Is It Ideal To Record Vocals In Stereo Or In Mono?
I was reading through an interesting article about recording techniques, which made me wonder: What is the ideal way to record vocals, in mono or stereo? Even after countless recordings I sometimes still wonder which one really is the preferred technique for the best results, which made me decide to go and do some proper research. The answer may be surprising, but also makes sense.
In general, a single voice should always be recorded in mono, as your mouth is effectively a mono device. The recorded mono track can then be panned (placed) anywhere on the stereo field within your DAW audio software. This will enable the recorded voice in the final mix to sound centered, or offset to the left or right to the end user, listening through any commercial stereo device.
To find out how and why mono recording works that much better for vocals, we need to break it down into more detail.
Why Should You Record In Mono
As I already mentioned, you have one mouth and one voice, meaning a single sound source. But it is not just your source that is mono. The majority of microphones are also only able to record in mono. They have only one diaphragm meaning only one track can effectively be recorded.
Even if you set your recording settings to record in stereo, both tracks will pick up the same sound. Some users still prefer to record vocals in stereo to create a fuller sound that can be used during the mixing stage. This is practice is not just very ineffective, but place limitations on vocal tracks during the mixing process. (More on that later on.)
Recording short vocal sessions will not have too much of an effect on file size, but long recording sessions will dramatically increase your file size when recording in stereo. Mono recording on a single track will decrease file size, which will become especially beneficial when working on big projects and you start adding all the tracks together.
Even if you use a stereo microphone for stereo recording, this creates another problem for vocal recording. The slightest movement of your head to either sides of the microphone will cause the sound of your voice to "wonder around" in the stereo field. As a result your vocals do not remain perfectly centered when the stereo sound is played back. This creates a distracting and unpleasant experience for the listener.
Another way some users are trying to use a stereo recording, is when recording more than one instrument. This scenario is addressed by using two separate microphones for each instrument in stereo. This means that one instrument is panned to the left channel, and one instrument to the right channel. This sounds like a perfect solution in theory and there are some instances where this works very well.
Unfortunately this practice creates another negative side effect called phase cancellation, where all the different pieces of audio starts cancelling each other. When two or more microphones are used together are used together, the resulting sound can sound be negatively effected with the audio sounding very thin and hollow. Rather making use of two separate mono recordings for each the instrument and them combining them in your DAW software will eliminate this problem.
One scenario that have both pros and cons for mono and stereo recording, is where a singer/songwriters more often than not make use of their voices as well as an instrument, very often a guitar. In most instances the sound engineer will often prefer the two sound sources to be recorded separately on two mono tracks.
These two mono recordings allow the sound engineer the maximum amount of control over each track to adjust and place each one correctly in the stereo field. This can be very inconvenient and difficult for the single artist to achieve though, which brings us to another approach which I will address in the Stereo Recording section.
How A Mono Track Gets Edited In DAW Software
When a vocal track, recorded in mono is inserted into the stereo image of your DAW software, you have full control over the placement (panning) of the track in the stereo field. It can be placed in the center, or slightly to the left or right depending on the effect you are after. (The center is always preferable when the vocal track is the primary track.)
Moving the track around in the stereo field would have been nearly impossible if it was already recorded in stereo.
The intended fuller sound that is the reason many users record in stereo can be achieved through more efficient ways on a mono track. The stereo recording will not result in a fuller sound at all.
Some users try and achieve the fuller sound by simply duplicating the mono track in the audio software. This too will not result in a fuller sound, as the two identical tracks combined, will simply sound a few decibel louder.
The only effective way to create a fuller and richer sound by combining to mono tracks, is to create two separate recordings of the same vocal piece. As the the two mono recordings are not identical, combining them in the stereo field will result in a much fuller and richer sound. (What you were after in the first place.)
One of the best way to create a richer and fuller vocal sound though, is by applying the correct adjustments and effects to a track recorded in mono. By adjusting the gain, equalization but especially the reverb of the vocal track, you will be able to create a more prominent and richer sound. All while still maintaining the advantage of a mono track by placing it anywhere you want on the digital sound stage.
When Recording In Stereo Is Justified
A very good practice where stereo recording plays an important role, is the use of stereo microphone to to record a single "overall" sound. Everything else gets recorded in mono.
Choosing what to record in stereo is important. When you want to record a vocal or instrumental performance, but also capture ambient noise of the surrounding area in which it is recorded, it is pretty obvious. You record the vocals in mono as usual. Then at the same time or later on with similar sounding surroundings, you record the ambient noise in stereo.
When added together in you software's stereo field, you have all the advantage of a mono vocal track, combined with stereo recording of the ambient noise. This creates the perfect strong solo performance with all its benefits, accompanied by the ambient sound in full stereo. The result is a very pleasant listening experience where the vocal performance is surrounded and filled out by the natural ambient sound.
Choosing which sound to record in stereo differs, depending on the situation and instruments. In a band performance, where vocals, multiple bass guitars and drums are used, the overall presence of drums make it the ideal sound to be captured in stereo. The rest gets recorded in mono and everything mixed together in your software. You will have to experiment in different situations to find out which sound should be recorded in stereo.
Another way in which a stereo recording can be used to create a fuller and richer sound, is by using two mono mics. Yes, I have been talking about creating a fuller and richer sound before, but this is a completely different approach to create this effect. Let me explain:
Instead of using a single microphone and simply duplicating the track in the software, or making two separate recordings of the vocal performance and combining them in the software, you are are actually using 2 mono microphones to record exactly the same vocals, with a difference...
By placing the 2 microphones at different distances from the source while also changing the angle at which the microphones are facing the source, the sound reaches the one microphone fractionally quicker than the other, and the different angles also create a slightly different character and color captured by each microphone. The one microphone is fed to the left and other to the right channel of the stereo recording. The listener is hearing the same recording, but with different characteristics and fractionally apart in time. The result is the much fuller and richer sound you were looking for.
The scenario mentioned in the Mono Recording Section where there are both pros and cons for mono and stereo recording, is where is vocalist with a single instrument like a guitar are recorded. Especially where there is just one instrument involved, the whole recording can sound a bit thin or scarce. Using a mono recording combined with stereo recording can address this problem:
You start by using a mono microphone for recording the vocals. Here it would be a good idea to use a high quality dynamic microphone (like Shure's SM7B) to isolate the vocals and pick up as little as possible from the guitar sound. At the same time you place two condenser microphones at different distances and angles from the guitar and proceed to capture it's sound in stereo (one mic on the left, and one mic on the right channel).
By following this practice you allow the vocals to be recorded in mono, and the guitar in full stereo. The stereo recording allows the sound to fill out the stereo space. Combined with the vocals it creates a pleasant listening experience and avoid the potential thin/scarce sound a single mono recording can produce.
By now it should become clear to see why individual vocals should be recorded in mono in the majority of cases. There is the odd exception where recording in stereo will be more practical.
In some cases, it is not as clear-cut and black & white as one would like, as was illustrated when we were looking at the advantages of recording in mono and stereo. Sometimes a combination of mono and stereo produce the best results, depending on the situation.
(Yet, when you speak to a sound engineer, in the vast majority of cases a mono recording of each sound is preferred, allowing the maximum amount of control and placement in the stereo field stage during the mixing process.)
So in summary, the best way of controlling your final stereo output, is to record your vocals in mono, and do your mixing in your DAW software, where you have the most control over the placement of your vocals, instruments and ambient noise on the digital sound stage for the final audio output.
I hope this article managed to shine some light on the best way to record your vocals. Yep, it's not as as simple as it seems, as we all discovered.
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!