

    • No, not necessarily. My drum overheads and piano tracks are stereo.

      Joe

  • Niraj

    Hi i am using steinberg ur12 which has one xlr input and one hi-z guitar input. If i am using both together, should i be recording on stereo? Or mono??

  • Really love this post, explained it very well for everyone to understand. Good work & Thanks for sharing!

  • Yan Agranovich

    Hello, I record almost everything in mono and then I send several mono tracks to buses (e.g. 4 guitar tracks to bus or every drum to another bus). So should such buses be in stereo or remain mono?

    • The busses should be stereo, so you can pan the guitars if you want to.

  • arman

    wouldn’t you record stereo guitars using two mics on a mono channel each then pan each mono channel?

  • Marcio

    Hi I’m new to this. I’m recording hip hop vocals and I’m using cubase 7 and the interface I got is a “Steinberg UR22”, I have a large diaphragm condenser mic also from Steinberg it’s the Magneto. I heard that the best level to record at is between -6 to -12 dbFS for vocals. So I’d like to know where on the program do I check the dbFS I have no idea where to go. And is it also recommended to record on mono or stereo for solo hip hop artists. Please help. Thank you 🙂

  • Jake

    Hey,
    So I don’t record anything on my own, I use samples and virtual instruments (plugins). I like to have a lot of elemts in my songs, many instruments (2-5 + drums + synth). The output of my plugins ist stereo. Now is it possible that i can get it less messy with many instruments if I make the output of my plugins mono and place them in my stereo image. I could imagine that it might sound clearer as every instrument has its own concentrated place and is seperated from the other instruments, while if the instruments are stereo they can interfere. Might that be?

  • Vamp.

    Hi Joe. Recording on my Zoom R16 here, and wondered which is best to connect my Alesis SR18 drum machine. Should I use two leads from that into the multitrack, or record the drum machine mono? Wondered which was best. Thanks!

    • JayTee

      I am not a professional studio producer or anything but I have a zoom mrt drum machine that I first started out on and I recorded everything stereo. I eventually switched to recording both the drums and the vocals in mono only. This is due to the fact that you usually want your bass drum to hit on all subwoofers equaly. Your snare can be panned left and right as can your hi hats. The toms get rather tricky though. You can record your toms in stereo and still not have the his on the left and the lows on the right like a real drum set would sound. Thats because your drum machine isnt panned this way unless you make it that way or it just comes like that, like my mrt does. The easiest thing to do is record your toms mono, and then add an automation lane that pans them accordingly. Or you can learn how to program your machine. I personally like automation because you have the freedom to edit without re recording. And finally, ill leave you with a tip about drum panning that helped me significantly open my tracks up to breathe better. Pan your drums as if you were looking at the drummer at a concert. The hats and snare would be a little to your right (although I usually dont have my hats and snare panned the same way) and the toms go from left to right the crash would be on either left or right… the point is that no real drum is mono and the whole set shouldnt be panned like its mono. Record each element separately and pan accordingly.
      You can listen to my songs that I produced @ http://www.soundcloud.com/843jaytee

  • eddie

    What if you duplicate a track… pan one hard left and the other hard right… and you add a slight delay on one of the tracks? Does that give it a stereo effect?

    • Jaytee

      No because its the same signal. All you get there is a louder signal. With the slight delay you make get an effect that you like however it sound autonomous to me. What would please you more is if you recorded the same take twice and then added delay or panning and make sure that the gain on your underlying track is set to a tollerable level. I hate when people have a doubled vocal and the doubled part is like making your ears bleed. As for bass drums, a slight delay, low pass filter, and medium-high compression will make your track hit super hard without peaking, if you do it right.

      • Jim H

        Plus with digital you don’t have artifacts like tape wobble to add interest as in ADT but even then some artists chose to double track vocals for a rounder sound.

      • Jim H

        Also the other trick to doubled vocals is that one of them is secondary or lower in volume. In nature the echo is not louder than the initial sound. Also my impression from old records is that if you actually sing the double rather than use ADT that you don’t need to be as forceful on the second vocal but you do need to be exact unless you are going for an Elliott Smith or Jane’s Addiction type effect.

    • jack

      Yes that would do

  • Richard F

    Hi,
    I’m putting my Backing tracks from a mini disc player to p.c using stereo phonos
    (i.e white and red two leads input)
    and recording them as waveforms on Cool Edit pro.
    Please can you tell me if both left and right waveforms should be at the same volume as it always seems to be a lower volume on the right.
    Thank you

    • Dab Dab

      no if the volume on the right is lower then the right waveform should be set higher so it can be balanced out

    • Jim H

      If i understand you you could play a CD track that you know to be in mono and stream it to your input as two parts of a stereo track. Then carefully match the lights that go up and down until the volume on each side matches by the lights. Then put in what you want to record and you should have balanced audio. Because of instrument drift you may have to check it from time to time.

      • Jim H

        You have to play the music and adjust it on the fly. I like to use “She Loves You” or “My Generation” in mono. When I first started transfering concert recordings I assumed that if the knobs matched up on each input that the volume was the same for each but eventually I detected a difference between inputs. This can take few minutes and can be frustrating but your stereo will sound out of phase or strange if it is not balanced.