"Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

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mholloway
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"Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by mholloway » Fri Mar 10, 2017 5:57 pm

I'd like to discuss, at some great length, the notion that "We should be mixing more with Mono" and what that means to an Ableton user who works mostly In The Box today.

I can't tell you how often I come across online articles, youtube videos, forum threads, etc in which the gist of the message is "You Should Probably Be Mixing in Mono." It's everywhere, just do a Google search on "mixing with mono tracks" if you'd like to see for yourself. I don't mean the ones saying "reference your mix in Mono" (though I'll probably post on that ubiquitous line later, for related but different reasons). These articles / tutorials / knowledgeable-studio-elders go on and on about how Mono tracks are easier to locate in the mix, free up space for better use of the stereo field with panning, avoid phase issues, result in cleaner mixes, etc.

It all sounds nice and sensible when you read it, but it leaves a guy like me rather confused, because --

If your situation is recording a traditional rock band and you're tracking guitar, bass, vocals, drums -- I get that most of your sources should be (and naturally will be) mono to begin with.....

...But those of us working in the world of modern electronic music, relying mostly on software instruments like Omnisphere and Kontakt and Diva, etc.... well, I can't help but point out that the vast majority of our channels are very much STEREO to begin with. So where does that leave us? Is all the Mono Mixing advice out there irrelevant for modern electronic producers? That seems unlikely, but much of it is hard to put to use, because...

That rad Sylenth lead that uses 12 voices of unison stacking to get that huge, wide sound ?
That gorgeous omnisphere pad that twinkles in the left side and swells in the right side then switches sides ?
That crazy cinematic sweep effect in Kontakt from some heavyocity or whatever library ?

These are inherently Stereo sounds. We can't follow Mono Mixing advice if our song is full of these kinds of sounds. So...

Do we say --

1. Screw all that 'mostly mono channels' advice, that's for rock guys in Nashville recording the blues, not for me...

or

2. I should start with less big fancy presets and instead be using mostly mono-output from synths to begin with. I mean hell, Diva outputs in Mono until you turn the FX on or start doing the (totally awesome) modulation of Pan with things like Stack Index or the Voice Map Modulator...but better turn those off, so I can keep this channel Mono... and don't even think about Unison spread on Sylenth....

or

3. I should take my fancy stereo synth sounds and 'collapse' them to mono, which I can do with Utility by either A. reducing Width control to Zero (summing both channels to Mono) or b. selecting only 'Left' or 'Right' in utility, thereby creating a mono channel based on half of the original stereo signal.


well....

in part 1 above, it seems we might be ignoring a fundamental principle of mixing that seems to have worked throughout the ages, and perhaps our "stereo-centric" modern methods are, in fact, shit poor, resulting in smeared, un-centered, unpleasant sounding mixes...


in part 2 above, it seems doing so would mean ignoring 90% of the presets designed for our fancy synths, which seem by default to inhabit large stereo spaces and have no interest in Mono whatsoever (with some exceptions, yes)...


in part 3 above, it seems that collapsing an inherently Stereo sound down to Mono will make it, sure enough, a completely different sound, and in many cases, a really terrible sound! not to mention that the Utility "zero width" trick is, at least IMO, more often than not a way to destroy your sound instantly, because when you simply sum the left and right sides of a sound designed in stereo, you often get a weird, smeared mess of a sound that doesn't feel natural at all. The better choice is simply choosing "Left" or "Right" in Utility, thereby making the channel Mono but not creating some weird squashed version of the original -- but at the expense of losing up to half of what that sound was to begin with.


I realize I'm presenting things in rather absolute terms, which I'm doing mostly for the sake of clarity on these issues. My hope is to generate discussion of how to tackle these issues and see what people's general approach / philosophy is regarding the relationship of Mono and Stereo content inside your song.

What's your approach? Do you even pay attention to what's Mono and what's Stereo in your mix?

Or are you like me, and -- perhaps without ever really thinking about it, until now perhaps -- create your songs with almost -all- Stereo sounds? Maybe some true Mono content slips in from a Kick drum sample or the bass from an analog emulation, but generally, it's Stereo all the way....and perhaps this is killing your mix? Perhaps your mix would be much better if it had a more complementary balance of actually Mono sources along with the plethora of fancy Stereo sounds from fancy stereo plugins?

I'm starting to think maybe I've been 'looking at things wrong' so to speak for a long while, just living blindly in a Pure Stereo world, simply because that's what all of my instruments were providing most of the time. When I cross reference my mixes (which overall I've been happy with) against stuff by older bands that I admire, the primary difference I notice is, sure enough, that their mixes have A LOT more stuff sitting right in the center of the mix. Stuff that was probably Mono to begin with or, if not, was made Mono for mixing purposes. Sure, there's panned stuff and plenty of ultra-wide-hear-it-in-both-ears stereo field stuff, but the middle of the mix is full, too, in a way that my mixes just aren't. And I'm talking about more than the obvious Kick placement and the bass... there will be full synth lines, guitar licks, vocals, horns, more synths, whatever -- all dead center, pure mono, or clearly mono but panned a little bit.

OK, so what that suggests is, try using more Mono sources. Cool, cool -- but then I'm right back to the three points / issues presented earlier.

Perhaps this is just the natural challenge / issue caused by using predominantly stereo software instruments? Hell, Ableton itself was the first DAW to ignore the concept of a Mono audio channel altogether! Studio Mixing Consoles (and the DAWs built to replicate their functionality) mostly existed, historically speaking, in an world where Mono was the expected input, and Stereo was an occasional bonus option that really just meant using two Mono channels instead of one. Maybe the 'modern bedroom producer', with no background in old-school mixing and with a pile of fancy-ass huge sounding stereo instrument plugins on his system, is inevitably going to hit a wall in his mixing where TOO MUCH STEREO becomes the primary roadblock to a better sounding mix.

What do you think?

-M
my industrial music made with Ableton Live (as DEAD WHEN I FOUND HER): https://deadwhenifoundher.bandcamp.com/
my dark jazz / noir music made with Ableton Live: https://michaelarthurholloway.bandcamp. ... guilt-noir

Tarekith
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by Tarekith » Fri Mar 10, 2017 7:02 pm

I think it's good to be sort of subconsciously aware of when maybe things are way too wide and are going to cause obvious issues in mono, but otherwise I don't give it another thought. Everything I do is in stereo and always has been, and it's never been an issue once. I still think given that most people are likely listening on earbuds which are stereo, that the stereo listeners vastly outweight the mono listeners.

There's this ongoing myth that club sound systems are mono that drives a lot of it today I feel. Certainly this is the case some times, but after looking into this a lot more a couple years back most live sound engineers told me they're in stereo for the most part. Maybe the lows going to the subs are summed to mono, but there's still plenty of fills in action to keep that sense of width you get from stereo.

Really though, I can't recall ever playing on mono rig myself, either in a larger club or in a tiny dive bar, it's always been stereo. So given the number of people using headphones, those listening in their car, or on stereo laptop speakers, I definitely favor putting my efforts towards presenting a good experience for those in stereo versus those few who still are listening in mono (in likely less than idea places).

That said, I do still pay attention to things getting too wide like I said above. Things that are essential to the song but drastically out of phase that I know will disappear in mono stick out to me pretty easily. So I don't mind taking a second to make sure that it still comes across in mono a little bit. But I don't make mono my priority at all, it's a stereo world if you ask me.

(Too many people make their songs too wide these days anyway I feel, stereo doesn't mean nothing needs to be in the center of the speakers)

mholloway
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by mholloway » Fri Mar 10, 2017 7:26 pm

Those are all good points Tarekith...

to clarify a bit though -- The "mono compatibility" thing e.g. the myth of the mono club speakers is sort of a whole other issue, wherein people say "check your mix in Mono" and all that... but I see that as a separate thing, since it's about listening to the entire mix in Mono, usually to check for phase cancellation or whatever.

My concern is rather about the relationship, in the session, between individual channels with stereo sounds and channels with actual Mono sounds, and the possibility that using ONLY stereo sources in a song results in a lower quality final mix than one that has a complementary combination of stereo and mono material.

so, i'm not even getting to the part about "are people listening to this on a mono system' -- frankly I don't care, and assume they will be listening via a Stereo system.

But even in a context of stereo mixing and stereo playback, there is this question of Using Mono Sources / Mono Channels inside the mix. And thereby, as discussed / described above, perhaps relying far too much on Stereo tracks, and getting a sort of blurrier overall mix as a result.
my industrial music made with Ableton Live (as DEAD WHEN I FOUND HER): https://deadwhenifoundher.bandcamp.com/
my dark jazz / noir music made with Ableton Live: https://michaelarthurholloway.bandcamp. ... guilt-noir

Tarekith
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by Tarekith » Fri Mar 10, 2017 7:42 pm

I don't see that as an issue myself either FWIW. To me it's less about what are the original sound sources, stereo or mono, and more about what kind of processes am I doing in stereo that might bury things in the mix. Too much reverb, wideners, overly-wide delays, etc. IMVHO those are the kinds of things that bring any sort of downside to using stereo sources, so focus on those things as the culprits to a worse mix rather than the raw source format.

A mix of mono sounds and stereo sounds can give a nice sense of juxtaposition and contrast, but I don't think it's essential to being able to achieve that.

Shift Gorden
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by Shift Gorden » Fri Mar 10, 2017 10:08 pm

Interesting thread, mate.

I think I try to balance mono and stereo tracks. Like you mentioned, low-end frequencies I always mono. Actually, I generally mono everything below 200hz. Quite a few of my hats I like in mono, and then I place them in the stereo field using the pan pots.

If I have a nice big wide synth, all my other stereo processing will be pretty modest just to allow it room.

I do use mono mixing every now and again - mostly for balancing tricky levels or like Tarakith mentioned to check for phase.

If your mix is too wide, it will definitely sound watered down - most of the power of the mix I think comes from the center - maybe not mono per se, but the Mid (as in Mid/Side).

Which, actually, brings up another cool processing technique - M/S processing!

Tarekith
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by Tarekith » Sat Mar 11, 2017 6:38 am

Voxengo's MSED is one of my most used plug ins by far, very powerful for controlling imaging issues. Free too.

Shift Gorden
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by Shift Gorden » Sat Mar 11, 2017 5:36 pm

Tarekith wrote:Voxengo's MSED is one of my most used plug ins by far, very powerful for controlling imaging issues. Free too.
Nice pro tip - I'll download that bad boy now. Cheers mate.

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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by Stace30 » Mon Mar 13, 2017 12:49 pm

Tarekith wrote:A mix of mono sounds and stereo sounds can give a nice sense of juxtaposition and contrast.
Very well put indeed. You are a wordsmith Tarekith!
Live 10 Suite 10.1, M4L, MPC TOUCH MPC software v2.4, Reason 4, Komplete 11, i7 Laptop, 12g Ram, Win 10, Adam A7's & Genelec 8010's - Joined Forum in 2006.

fishmonkey
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by fishmonkey » Tue Mar 14, 2017 12:21 am

Shift Gorden wrote: If your mix is too wide, it will definitely sound watered down - most of the power of the mix I think comes from the center - maybe not mono per se, but the Mid (as in Mid/Side).
if you think about it psychoacoustically, sounds in the centre feel like they are focused in front of you (or perhaps inside you if you are wearing headphones), and they are therefore more direct and immediate. sounds off to the side add space, distraction, and movement.
badbrainz wrote: I'm a drummer, so I'm already at an intellectual disadvantage here

Stromkraft
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by Stromkraft » Tue Mar 14, 2017 8:43 am

Tarekith wrote:Voxengo's MSED is one of my most used plug ins by far, very powerful for controlling imaging issues. Free too.
Please explain how mid/side must have anything to do with [stereo] imaging?

The Wikipedia definition says
"Stereo imaging refers to the aspect of sound recording and reproduction concerning the perceived spatial locations of the sound source(s), both laterally and in depth. An image is considered to be good if the location of the performers can be clearly located; the image is considered to be poor if the location of the performers is difficult to locate"
How can MSED increase listener perception of the location of my "high conga" panned 80 degrees to the left being there and not in the middle or to the right? And how does it balance my "low conga" panned 78 degrees to the right?
Make some music!

fishmonkey
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by fishmonkey » Tue Mar 14, 2017 8:52 am

Stromkraft wrote:
Tarekith wrote:Voxengo's MSED is one of my most used plug ins by far, very powerful for controlling imaging issues. Free too.
Please explain how mid/side must have anything to do with [stereo] imaging?

The Wikipedia definition says
"Stereo imaging refers to the aspect of sound recording and reproduction concerning the perceived spatial locations of the sound source(s), both laterally and in depth. An image is considered to be good if the location of the performers can be clearly located; the image is considered to be poor if the location of the performers is difficult to locate"
How can MSED increase listener perception of the location of my "high conga" panned 80 degrees to the left being there and not in the middle or to the right? And how does it balance my "low conga" panned 78 degrees to the right?
not following your logic here at all. mid-side processing is fundamentally about tweaking the stereo image.
badbrainz wrote: I'm a drummer, so I'm already at an intellectual disadvantage here

Tarekith
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by Tarekith » Tue Mar 14, 2017 10:22 am

Image

There's a lot of options for altering the width of the mix and placement of both the Mid and Side channels.

Hauke
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Re: "Mono Mixing" in a stereo plugin universe...

Post by Hauke » Mon Jun 12, 2017 12:03 am

+1 for MSED.
Tarekith wrote:I still think given that most people are likely listening on earbuds which are stereo, that the stereo listeners vastly outweight the mono listeners.
I think that depends on your target listeners?

I see plenty of people having only one earbud in the ear to be able to hear with a friend (who have the other earbud) or to hear the environment. Also I see A LOT of (mostly young) people listening to music with their smartphone speakers. A lot of mobile speakers or docking stations have only one driver, even the expensive ones (Sonos, Apple, etc.). If your song gets played on the radio, FM receivers switch to mono on a low signal, kitchen-, bathroom- or alarm radios are mostly in mono. I rarely see a perfect speaker setup when at a friends place or in a restaurant, bar, etc.


I also have read and thought about the whole stereo mono mixing issue a lot. But lately I just turn knobs and listen if it sounds better, worse or no change. I know now that I should check mono compability to avoid phasing issues. Not because of the "club system are in mono" movement but because of the reasons I mentioned above. I also learned that you have to be aware in Live when you pan a stereo track, because one channel just gets quiter. In case of your Omnisphere example either the twinkles or the swells will disappear when hard panned with the Live mixer. There is a max device that changes that automatically when you have it in the track. Or I use MSED.


From my experience it's not only the stereo spread that is the problem when using presets but the fact that a lot of them sound super fat and in-your-face and they use a lot of space in the frequency spectrum. So as soon as you have more than three (not properly choosen) presets you have a lot of fatness and in-your-face so it's getting unconfortable to listen to.

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