The Secret Of The Pros: Mixing in Mono
Have you ever finished mixing and mastering your track, felt satisfied with the result only to transfer it to your phone to enjoy, and suddenly it sounds bad or strange? This is a common problem amongst music producers and it has a pretty simple and often- overlooked solution.
Sometimes elements of your song get lost when played through cellphones, car stereos, and radios because the quality of the speakers is very different from studio monitors, or they only have a mono (single) speaker.
Mixing in mono is crucial to creating a mix that sounds good on almost any speaker. Getting your mix to sound good on high-end studio-grade monitors is one thing, getting it to sound good on a low-end car speaker is another!
How to Mix in Mono
- Switch over to mono in your DAW of choice.
- Adjust each tracks’ volume level from zero up until all your tracks are sitting nicely in the mix in mono.
- Add processing like EQ and compression to your tracks so they work together well in the mix.
- Change back to stereo to add stereo effects like reverb and delay before checking the song again in mono.
- Pro Tip! Don’t just mix in mono via your DAW – also listen to your song in true mono via a single speaker.
Let’s go through the definitions of common mixing terms and discuss all the steps on how to mix in mono successfully.
Definition of Mixing Terms
To understand how to mix in mono, there are a couple of mixing terms you need to know. Read through each definition carefully to help you grasp the steps in the next section.
The classic origin of the word mono is “one”. This rings true in the audio world as well.
Mono in the audio world refers to a signal of sound that is transmitted through a single channel or speaker.
When you are mixing in mono, it means that you are mixing while only hearing the song through one speaker. Examples of mono speakers include cellphones, some laptops, and some radios.
The term stereo refers to a signal that is transmitting through two channels.
Playing sounds through multiple channels, or in stereo captures the spatial dimensions of the sounds as you can hear them through your left and right ears differently in stereo.
When you mix in stereo, you are mixing while hearing the song through either two or more channels.
Some examples of stereo speakers include a car’s stereo system, a television speaker system, and of course, studio monitor speakers.
To understand stereo separation you need to understand that sound is heard spatially and can be manipulated to fill up more space.
Stereo separation is when you make a sound “fill out” space between the left and right, instead of only hearing it in the middle, or mono. When you hear a song played in mono or one speaker, the sound stays in one “middle” area.
With stereo separation, the sound can be made to “fill out” the areas outside of the “middle” making it sound more organic and full. This is done by balancing and manipulating the sound levels through the left and right speakers.
Often confused with stereo separation, panning is the process during mixing where each instrument or sound is carefully distributed between the left, center, and right within the mix.
Panning allows each sound to have adequate space in the mix to avoid muddiness. You want to have a good balance between sounds on the left and sounds on the right so that none are competing with each other in the mix.
An example of creative use of panning is when you are listening to a song and a sound “moves around”, maybe it will move from the left ear to the right ear for example. Panning can be used tastefully with the tom mics and overhead mics on a drum kit so when a drummer plays a fill, the sound of each tom appears to move from left to right (or vice versa) – creating the impression that you are right there with the drummer. Panning one guitarist to the left and one to the right also creates a nice sense of space and separation.
Panning is often used creatively in movies to give the viewer a 3-dimensional feel. Imagine you are watching a movie, you hear a monster roar behind you while the characters in the movie look outward terrified.
Equalization in audio production, more commonly referred to as EQ, is the process of attenuating unwanted frequencies and accentuating pleasant frequencies that may be less audible than desired.
For example, when you listen to a vocal recording and hear an unpleasant frequency that feels uncomfortable on the ear, you will use an EQ to subtract from it.
An EQ will lessen or enhance a frequency by the amount that you need so that you can listen to a song at a good volume without any problems such as harsh frequencies or sounds that are too quiet.
Compression is the process of bringing the loudest parts of a song closer to the quietest parts, in other words improving the dynamic range of the song.
The loudest frequencies are compressed down to be closer to the quieter parts so that the quiet parts of the song sound boosted and the volume of the overall song can be increased without causing distortion.
A complicated concept to grasp, phasing in a mix is when two frequencies vibrate at the same time and cancel each other out.
Phasing can happen when you only mix in stereo and don’t check to see if there are any competition issues between sounds when played in mono.
It is very unlikely that you will have two perfectly competing sounds, but there can easily be parts of two sounds that share some frequencies and clash in the mix when played in mono.
Steps To Mixing In Mono
You can start your mix out in mono, or you can mix in stereo as usual and then go over it in mono as a final check.
For the best mixing results, alternate between mono and stereo at various stages of your mixing process.
If you have never mixed in mono before, here are some steps and tips to help you out:
1. Change your mixing to mono in your DAW
Changing your mixing to mono is different for each DAW but is very simple. Here are ways to change to mono in some commonly used DAWs:
Ableton: Go to Audio effects; click Utility; choose the Mono preset.
Logic: Add a gain plugin to your stereo output, and click “mono”.
FL Studio: Open your mixer channel; select your master track; turn your stereo separation knob completely to the right, merging your channels to mono.
How to change your mix to mono in Pro Tools
In Pro Tools, there are a couple of ways you can achieve a mono mix. There is not a dedicated mono function, but you can easily configure this manually. The easiest way is to route all your outputs to a master AUX channel before your master output, then adjust the pan knobs on this master Aux channel to the top centre position. The second way is to add the stereo width plugin that comes bundled with the Air Creative Suite to your master channel. The default width in this plugin is 100%. Simply dial the width back to 0% and your mix will be in mono
2. Route the signal from your audio interface to one speaker
Although you can listen to your mix in mono, set via your DAW, if you are still hearing it through two speakers, each speaker is emitting the sound in mono but it is not as effective as listening to your song in true mono, through only one speaker.
You can route your signal through only one speaker to mix it in true mono in two ways:
- Unplugging one monitor from your audio interface
You can route your signal by switching one monitor off and unplugging it from your audio interface temporarily.
This will automatically route your sound to only one speaker, making it true mono.
- Panning to one monitor in your DAW
You can switch to true mono by panning your sound to one monitor in your DAW. This will channel all of your sound into one monitor, in true mono.
3. Turn everything down to zero and slowly bring each instrument up, one by one
Once you play your track in mono for the first time, you will most likely hear some issues with phasing or levels that don’t sound right.
To solve any issues with phasing, turn the volume for each instrument down to zero. One by one, starting from the most important sounds, such as vocals, slowly turn up each one until the levels sound good.
The goal here is to avoid any competition in the mix between sounds. You want the volume of each instrument to be as balanced as possible in the mix.
4. Add EQ as needed to instruments to cut frequencies that are competing
You may find that in mono, even though you added EQ to your tracks in stereo, there are frequencies competing in the mix.
You will find that this generally happens with frequencies from two prominent instruments in your song, such as keyboard and guitar or bass and kick drum.
When two frequencies match up, but not enough to phase each other out completely, they end up competing in the mix and possibly causing unwanted frequencies.
You can use subtractive EQ to solve this problem. Simply pinpoint the problem areas, isolate the unwanted frequencies, and subtract from them.
5. Add compression to even out the dynamics
Add compression while you are in mono to improve the dynamic range of your song even more.
Sometimes, even though you have added compression in stereo, you may still hear issues in mono that you never expected.
If your compression is done right in mono, it will sound great in stereo! Look at the levels of your tracks, add compression when you see that there are prominent peaks.
The goal is to bring your peaks closer down to your quieter frequencies so that when you turn the volume up, your peaks don’t end up clipping and your quiet sections sound boosted.
6. Change your mix back to stereo and listen for phase issues
After some basic mixing in mono, change your mix back to stereo to listen for any phase issues.
If you hear that once you have switched back to stereo that there are now some frequencies cutting out, or strange unexpected effects happening, you want to make the necessary adjustments to the tracks to get them sounding good again in stereo.
Mixing in mono from the start is less likely to give problems when switching over to stereo.
Many producers use panning too early on and make the mistake to not check the results in mono. Panning in stereo to make a song sound good can backfire easily once switched to mono.
Sounds from the left and right are brought together into the middle when switched over to mono and end up competing for space in the mix. This is why phase issues are more likely when switching between stereo and mono.
7. Add stereo effects like delay and reverb
While you are back in stereo, this is the time to add stereo effects like delay and reverb.
Just like how panning and stereo separation help add width to the audio space, delay and reverb can add to that too, enhancing the 3-dimensional space that your song sits in.
Good delay and reverb will translate to a wide audio space even when your song is playing on a mono system.
8. Switch back to mono again and make sure that everything still sounds good
The last step to your mixing process before moving onto mastering should always be to check it one last time in mono to make sure that everything still sounds good.
The reason why you want to do this is so that when your song is exported and played, it will sound as good as possible on any speaker including bad quality mono speakers.
To get your mixes sounding more pro than ever, always check them in mono as well as stereo during the mixing process.
You never know what kind of speaker your listeners are hearing your work on so the aim is to get your mix to sound as good as possible on any speaker, whether it be a fancy stereo system or a cheap mono speaker.