Mixing in Mono: The Secret to Better Mixes

Producing properly balanced mixes can be a real struggle. Fortunately, guest-blogger and home studio coach, Ben van Essen is here to explain why the secret to better mixes doesn’t lie in using more plug-ins, but in simply mixing in mono.

Stuck In The Mix

Years ago, I bumped into a video on YouTube in which someone explained why mixing in mono beats mixing in stereo. Admittedly, I thought the idea sounded nutty at first. If mixes end up in stereo anyway, what’s the point in listening to them in mono like they used to do decades ago? Not long after watching that video, I ended up getting stuck in a mix. The balance was poor, I couldn’t get the vocals to come out and the bass sounded beyond muddy. Sounds familiar?

A Better Mix in Minutes

Following a few days of unleashing every plug-in I had onto the mix to no avail, I remembered what that YouTube tutorial had suggested. I turned the volume of my studio monitors down so that I could just barely hear the music and started listening to it in mono. It was like listening to an old radio playing in the background. Suddenly, I heard exactly what the problem was: the vocals were being washed out in the wall of sound created by the guitars, the drums didn’t have enough of an impact and the bass guitar was way too loud. After a few minutes of fervent tweaking, the mix sounded much more balanced and I immediately wondered what it would sound like in stereo. I anxiously switched to stereo, praying I hadn’t just destroyed a week’s worth of work. Thankfully, as if by magic, I could suddenly make out the different instruments with ease. The vocals were clear and had ample room to shine, while the lows were more optimally balanced. What just happened?!

Helicopter View

Making a mix sound big can be a rush, especially since stereo panning and effects such as reverb, delay and stereo wideners can easily make it seem like you’re in a massive concert room and fully immerse you in the music. That said, those same effects can make you lose sight of the bigger picture. After all, the foundation of every solid mix is good balance. When you ‘zoom out’ and listen to every element in the mix in mono (the middle of the audio image), you can actually hear which parts are coming out on top and which parts are literally disappearing into the music. That guitar in stereo that you had panned all the way to the left may now well be contending with your vocals and the snare drum. Basically, the helicopter view you get in mono reveals issues you wouldn’t have heard in stereo.

Mono Never Lost Its Mojo

Even today, mono is more relevant than you might expect. Ever listen to tunes via a smartphone or Bluetooth speaker? Just like the music played in shopping centres, it’s actually played back in mono. Even the integrated speakers of most televisions sit so close together that the sound is practically in mono. What’s more, most clubs and pubs also run sound systems that deliver music in mono, so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s not important to make sure that your mixes hold up in mono.

Tighter Mixes in Four Steps

Just four simple steps is all it takes to polish off better mixes, so here goes.

  • Step 1: Start off in mono. Add a plug-in to the end of your master bus that allows you to turn the mix into mono. If you’re using Logic Pro X, then you can use the ‘Gain’ plug-in. If you’re running Pro Tools, then select the ‘AIR Stereo Width’ plug-in.
  • Step 2: Lower the volume of your studio monitor and dial in the balance using nothing but the volume faders.
  • Step 3: Since all of the instruments and other elements are now grouped up, this is your chance to create room and give every instrument its own spot in the mix with the help of EQ and compression.
  • Step 4: Switch back to stereo and apply panning and effects as needed. Notice how much quicker it is to find the right balance?
  • Bonus tip: Frequently switch back to mono to keep your ears ‘fresh’ and keep tabs on the balance.

Using a Mono Speaker

Mono speakers are a perfect tool for mixing in mono. You can take a small studio monitor like the Avantone Pro MixCube or a Bluetooth speaker like the JAM Hang Around and connect it to a separate output of your audio interface or monitor controller. This way, you can switch swiftly between your normal studio monitors and your mono speaker of choice. The advantage of a small speaker is that it’s usually mainly focussed on the mids, which is the frequency range where the most important details reside.

Ever mixed in mono before? Tell us how you feel about it in a comment below!

See Also

» Studio Monitors
» Monitor Controllers
» Monitor Isolation
» Audio Interfaces
» All Studio & Recording Gear

» Mixing the Low-End: How to Get that Thick & Punchy Layer
» Studio Subwoofers – The What & Why
» Should You Mix with Headphones?
» 5 Ways to Make Your Mix Sound Louder
» 3D Stereo Mixing: Create Depth with Just Two Speakers
» Mixing with the Mix Bus
» Get the Best Out of Your Studio Monitors with Absorbers & Diffusers
» Compression: What is it and How Do You Use it?
» The Finer Points of Studio Monitor Placement

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