Should I Record In Mono Or Stereo? The Answer Is Not As Obvious As You Might Think

by Caleb J. Murphy

 November 21, 2017
mono or stereo

Here’s a common question among beginner producers:

Should I record in mono or stereo?

It’s a good question; one that all music-makers should know the answer to.

In this article, I’ll be breaking down the meaning, benefits, and best applications for both options.

By the end of this article, you will find yourself bettered as a producer and you’ll surely be able to make the best decision..

First of all...What’s the difference?

Fortunately, I don’t need any fancy graphs or confusing tech talk to explain the difference between mono and stereo.

It’s simple:

Mono

= recording with one audio source

Stereo

= recording with two audio sources

Basically, if what you’re recording has a Right and a Left aspect to it, you’ll want to record in stereo. That’s what stereo is -- audio on the Right and the Left side.

Keep in mind, duplicating a mono recording will not make it a stereo recording. If you record in mono, then copy and paste that recording into a new track, it will just make the recording louder rather than fuller.

With true stereo recordings, two mics will capture a more realistic sounding audio, like the instrument is there in the room.

Is Mono or Stereo Better For Recording?

To figure out which is truly best suited for you, it depends on what instrument you’re recording (which we’ll cover later on), but here are some general benefits of each.

Benefits Of Recording In Mono

The main reason is that it’s simple. You just plug and play.

Remember, mono means one audio source, like when you use a guitar or microphone cable. All you have to do is plug it in and begin.

Another nice benefit of mono recordings is that they don’t take up much storage space.

Using simple logic, we know that recording one audio source, as opposed to two, means the recording will take up less space on your hard drive.


Benefits Of Recording In Stereo

As I mentioned before, one huge pro for recording in stereo is panning.

If you’re using two mics to record, say, a piano, you can pan one to the left and the other to the right to give it a fuller, more realistic  sound.

This takes us to the second main benefit of stereo recording: fullness. Being able to pan can lead to a much fuller sound.

You don’t simply want more loudness (increased dBs), you want more fullness (increased richness).

When Should I Use Stereo And When Should I Use Mono?

This is the golden question. Just knowing the difference is not enough -- you also have to know how to apply each.

When To Record In Mono

Mono is preferred and often the only option for certain recording situations. Here’s a breakdown of the times you’ll want to record in mono.


Vocals

In almost every vocal recording session -- in home studios and in pro studios -- you’ll see just one microphone. Sometimes there might be a second mic set up as a room mic, but usually it’s just the primary mic.


Electric Instruments

electric instruments

Examples of electric instruments include: electric guitar, electric bass, and keyboards. With all of these instruments, you can (and should) record a mono track.

If you want any of these instruments to have a richer feel, you can record the same part twice, (not copying/pasting) then treat them as a stereo mix.

When To Record In Stereo

Recording in stereo is a little more complicated, but not so much as to be intimidating. However, there are certain ways to mic certain instruments to avoid phasing issues and to get the best possible sound for your track.


Acoustic guitar

acoustic guitar

To get a nice, rich acoustic guitar sound, it’s best to record in stereo. You can either use two mics, or you can use one mic and one direct-in line with your guitar cable.

If you go with the former option, you’ll want to make sure you’re correctly using one of the many mic placement techniques to avoid potential phasing.


Piano

When micing a piano, professionals suggest placing the mics to capture audio as your ears would -- facing the piano at ear level, keeping them even with each other to avoid phasing issues.

So one mic would be on your left side, picking up mostly lower notes, with the other mic on your right, capturing more of the higher notes.


A choir or multiple singers

stereo recording - multiple singers

Just like micing a piano, you can use two mics on a choir or small group of singers. That way, you can pan to the left and right. This gives the listener the feeling of being in the room with the singers.


Electric guitar

Even though the simplest way to record an electric guitar is mono (one guitar cable direct-in), you can also record in stereo.

This can be achieved by running your guitar into an amp then using two mics on the amp. Just like micing an acoustic guitar or a piano, you need use proper mic placement so phasing is not a problem.

Final Thoughts

So, do you feel like a better producer?

Honestly, whether or not you feel like it, you are better equipped for knowing this info. It’s basic, yet crucial, knowledge to have in order to record professional sounding music.

As always, comment below with any questions!



What do you think?


  • I have a piece of orchestral music which has spoken word running through it. I’m guessing that the final mix should have the narrator’s voice in mono, and all the effects on the music and not on the narration track. Do you feel that would work best?

    • Caleb J. Murphy November 22, 2017

      Hi, Rob.

      When you record the final voiceover, treat it like a vocal recording – use just one mic and record onto a mono channel in your DAW.

      And, generally speaking, you probably don’t want to go too crazy with the effects on the voice if it’s just spoken word. Honestly, all you need is a bit of EQ (to cut out room noise and enhance the good-sounding parts) and compression (to keep the level consistent throughout the recording).

      Hope this helps!

    • Thanks Caleb, it does help, a lot. I use a DAW called Mixcraft 8. And the microphone I use is a Rode NT-USB, it’s a Cardoid, but it looks like they can only record in stereo. Any thought on how to get a mono recording with this gear? Cheers Rob

    • Caleb J. Murphy November 28, 2017

      I’ve never used that mic before, but I have written about it. According to my research, it records in mono. It would only be able to record in stereo if it has two smaller mics working together (usually underneath a mic cage). You should be able to just run it into a mono channel in your DAW.

      Just curious – what make it look like it only records in stereo?

    • Rob Kennedy November 28, 2017

      To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. I just thought it was. My DAW has only stereo or left or right channel options in its tracks, but it does not seem to matter what selection I choose, they all sound the same and do not change the direction to any speaker, so I assume it is recording and playing in mono. Cheers and thanks for all the help. Rob