Back To Mono!

Okay, just how brave are you? Really. I mean, could you slap four decades of audio advancement in the face, and get down with the giants of early rock recordings? Well, my friends, that means abandoning stereo and 5.1 audio and embracing the exquisitely one-dimensional world of monophonic mixes.
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Okay, just how brave are you? Really. I mean, could you slap four decades of audio advancement in the face, and get down with the giants of early rock recordings? Well, my friends, that means abandoning stereo and 5.1 audio and embracing the exquisitely one-dimensional world of monophonic mixes.

Why Would I Even Consider Mono?

It was good enough for Phil Spector, who in his life before becoming a convicted murderer, constructed his famous wall-of-sound productions in glorious mono. It was also fab for the Fab Four, who typically didn’t even bother to hang around during the stereo mixes until late in the band’s career. It was the mono mixes that received the utmost care and concern from John, Paul, Ringo, and the two Georges (Harrison and Martin). And let’s not forget that most classic Beach Boys mixes are mono, as boy genius Brian Wilson was deaf in one ear, and was reportedly less comfortable working in stereo.

Sure, these examples definitely sit in the “oldies but goodies” realm, but there’s something magical about mono that works whether you’re Link Wray or the Jonas Brothers. There’s no spatial separation, so if you’re particularly clever, all the instruments and vocals can meld together into a marvelous gumbo of near-mystical sonics. Support parts can create unique tones as they blend with the primary tracks. For example, you don’t have the option of panning to separate two acoustic guitar parts from an electric-guitar part and a piano, so the stacked monaural textures can—depending on your mix relationships—fuse together as some kind of a strange and vibey acoustopiano- electric part.

Furthermore, with all audio elements rocking in the middle, so to speak, the dynamic impact of the music may even be more chunky, punchy, and ballsy than that of a stereo mix. So if you’re looking to seduce a listener, mono’s combination of mystery and machismo doesn’t sound like a chump’s bet at all.

What About the End User?

Unless you’re dealing with a particular type of audiophile who also adores ancient vinyl and truly oldschool audio productions, you can assume the home-theater crowd will hate your ass for going mono. But you can also assume the iPod and earbud minions may not notice the missing stereo spectrum, and will simply thrill to the feral power rocking their tympanic membranes. The experience will likely be the same for anyone listening in a car, elevator, retail store, club, or other venue where spatial clues are not easily discernible. And, while younger EQ readers probably didn’t attend gettogethers where 45rpm singles were played through tiny, portable record players bearing one small speaker, I can attest that the tunes could bust through party chatter without cranking the playback volume to the tip top of the three watts or so those boxes could manage. You can thank the focused, cutting power of mono for that little acoustical trick.

How Can You Possibly Separate Mix Elements in Mono?

If you just dropped some bucks on the newly remastered Beatles Mono Box, then you already know that mono can sound magnificent. For those who fear that jettisoning the pan pot also tanks articulation and clarity, here are some sensible “do nots”:

• Don’t EQ everything in the same range. Guitars should not be made to devour the same sonic real estate as the piano, synth, snare, or vocal—or vice versa. Unless you’re deliberating crafting similar textures, every element should have its own timbral space—even if that means some instruments may end up sounding duller than you’re used to.

• Don’t muddy up the low end. If the sound starts to degenerate into oatmeal, nip off some bass frequencies in the 200Hz to 100Hz range (or lower). A 3dB to 6dB cut at the offending frequency should do the trick.

• Don’t feature everything. This may be hard for those who want it all, but listen to those splendid Beatles mixes for reference. The vocals are way upfront until a solo takes over, and when the solo is finished, the vocals take center stage again. One element is the main focus at all times, and everything else is secondary. This strategy worked for Motown, too. Find that one main seductive element for each section of your song, and mix it loud and proud. Trust me, the other instruments won’t riot, and your mix will punch harder than Mike Tyson in his prime.