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Sounding Off

Mike Senior
Published March 2008
By Mike Senior

Surround? Who's even hearing stereo?!

While the jury's still out regarding the importance of surround to SOS readers, stereo is taken for granted. Certainly, most people I speak to mix entirely in stereo, with a handful switching to mono for a quick compatibility check on the off-chance that some weirdo is actually listening that way. Is mono at all relevant these days anyway?Sounding Off

About The AuthorMike Senior's recent SOS features include 'Recording Guitars', 'Perfect Piano' and our 'Strings' cover feature this issue. He also runs Cambridge Music Technology (www.cambridge-mt.com), offering intensive courses focusing on the techniques of the world's most famous producers. He has two ears, but likes to alternate them to reduce wear and tear.

The traditional reason for checking mixes in mono revolves around the fact that some broadcasters still transmit in mono. However, this argument holds less and less water as more advanced transmission formats come on-line. I'm happy to let that debate rage on between the beards in the AES wine bar, because, to be honest, I think it's pretty irrelevant. There are much more important reasons why the stereo information in our recordings rarely survives its passage to the listener.

Even in the murky underworld of the hi-fi enthusiast, stereo imaging is a delicate little flower. You might get clear positioning while you're perched precariously in the sweet spot, but shuffle across the room to peer more closely at the yellowing flyers for Elvaston steam rally and the stereo field scrunches up into whichever speaker you've moved closer to.

And for those hi-fi buffs who aren't bachelors, exactly how often do you reckon they actually listen in the sweet spot anyway? It's not the most communal experience — unless you take the concept of 'close friends' rather literally. And what of the much-quoted WAF (Woman Acceptance Factor)? Hands up how many of you have convinced her indoors of the need for acoustic foam treatment in the living room. Exactly. And how many have had their speakers banished to that corner under the side table, behind the plant? In which case you'll be lucky to hear the lyrics, let alone any stereo.

Normal domestic speaker systems fare even less well. The left speaker of your teenager's hi-fi mini-system is far too busy holding the wardrobe door open to worry about stereo imaging, even if it weren't wired up out of phase. And it stands to reason that your web PC's speakers have to huddle together at one side of the monitor to leave space for your latté. Furthermore, watching any TV from the sweet spot between its two built-in speakers guarantees eye-strain. Maybe you can save the proper stereo experience for the kitchen boom box, where its bespoke shoulder harness will keep you smack between the speakers whether you're doing the dishes or whipping up a stir fry. Or not. (Are you even sure both speakers are working? Mine recently presented me with a rendition of 'Yesterday' without the strings...)

Move outside the home and the situation is no less dire. Consider the inventive speaker placements that proprietors of shops and eateries use to avoid any risk of a stereo image intruding on your listening experience. Car stereo? If my car's anything to go by, you'd need ears on your ankles! But at least in these cases you have different speakers playing different things. What about systems that don't even make a token stab at stereo? Things like telephone hold music and the shopping centre and supermarket announcement systems that claim so many of what sinister market-research companies probably refer to as our 'total listening hours quota'.

Is there anywhere you can hear stereo? On headphones, assuming you're not sharing your ear buds with the person next to you. Or in the cinema, if you're lucky enough to get the centre seats, and assuming you're not one of the estimated 4.4 million UK residents who, like Brian Wilson, suffer from unilateral hearing impairment.

With all this in mind, ask yourself how many of your audience are going to benefit from improved intelligibility when you pan your electric guitars out of the way of your lead vocals. Or how many people will be treated to a 'creatively phase-cancelled remix' of your latest track while they browse B&Q's bathroom fittings.

So maybe next time you mix, you should try mono instead; just remember to switch to stereo for a quick compatibility check on the off-chance that some oddball is actually listening that way... 

Published March 2008