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Throughout many different genres and styles of music, the vocals are one of the most important components of a song. Many listeners will pay close attention to the words of a song and ultimately sing along if they enjoy the song or words.
Because the vocals are such an essential piece of many songs, it is essential that they are recorded in the best way possible for the clearest and most listenable representation of the vocals. If the vocals are not recorded well, whether too loud, too soft, or some other issue, it can make people not want to listen to the song.
There are many ways to record vocals, such as renting an expensive studio. Still, thankfully it is very possible to record and mix your vocals right at home as long as you have some equipment like a microphone, audio interface, computer, and a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as Ableton.
If you are planning to record vocals, no matter where this is, one important question you might be asking is if the vocals should be recorded in mono or stereo.
So, which is it?
In most situations, recording vocals in mono is the best method. Vocals are typically front and center in a song, and if you record in stereo, the vocals might pan too far to the right or left. However, when recording a group of singers or background vocals recording these vocals in stereo is optimal.
Below I will explain some of the nuances of recording in mono versus stereo and how to record your vocals in both ways.
What Is Mono Versus Stereo?
Before we dive into whether or not you should record your vocals in mono or stereo (and how to do so), I will first explain the difference between mono and stereo.
The Focusrite website states that Monophonic (Mono) means that all sound and audio signals either come from a single source or are combined into a signal channel. The result is that the audio from a mono source will either only go to one speaker (in this example picture, a right and left speaker set up such as a studio monitor set up) or each speaker will receive the same audio signal.
In contrast, stereophonic (stereo), according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is a two-channel audio signal meaning it will send two different audio tracks, one to the left speaker and one to the right.
If you are positioned directly in the middle of your studio monitors or are listening to both headphones you might not hear a difference between mono and stereo. However, if you were to either change listening locations or take a headphone out, you would begin to hear a difference.
The result of this two-channel signaling is a much more immersive listening experience. In most situations, whether that is listening to music, movies, or even mixing your own music, stereo will be the preferred method.
Stereo provides the listener with a much more nuanced experience and creates a sense of spacing and direction within the audio. Stereo is often used in music recordings, film and video game scores, and many other multimedia applications.
However, sometimes stereo won’t be the best choice, such as in rooms with a lot of speakers, as the signals could interfere with each other and decrease the overall sound quality. As written on the Sweetwater website, this is known as phase cancellation.
Since stereo tends to be the preferred method of listening and usually results in increased quality, that means that we should record everything in stereo, right?
Not so fast.
While stereo from a listening perspective is ideal in most situations, that doesn’t necessarily mean that recording in stereo is the best option. Let’s dive into the recording side of things and whether or not you should record vocals in mono or stereo.
Should You Record Vocals In Mono Or Stereo?
Like many other topics in the music world, the answer to whether or not vocals should be recorded in mono or stereo is nuanced and context-dependent. In most situations, recording in mono is going to be the preferred choice, but there will be some situations where stereo recording is the best option.
Now wait a minute; why should I record my vocals in mono when stereo is preferred? Well, this is where the mixing process comes into play, primarily using a technique called panning. Panning is when you take an audio signal (either mono or stereo) and move (pan) it around within the stereo field, giving that perception of sound coming from one speaker more than the other, adding depth to the listening experience I explained above.
Recording in mono will give you more clarity and control over your recording. If you are recording one voice with one microphone, there is really no reason to record in stereo. Remember, if you want to add some stereo or panning effect to your mono vocal recording, you can simply move it around in the stereo field within your DAW.
However, panning vocals in most cases is not advised. While there are certain situations where panning vocals are desired, such as layering in background vocals or harmonies, the lead vocals should usually stay front and center in the audio field.
As I mentioned earlier, many listeners focus on the vocals, so panning to one side or the other can sometimes make for an awkward listening experience. Most listeners expect the vocals to be front and center in most situations.
Recording in mono is also more compatible, meaning mono vocal recordings are going to work well across pretty much every playback device. In contrast, the same might not be true for stereo recordings.
It is also easier to adjust mono-recorded vocals during the mixing process than with stereo recording.
How To Record Vocals In Mono
Recording vocals in mono is straightforward. If you are singing and recording into one microphone, you are recording in mono. Whether you are recording directly into a DAW using a USB audio interface like a Scarlett Focusrite or in some other method, the fact that one microphone on one channel is being used means you are recording in mono.
However, there is a sort of simulated stereo method (also called pseudo-stereo), as stated on Sweetwater’s website, that can be accomplished with one microphone in which you essentially split the mono signal to the left and right. This can be accomplished by adding a slight delay or chorus on one side or even just turning down the volume to one side.
However, at the end of the day, this method doesn’t make much sense for vocal recording, and it is really just a mono recording. If you don’t add any delays or other effects to one side in a simulated stereo recording, the listener won’t be able to make any distinction between that and a regular mono recording.
The video below does an excellent job of explaining the difference between mono, simulated stereo, and actual stereo vocal recording in more detail.
In most situations, recording vocals in mono is going to be the best method of recording. Unless you are working on some kind of experimental type of recording (which is perfectly fine), most listeners will expect a mono-recorded vocal performance in your songs.
How To Record Vocals In Stereo
Recording vocals in stereo is as simple as recording your voice with two (or more) microphones going into two (or more) separate channels.
Although microphone positioning is still extremely important when using one microphone in a mono recording setting, the placement and positioning of microphones when recording in stereo is essential. Even as little as an inch of adjustment can drastically change the recorded sound.
When microphones are placed in different locations, the sound waves coming from the vocals will reach the microphones at slightly different times, which will help to create that stereo effect you are looking for. Placing microphones at different angles can also change how the soundwaves and frequencies are picked up, again changing the recorded sound.
A similar concept is where you place microphones on drums, either when recording or in a live setting. Keeping the microphones farther away from the surface of the drum heads will allow the microphones to pick up a broader frequency range, thus often resulting in a better sound.
As I have stated before, using stereo to record vocals is not common unless you are recording multiple singers, trying to add layers and complexity, or attempting something with harmonies from other singers.
If you are recording one voice using one microphone, the mono approach is going to be your best bet.
After reading this article, you should now have a much better understanding of the differences between mono and stereo, how to record vocals in both mono and stereo and when you would want to use the different methods.
I hope you have found this article beneficial, and I wish you the best of luck in your recording endeavors.
Until next time, stay creative and keep on playing!
Hi everyone! I have been involved with music most of my life, beginning in grade school with the trumpet. I am a largely self-taught multi-instrumentalist (drums, guitar, bass, and starting the piano and violin). I currently play drums in two bands and write and produce many genres of music in my home recording studio. I am also an avid guitar and drum collector.