5 Audio Recording Tips For Newbies – Part 1: Stereo Or Not?

The following is a list of 5 really important things about audio recording that would have made my life soooo much easier if I had known them when I started with my first home recording studio. Hopefully this article will be of great benefit to you if you want to learn home recording. This is part 1 in a series.

Since there is so much awesomeness in these 5 audio tips, I’m going to break them into 3 different posts so they can sink in better:).

1. It Is Only Stereo If The Sound From The Left Speaker Is Different From The Sound Coming From The Right

I THOUGHT I knew what “stereo” meant. Heck, when I was a kid that’s what we called our music players. “Hey, turn on the stereo and play some Queen.” It just means coming out of both speakers (left and right), right?

Now this may sound silly, but just because you have sound coming from both left AND right speakers does NOT mean you have a stereo signal. Forget about dictionary definitions for a second.

THIS is what you need to know: It is only useful stereo if the sound from the left speaker is different from that coming from the right. And get this… to be truly effective that difference must be so slight that we aren’t consciously aware of it!

Let me clarify. If you listen closely through both speakers, you’ll hear that most music has different stuff coming from different sides, like the lead guitar part coming completely from the right speaker, and the rhythm guitar coming completely from the left.

If you turn the “pan” button on the stereo all the way to one side or the other, you can’t hear the other guitar at all… or maybe only very faintly. But everyone knows that right? Well that still isn’t really the COOLEST thing about stereo. So “what is?” I hear you cry.

This: a single instrument (or voice) that somehow comes from the speakers with some differences between the left and right parts of the audio, is WICKED cool!

You’ve heard me talk about the magic of audio? Well THIS is one of those magical things. An entire chapter (or book) could probably be written about this – and we will go into lots of depth in the tutorials.

But the basic idea is that the human brain picks up on differences in sounds on left and right UNCONSCIOUSLY if the differences are subtle enough. This is NOT some freaky-deaky new-age hooey! Modern recorded music (in fact our very survival as a species… but that’s another book) depends on it.

Let’s say you have a recording of a piano that, for some reason, was recorded in mono (maybe you only had one microphone). Even though it is possible to tell your recorder to “record in stereo,” that just means it is going to split the audio into two “identical” sounds, and send one to the right channel and the other to the left channel. This is NOT a stereo signal, based on our definition above.

Remember why? Correct! There are no differences in the sounds coming from left and right. If you were to play this recording through headphones, you’d notice piano sound coming from both speakers, but your brain would tell you that there was only one lonely, rather thin-sounding piano, right in front of you.

If you remember your vocabulary, or just read a lot of Readers Digest, you’ll know that the word, “mono” comes from the Greek word, “monos” meaning “single” or “alone,” also meaning “not stereo.”

BUT if you take one of the two identical piano signals (one going left, the other going right still), and delay it in time by just 10 milliseconds, you’ll still THINK you’re hearing only one piano, but suddenly it will sound bigger, fuller, nicer.

You can increase the delay by up to 40 milliseconds for an even wider sound, and still your brain will think it’s just one single piano that sounds much better than before. THAT is magic (at least I think so)! It isn’t until the two sounds get well over 40 milliseconds apart in time that we start to hear two different and distinct sounds.

Discovering this principle of audio enhanced the quality of my recordings immensely, as it will yours when you learn all the ways you can make use of it. The above example used only “timing differences” to create this man-made (fake?) stereo signal. But other differences like pitch, EQ, etc. can also be used.

Tune in next time for part 2 of 5 Audio Recording Tips For Newbies when I will tell you about why it’s better to record LOUD (just not too loud) and what the heck people mean when they say “EQ.”



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