Mixing in mono is exactly what it sounds like, using no panning or width while mixing your song. It’s difficult to do well, particularly when you’re just starting out, but get good at it and you’ll hear a huge difference in your mixes. Let’s talk about how to master mixing in mono in order to create pro mixes.
Mixing in Mono
The first thing to do is to actually put your mix in mono. Your DAW will have a stock plugin for affecting the stereo width of a track. In my DAW of Ableton Live, there’s the tried and true “Utility” plugin.
There’s a preset for mono, or you can just drop it on the track of your choice and tick the mono button.
Whatever plugin your DAW uses, drop it on the master bus and make sure it’s set to mono. You’ll know as soon as you play back the track as all of the stereo separation will disappear.
Any panned tracks will snap to the middle, and any stereo tracks which have width to them will do the same.
Be sure to put this plugin on the master bus. If you’re like me, you likely have a number of buses you use in your mix. To ensure that we get every single track in mono, the plugin has to be on the master bus.
Why Mix in Mono
Mono is How Your Mix Will (Oftentimes) Be Heard
We spend hours tweaking our mixes with our headphones on or in front of our fancy monitors, crafting the perfect stereo field.
The irony is that for all of that work, more often than not when someone plays our music out in the real world, they’ll be hearing it in mono.
Unless someone is listening on headphones or sitting right between their speakers, they’re not going to hear our mix in stereo.
Oftentimes music is played in the background, or the listeners are far away from the speakers. Once you get more than a few feet away from the speakers, the sound from the two channels is so close together that it blends and the mix quickly becomes mono.
This is why we need our mix to work, with or without the stereo separation.
Set Levels More Effectively
In what’s going to be an ongoing theme when talking about the benefits of mixing in mono, you can do most of your mixing more effectively in mono.
One example is that it becomes easier to set the proper levels of tracks relative to one another more faithfully when there’s no stereo separation.
When you’ve got two tracks panned at opposite ends, it’s easier to hear them each, especially in your headphones or sitting in front of your speakers.
Without that separation, one may become more difficult to pick out than the other.
When all of the levels sound like they’re set correctly so that you can hear everything coming through in mono, that’s the truest test.
This relative level setup will translate well when you revert the mix back to the stereo.
Frequency Conflicts Are Easier to Hear
One of my favorite reasons to mix in mono is that you can hear the conflicts between different tracks at similar frequencies.
Using the stereo field to spread out your tracks, these conflicts become masked. It’s when we drop every track right on top of each other in the center of the mix that things especially begin to sound muffled.
Needless frequency buildups in certain regions are one of the main causes of a muddy mix.
Address the frequency conflicts in mono and you’ll be amazed at how cleaner and open your mix sounds. This is particularly palpable when you switch back to stereo.
Check out my EQ tutorials for information on how to create frequency space for every instrument in your mix simply using EQ.
You Can Create Depth More Effectively
Reverb can create width, but it’s especially useful for creating three dimensional depth in a mix. By adding reverb to a track, we are simulating the effect that that particular track is playing from farther away.
Effective use of reverb not only creates a more interesting mix but a more open one.
Setting your reverb depth while every track is stacking on top of each other in mono allows you to create space by only focusing on that third dimension of depth versus side panning.
This is a great way to create space and again this is something which will sound that much better once you switch back to stereo.
You Can Hear Phase Issues
Whenever you record a single source with two or more microphones (or even one microphone and a DI input), you run the risk of phase issues.
Phase issues come from the audio of a single source hitting multiple inputs at different times.
With two physical microphones, even the difference of an inch can cause issues. When recording a guitar (or bass) simultaneously with a microphone and a DI, the microphone oftentimes will pick up that audio milliseconds later after the DI.
Even if it’s the difference of a few milliseconds, this can cause phase issues. If the audio of the two (or more) inputs isn’t perfectly in sync, you’ll begin to lose volume when the recordings for that source are played back in mono. Go beyond that and it starts to sound like a delay (as we discussed with the Haas effect)
If the peaks of one input’s waveform coincide with the valley’s of the other input’s waveform, this will mute the track altogether. This is known as phase cancellation.
This won’t be noticeable if you have the track played in stereo, but as I mentioned earlier, all mixes are played or perceived in stereo at one point or another.
This is why we need to pay special attention to all tracks whose sources were recorded with multiple inputs, and we can only do this by forcing this track or tracks to mono. If you notice the volume drop, them start to thin out, or lose their energy as soon as you sum everything to mono, you know it’s a phase issue.
To correct this you simply need to select all of the clips for one of the two tracks, zoom in so you can see its waveform alongside the other of the two tracks.
Then simply nudge the timing a millisecond or two to align with the other track. The peaks and valleys of both tracks should be perfectly aligned. Just like that you’ll notice the audio for both tracks regain its fullness in your mix in mono.
Repeat this process for any instance of multiple tracks capturing a single source and you can rest assured that those tracks will sound good in all listening environments.
After you finish mixing in mono, turn off the plugin which was forcing the mix to mono. At this point, begin making panning choices if you haven’t already.
Once again, LCR mixing is a great way to approach panning and stereo field choices. Utilized after an effective mono mix, you will be amazed at how much cleaner and open your mix is sounding, just like the pros.
Mixing in Mono Tips
- Mixing in mono involves dropping a mono plugin on your master bus, forcing every track to the center and removing width.
- While it’s difficult, particularly if you’re new to the concept, mixing in mono can be the best way to achieve a cleaner, more open and professional sounding mix.
- Mixing in mono ensures that your mix sounds good in mono which is how our song will sound in many or even most situations given that a song always essentially turns mono when the listener gets more than a few feet from the source.
- Setting levels and EQing out conflicting frequencies in multiple tracks is more effective in mono as there is no stereo field to hide behind.
- Setting reverb in mono allows you to focus on creating space in the mix entirely via depth rather than 2D spread.
- Mixing in mono is also the only way to listen for phase issues which arise from recording the same source with multiple inputs which can dull or even mute your audio in mono.
- Once you’re finished mixing in mono, remove the plugin and begin panning. Try LCR mixing in particular to quickly enjoy an wide and open mix.