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Mixing in Mono: Why & Why Not

Did you know that the mixing engineer behind Kendrick Lamar’s breakout album, Derek Ali, mixes in mono for the first 80% of his process? Today we’re going to discuss what pros and cons of this approach.

Why mix in mono?

1. Because it’s better for achieving the right EQ balance

When you mix in stereo, you have some elements coming from the sides, some coming from the center. That may fool you into thinking that your frequencies are not clashing, when in fact they are. When you mono your track it’s easier to spot the mistake because you don’t have the side information distracting you. When you have a mix that sounds great in mono, making it stereo is going to make it awesome.

2. Because it exposes phase issues

More and more samples and synth presets are now stereo enhanced because it sounds cool and makes them stand out. Sometimes however they are too stereo enhanced, which causes phase cancellation. Phase cancellation happens when left and right channels have waveforms going into opposite directions. When you add the two waveforms together (sum to mono), the signal becomes quiet or „phased out” (as if you put a chorus effect on it). Mixing in mono allows you to spot these issues.

3. Because it forces you to have a solid mid channel

The way to achieve a wide mix which doesn’t completely collapse in mono is to retain a strong mid channel. That way even if the sides collapse, there’s still strong mono content. This is especially important on main drum hits (kick, snare) and bass. It doesn’t mean they have to be completely mono - it just means that you shouldn’t go crazy with the stereo enhancements there. You can use parallel processing on stereo enhancing effects (dry/wet) or you can layer stereo tracks with mono tracks.

Why not mix in mono?

1. Because stereo is an important part of many genres

Imagine an huge supersaw completely mono. It’s not that common, right? Mixing in mono can feel weird, especially when mixing genres that use stereo a lot. 

2. Because you may get a different volume balance in mono than in stereo

Because of phase cancellation, some sounds may appear quieter than they actually are when you mix in mono. This is completely normal - many commercial mixes have a different volume balance in mono than in stereo. 

3. Because stereo is more important

Even though mono compatibility is important, I would argue that stereo is more important than mono. Headphones, laptop speakers, hi-fi systems and car speakers are all commonly used stereo systems. That’s why I think you shouldn’t sacrifice your stereo mix for mono compatibility - as long as it doesn’t collapse in mono.

Mixed approach

If mixing completely in mono isn’t for you, remember to check your mix in mono frequently. This way you’re not going to get surprised by phasing or huge volume changes at the end of your mixing process.

Tip: To make switching between mono and stereo easier, keep a Utility with Width at 0% on the master and assign a key to the on/off switch. To do that in Ableton Live just click the Key button in the upper right corner of the program, click on the on/off switch, press the key and click the Key button once again.



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