Is there any difference between recording in mono or in stereo? Does stereo convey more atmosphere?

What is the use of recording in stereo or mono? And what do you recommend?

  • By “writing in stereo”, do you mean composing/arranging/orchestrating specifically with stereo image in mind? – leftaroundabout Oct 19 '20 at 8:15
  • recording in stereo – Lyuba Ivanova Oct 19 '20 at 10:03

This is quite broad topic, difficult to cover in a short answer. Let's focus on recording.

Recording an acoustic source (instrument, band, orchestra...) in stereo means using a pair of microphones to capture the stereo image. Some of the popular techniques are:

And many others I'm unable to cover, see e.g.:

https://www.sweetwater.com/insync/7-stereo-miking-techniques-you-should-try/ https://www.dpamicrophones.com/mic-university/stereo-recording-techniques-and-setups https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microphone_practice#Various_methods_of_stereo_recording

The main advantage of stereo recording is that the the sound is very natural and realistic, in particular binaural recordings played back on headphones (google that, it can be fun!).

The potential issues are:

  • you need two microphones, sometimes of specialized characteristics, sometimes more than two e.g. for Decca tree configuration
  • except for MS technique the sound is not guaranteed to be mono-compatible (i.e. may not sound well when mixed down to mono due to phase cancellation). Many producers offer already assembled XY microphone pairs which should yield a mono-compatible recording, and make applying this technique easy
  • MS recordings require special processing (trivial, but mandatory)
  • the recorded sound may not centered in stereo
  • the recording takes twice more space on disk and requires twice more CPU to process (probably less of an issue with modern computers)
  • the sound cannot be processed with mono effects. This is less of an issue using with virtual effects, but using mono hardware effects might be problematic, in particular mono compressors (stereo-linked compressor is preferred).
  • some sources like single vocalist, or guitar speaker won't really benefit from stereo recording

Perhaps to extend the answer, stereo recording can be also compared with multi-microphone recording. Recording a band with a stereo microphone pair can yield quite natural sound. Recording drums with two microphones is an option as well. It is much simpler to setup and mix than when each instrument is miked separately. A requirement here is good room acoustics, good placement of the microphones, good sound of instruments and good balance between them, as such technique leaves very little place for editing.

  • “the sound is not guaranteed to be mono-compatible” – right, except with MS. Regarding whose special processing, “rather simple in modern DAWs” is a bit of an understatement – it's completely trivial, even without a modern DAW. The only difficulty with MS is that it requires a figure-8 microphone. Also, a bit of a phase difference is actually needed for a really spatial direction-perception, that's why MS or XY aren't always the best choices. – leftaroundabout Oct 19 '20 at 21:37
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    @leftaroundabout right, thanks for the comment, I will rephrase it! It's really a broad topic. I wanted to point out that as soon as you add a second microphone you open a pandora box of issues absent in mono recording. – user1079505 Oct 19 '20 at 21:52
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    It doesn't mean using a pair of microphones. It presenting the final mix in two channels, left and right, for which you need at least two microphones. – user207421 Oct 19 '20 at 23:37
  • @MarquisofLorne correct, updating! – user1079505 Oct 19 '20 at 23:44

There's mono. There's mono pan-potted between two speakers. And there's 'real stereo'.

They all have their uses. There's little point in running a PA system in stereo unless the bulk of the audience will be positioned more-or-less optimally. They'll just hear a bad mix.

Mostly, DAW users deal with mono sources panned somewhere between hard L and hard R. It's a step towards reality - if reality is what you're aiming at. Much music doesn't pretend to emulate real players playing in a real room or hall. And that's OK.

Or there's 'solid' stereo. Put a simple pair of mics in front of a live performance in a good-sounding room and you can record the illusion of a fully 3-dimensional sound stage. It's quite remarkable. Many people have never experienced it. They should!

Nothing is absolute. It's quite possible to mix some pan-potted spot micing into an overall stereo image. Much can be emulated with digital processing. And there's a whole further set of recording methods - both realistic and hyper-realistic - aimed at earphone listening.

  • 'Mono pan-potted between two speakers'. Those speakers must be driven by a stereo amp. So what to call that, apart from what you say? – Tim Oct 19 '20 at 14:11
  • Good question! But there are certainly two distinct approaches to 'stereo', the one that attempts a 3-dimensional sound stage (the BBC was very good at doing this on live concert broadcasts) and the one where a mono signal is positioned with a pan control. – Laurence Payne Oct 19 '20 at 16:59
  • @Tim I call that stereo mixing, not stereo recording – Todd Wilcox Oct 19 '20 at 19:25

I suspect TheRealAnswer(TM) here is: realism.

As others mentioned in passing, we have multiple sonic inputs which allow us to determine directionality to rather high angular accuracy (in 3-D, by the way). A monophonic playback is by definition generated from a single source (not even a phased array, for you radar jocks out there), and thus your ears easily recognize that everything you hear is coming from that source location.

Once you have multiple sources, e.g., two or more speakers, then these sources can generate similar waveforms (frequency, amplitude) with different phases. The net phase at the receivers (your ears) is what your brain uses to determine apparent location. Whether you use multiple microphones to record these phase differences, or use a variety of analog and/or digital tools to hack a mono signal into multiple effective sources, the ultimate result is that the listener perceives sounds as originating anywhere between all properly phased speakers (sources). Since that's what you perceive in a live performance, it's a better representation of the real thing.


Since the majority of us have two ears, and always listen and hear in stereo naturally, why would we want mono?

Mono was used initially in recordings as one mic was deemed sufficient, since two weren't going to be used for much for a while yet. I think stereo was discovered by accident - at which point two mics were being used, but not for stereo purposes; and most amps would have been mono, with one speaker - simplicity.

Spaciality is far more apparent with stereo - even more so with the surround sound available with modern films. It's eaasier to pan instruments so they don't get mixed up with each other. Easier, as that's impossible with mono! When we hear a car go by, we have a good idea where it is moving from/to, due to our two ears. Stereo can also reproduce that effect.

As far as writing in stereo is concerned - I'm confused.

  • But in the mix it doesn't matter because then we still build stereo using panning? Sorry for silly quesion – Lyuba Ivanova Oct 19 '20 at 10:28
  • In mono, there can be no effective panning. In stereo (recording) , panning can happen at any time after, as unless it's a live perfomance, each instrument will have its own track, and that can be panned wherever in the final mix. With mono, nothing is movable. – Tim Oct 19 '20 at 10:45
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    The ability to pan is independent of how the signal was recorded. You can record in mono using one microphone and pan it in the mix. Or you can record in stereo using two microphones. Which brings us back to OP's question:, why use one over the other? – Duston Oct 19 '20 at 13:49
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    I wouldn't say "deemed sufficient" -- there simply wasn't reasonable technology to reproduce stereo. It was difficult enough to get amplitude balance over a group of performers; now imagine trying to create a stereo playback system based on needles and acoustic horns. – Carl Witthoft Oct 19 '20 at 15:14
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    @Tim "Record" and "Mix" are two entirely different issues. I agree, you can only pan in stereo. But that has nothing to do with how the track was recorded. – Duston Oct 19 '20 at 16:00

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