Mono vs Stereo - I'm just gonna say it...

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by Not Insane, Jan 14, 2020.

  1. Not Insane

    Not Insane You talkin' to me?! Thread Starter

    In music reproduction, mono is to stereo what, in photography, black and white is to color. I say that as someone that loves good black and white photography, but understand that color is infinitely more versatile.

    Fact is, I've been a photographer since I worked for my school newspaper in 1971. I learned very early on that some photos actually look better in black and white. And in a very real way, all black and white is "abstract art". It is not intended to look real. A photo of a scene with a lot of "color clutter" can suddenly look clean in B&W. And often, a large bright or dark object suddenly becomes the focus in a B&W photograph. And use some AS400 film or even push it, and you get a nice grit that is enhanced by the gray-scale when one wants to give an image a good edge.

    But the point is that usually B&W is there to simplify a shot - to somewhat limit the amount of subject matter and focus on bringing across a certain emotional response. I've noticed my favorite black and white shots are either of large blocks of dark and light, or of faces, designed to focus on the expression or texture, rather than color. And texture is the name of the game in B&W, IMO.

    Which brings me to mono vs stereo. Some classic albums in mono just have a solid and clean foundation, but in stereo they seem sonically cluttered, while other forms of music (e.g. symphonic) are very complex and are enhanced by a stereo stage, allowing one to pick out all the differences/details within the wide stereo image. Mono, at its best, brings out a solidity and smoothness in the sound, often adding drama and boldness to music produced with a minimum of instruments, while stereo, at its best, brings out all the delicate nuances of a complex arrangement of many instruments.

    Most of the recordings I own are stereo, and most of the photographs I take are in color. But some of the best music I own is in mono, and some of the photos of which I am most proud are in Black and White. And then there is Ansel Adams...
    This thread was inspired by a comment someone made a while back about "of course mono is better". I had to give a different perspective.
  2. uzn007

    uzn007 Pack Rat

    Raleigh, N.C.
    I think technically speaking, mono is to stereo what 2D images are to 3D images.

    I'm trying to think of a a good audio analog to "black & white" and failing.
  3. Phil Thien

    Phil Thien Forum Resident

    Milwaukee, WI
    One thing I’ve learned in evaluating a never-ending line of phono stages, is that some do mono much better than others. And it isn’t about a mono switch, some without mono switches slay others WITH mono switches.
  4. Not Insane

    Not Insane You talkin' to me?! Thread Starter

    Early Beatles. Billie Holiday recordings. Sons of the Pioneers. Early Jazz.

    But you are right about the 2D vs 3D as well. It's just that 3D has yet to be a practical form of photography. BTW, I've been shooting 3D slides (and now digital) since the early 80's.
  5. Not Insane

    Not Insane You talkin' to me?! Thread Starter

    This is something I thought was baloney until I heard it. :)

    I don't think a person has heard mono properly until they've heard it with an actual mono cartridge.
  6. lv70smusic

    lv70smusic Senior Member

    San Francisco, CA
    I don't think one can make equate the two. I still think someone might choose to take a photograph in black and white (or even make a film in b&w) for artistic reasons. I don't see any reason for someone to choose to mix in mono today. Mono is preferable for many older recordings that were originally mixed to mono and that just don't sound right in stereo, but why would someone choose mono for a new recording?
    chervokas likes this.

    BRODNATION The Future Never Dies because Tomorrow Never Knows

    Black and White is Duophonic where Color is True Stereo
  8. Ned Bode

    Ned Bode not sure

    I prefer the steak and wine analogies. Or maybe I'm thinking of digital vs. analog. or streaming vs. physical media.
    No way. Hand-tinted monochrome is duophonic.
  9. uzn007

    uzn007 Pack Rat

    Raleigh, N.C.
    I don't think those are really analogous to "black & white". As you point out, black & white looks better for many purposes. In other cases, it's simply different, e.g. it encourages different composition or different subject matter choices.

    The early recordings you mention are simply earlier technology. By objective standards, they don't sound as good as recordings from, say, the 60s onward, with modern microphones and better tape recorders. Some people may prefer them for nostalgic reasons, or because they feel it better "suits" the material (same thing really), but the difference between early technology and mature technology is not the same as the difference between two different types of modern technology.
  10. AnalogJ

    AnalogJ CMO (Chief Musical Officer)

    Salem, MA
    You are partially right, in that there are certainly more aspects of information in a color photo over B/W. I have done both. I mostly prefer B/W because of its focus on contrast and light, on shape and composition. But sometimes, color adds aspects of interest which can't be conveyed in B/W.

    Mono vs stereo, though, is another story. Mono allows the mixing engineer to focus the listener's attention on certain aspects, instrumental lines, orchestration, etc. With stereo, it's more up to the listener to distinguish what is important, although the engineer certainly has a say in how the mix is done, what is center versus what is left and right, as well as deep in the soundstage.

    Well done mono, though, DOES have really good soundstaging. A perfect example, and what might be the best recorded mono LP I have ever heard is Masterpieces By Ellington. Done by Columbia in the early '50s, this album has held up extraordinarily over time. Recently, Analogue Productions has reissued it at 33 1/3rd, and even more recently at 45rpm. Musically, it's exquisite. But with a really good cartridge, boy, is there front to back layering. The ambient cues are pretty much all there. It's one of those recordings that makes you think "Who needs stereo?!". If you listen to this recording on a well-set up system, you won't likely be thinking 'color vs black & white'. There's not that much missing.
  11. Johnny Action

    Johnny Action Forum President

    Tacoma, WA, USA
    SHMF Post Of The Day

    BRODNATION The Future Never Dies because Tomorrow Never Knows

    And digital colourization is DES
  13. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident

    Lawrenceville, NJ
    Speaking in the same techical sense, black and white images are like music that is all rhythm and spoken word, with no clearly pitched sounds. Both color and pitch are the frequency dimensions, of audio and video respectively.
    planckera likes this.
  14. BryanA-HTX

    BryanA-HTX Crazy Doctor

    Houston, TX
    Personally the only two albums I listen to in mono are Please Please Me and A Hard Day's Night. I didn't even like the mono With the Beatles. :shrug:

    There's an appeal to those two albums I suppose.
  15. Not Insane

    Not Insane You talkin' to me?! Thread Starter

    I definitely think there is less need for it, yes. I threw out the Ansel Adams thing because his stuff is absolutely fantastic with, often, an almost silvery quality, while they would be good for different reasons in color.

    But as I listen to some of the mono recordings I've come across over the years, I find that being in mono actually ADDS in an "abstract art" way. And though very few movies are filmed in B&W these days, it does happen. Two that come to mind immediately are "The last picture show" and Renaissance.

    And for music, there is this:
  16. Leonthepro

    Leonthepro Skeptically Optimistic Autodidact Debater

    Uppsala Sweden
    Good Stereo > Good Mono > Bad Stereo > Bad Mono
    Adam9, stef1205, Not Insane and 4 others like this.
  17. TheDailyBuzzherd

    TheDailyBuzzherd Forum Resident

    Northeast USA
    Stereo for the home, mono for the road.
    MFillmore likes this.
  18. Mr.Mustache

    Mr.Mustache Forum Resident

    Exactly, it all depends on the what your listing to. Early rock n roll is great in mono. More complex music composed and recorded specifically for stereo is another thing. Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive", "The Yes Album" or Jimi Hendrix's "Axis Bold As Love " album not in stereo is a major letdown. You loose all the movement of sound and a big part of why the music is so much loved.
    ted321, SG47, stef1205 and 2 others like this.
  19. bob_32_116

    bob_32_116 Forum Resident

    Perth Australia
    I was just about to say this very thing. More precisely, stereo vs mono is 2D sound vs 1D.

    The sonic analogy to black and white would be if you just had the song performed a capella, or with a simple accompaniment consisting of just one instrument, as opposed to also having a strings track, and drums track, backing vocals, etc.

    Regarding stereo vs mono, I used to think that stereo sounded inherently better, but I think that's mainly because most of the stereo recording I heard early on were on higher quality records, and/or being played on higher quality sound equipment.
    A early selling point was that "stereo is more realistic". This may or may not be true, depending on what is being recorded. For chamber music, or an intimate concert in a very small venue, possibly. For a stage concert performance, classical or otherwise, there is not much difference between what reaches the right ear vs what reaches the left ear, so a stereo recording with very strong stereo separation is actually a quite unrealistic reproduction. The listener may or may not find it more enjoyable, but they should not kid themselves that it's more "real".

    The only true way to get the actual "being there" experience with a recording is to have a binaural recording - which is quite different from your standard stereo recording - and listen to it through headphones. (I am assuming everyone knows what binaural is.) Whether you really think it would significantly enhance your listening pleasure is of course up to you, but I doubt I would bother, given what I said above about the typical live listening experience being essentially a mono experience.
    RZangpo2 and Johnny Action like this.
  20. deekmon

    deekmon Amateur Audio Consumer

    Newark, NY, USA
    Stereo vs Mono is a very divisive topic.

    They should invent something like "Electronically reprocessed Mono for Stereo"...

    So everyone can be happy :winkgrin:
  21. Ned Bode

    Ned Bode not sure

    I always considered mono to be the better option [generally speaking] when multitrack recording and mixing [especially with pop music] was still in its infancy.

    That's all there is to it. It was just a technical circumstance of its era.
    Not Insane likes this.
  22. Ned Bode

    Ned Bode not sure

    I'll go with
    Good mix > Bad mix
  23. Not Insane

    Not Insane You talkin' to me?! Thread Starter

    Frankly, I think there are a lot of good points being made in this thread. The challenge is that this is incredibly subjective, and art, itself, is subjective. It's mainly a "thought and emotion" exercise for me. I think of what the four things do for me on an emotional basis. And so much of art touches me at a deep emotional level.
    SG47 likes this.
  24. Not Insane

    Not Insane You talkin' to me?! Thread Starter

    That chit is the polyester leisure suit of music. :D
    Mr. Bewlay, deekmon and BRODNATION like this.
  25. vinylontubes

    vinylontubes Forum Resident

    Katy, TX
    I disagree with 2D to 3D photography analogy. Mono is 2D front to back. Photography is 2D side to side. The B&W analogy seems more poignant to me. But you don't need an analogy. Mix is mix. This isn't really mono issue vs stereo issue. The issue is the quality of mix. A mono mix can be flat without depth just as easily as stereo mix can be completely unrealistic like early Beatles stereo mixes with hard panning of tracks to the left and right. As far as studio recordings go, unless a binaural microphone is used in the process, all mixes are fake. The mixing engineer dreamed up what is being presented in the sound stage, whether mono or stereo.

    [Edit] corrected monaural to binaural.
    Not Insane likes this.

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