Mixing in mono is such a hot topic among engineers, and the use of mono mixing varies widely depending on who you’re talking to and why they’re doing it. It’s not as if mixing in mono has the same constraints and issues as working in solo - you’re still hearing everything in the context of the mix. All of your edits, volume automation & effects can all be heard in the full mix, just in a stereo image that’s been collapsed down to mono.
It also has a few major benefits when it comes to hearing your mix the way your end listener might end up hearing it - bonus points there.
Just watch any producer on Nail The Mix work through a song and you’ll see them toggle back and forth between mono and stereo at least a handful of times during each session.
So let’s debunk some of the myths and answer the question: Why do people mix in mono?
Listen Like a Consumer
You understand that the vast majority of an audience doesn’t really care about the quality of their listening environment as we do, right?
The general population listens to music very passively, so making our mixes as catchy as possible at the lowest quality level is actually much more important than you might think. People listen to music out of their phone speakers. They listen in cars with blown out speakers. They use cheap earbuds they picked up for $0.99 at a convenience store, sharing one headphone with a friend so they can listen together.
In a pinch, I might just do the same. We do it because we enjoy listening to music for the production and emotional connection, with quality often coming in second place. By collapsing to mono, you might not be reducing your audio quality to the bare minimum, but you’re at least hearing it in a way similar to any listener with a single speaker might hear your song. Just like listening to your mix at extremely low levels can help you identify pieces that might be too soft or too loud, mono helps you relate to your listener.
Most engineers and mixers I’ve talked to simply collapse to mono for a reference point. Maybe they’re working with time-based effects like reverb and want to see if the tail of the reverb gets lost in the mono mix. Other times they might want to see if certain tracks are masking each other when folding down to mono that might be panned left and right in the stereo mix. Whatever their reason, they seem to like toggling between their options, much as they would when quickly soloing something to pick out a frequency.
Then there’s the second group of mono mixers that take a mono-first approach. Conceptually, they’re working in tighter quarters when it comes to their stereo field (or lack of one). This approach squeezes everything together - forcing you to be extra critical with each detail. What’s impressive with this approach is that panning largely still affects the sound of your mix. It’s not as if you’re moving from one speaker to another, but your moving that track around the limitations of that mono environment.
When taking the second approach, you can work to get everything sounding as clear as possible before flipping back to stereo, and I’m certain you’ll be amazed with the approach. The first time I did it, everything just seemed to open up and spread out wider than ever. At that point, the mix is 95% finished and you’re able to add a few touches to address the things you couldn’t hear in mono.
It’s not the perfect approach for everyone, but giving it a try can open up some new perspectives for any mixer.
Mono Mixing, Stereo Processing
As I mentioned with panning, just because you’re mixing in mono doesn’t mean you have to think about your mix any differently. Panning still applies, which means stereo processing still applies too. Things like stereo aux tracks can still be used for routing and grouping instruments. Delays can still operated in stereo, bouncing back and forth across your mix. Even spatial wideners can be used to add size and width to tracks - mono or stereo.
This is all because your final, printed mix isn’t going to be in mono, you’re just using mono as a way to creatively reposition your work. Things that sound good in stereo should sound good in mono and vice versa. That’s the whole point of this exercise - to create consistently great work.
Struggling To Find Your Space?
Mono mixing can be especially useful early on in your career when you’ve got too many options in front of you. Limit the space available to work in and suddenly you’re much more intentional with your edits and mix decisions.
If you’re looking for a great starting point for any mix, come check out the JST VIP resources we have available. There are tons of guides, eBooks, courses and more intended to help you grow as a music professional at your own speed. Power through as much of it as you can or take it slow with one chapter at a time - the choice is yours.