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…

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