Making Instruments Bigger By Switching To Mono
Feeling a bit lost? Are you asking yourself “how can something in mono sound bigger than it did in stereo”? Don’t worry – you’re probably not the only one.
Since stereo recording was first introduced, it’s been used to create more space and wider sounds than mono recording alone. Early mixes that were made for mono playback were remixed and remastered to add size and depth to the music that people loved to listen to. So with so much going in the direction of stereo or surround, how could I possibly suggest going against the grain and common sense by recommending you make something mono for additional size?
Because: I know it works.
Where It Works
Before we can really get into how this works, I want to rule out the main situation where this trick doesn’t work. Predominantly, the place where flipping to mono will have the least effect is in sessions with little to work with already. Often, songs that are acoustic or have a simple bass & percussion pattern need their instruments spread to stereo for a full sound. Since there’s not a lot going on instrumentally, you need to fill space with whatever you can.
Nearly every other type of session is fair game though – rock, metal, country, pop… Even post-production sessions for TV and film can benefit from this simple trick. Why? Because as your track counts creep higher and higher, the fewer options you have to make your instruments big and strong.
Some instruments work better than others. For example, a drum kit isn’t going to sound great in mono if everything’s been panned, balanced, and acting as the foundation for the rest of your mix. For things like keys and guitars, going mono can literally be the difference between getting lost in the noise and cutting through.
How Mono Can Sound Larger
Sometimes, getting a bigger sound is more about focus and presence than it is about depth and width. Relying on our ear’s naturally ability to pick out clear and concise sounds is going to be the key here.
Let’s take for example an acoustic guitar in a rock session that was recorded in stereo. That acoustic might sound amazing and clear on it’s own, but in the mix it’s getting buried behind the L/R panned rhythm guitars and washed out by the drum overheads when the crash cymbals are hit. You can try to tweak the balance of your pan to help it find the right space, or you can fold it down to mono.
By folding to mono, you no longer have to worry about the balance of the left and right – you can use your single pan knob to place the acoustic in the mix. Keeping it close to center, you’ll have a narrower source that can be pulled forward with some compression and EQ. A short delay like a slapback can also make it feel more lively and present.
By making your acoustic guitar more focused and controlling its dynamics, you can effectively make its presence more pronounced (larger) in the mix. This same approach can be taken with synths, background vocals & really any other stereo source that you’d like to sound larger and more focused in the context of your mix.
A Natural Fit
As you make your mono modifications, it can be helpful to set up subgroups that you can use to create more consistency across your mix. As your instruments are made narrow, gaps can form in your mix that might not be perceivable at first, but can add up if you’re not paying attention.
A simple solution for this is using bus compression on like-instruments. Things like acoustic guitars and programmed strings can be pulled together with a compressor like Billy Decker’s Acoustic Bus Glue plugin. Or if you’re looking to create a wall of sound that combines that acoustic with your rhythm guitars, something more like BG-Guitars might be the way to go.
Regardless of your situation, having one place where your group of instruments comes together before the master fader is a huge help overall. You get monitoring, a place to use shared processing & automation control over your group all in one aux track.
Really Looking to Nail That Mono Size?
If you’re new to the concept of adding size to an instrument by making them mono, sometimes a bit of feedback about your approach can go a long way – especially when it comes from a professional mixer with Top 40 credentials to back them up.
Join the JST VIP community using this exclusive link and get feedback on YOUR mix from Billy Decker himself! Billy’s mixed records for a roster of artists that include Sam Hunt, Dustin Lynch, Chris Young and dozens more. His advice on a mix can be exactly what you need to take your craft to the next level.