Surely Mono can't be better
than Stereo..can it?
A common question I am often asked
by singers who are out there singing in live music venues at
night is "When performing, is it best to use my backing
tracks in stereo or mono?"
The question arises because many singers have found that at
particular venues, their backing tracks have sounded woolly,
bassy or tinny etc, yet the night before, the same backing tracks,
same sound system (and same singer) sounded totally different.
So, why is this, and what can be done about it?
There are a couple
of reasons why this happens and you'll be pleased to know that
these problems can be easily rectified. Many venues have strange
shaped rooms which cause serious problems for sound (especially
L-shaped rooms). Even in what you would call a "good shape
room", it's a problem if the audience at one side of the
room are only hearing the left side of the track while the audience
sitting at another part of the room are only hearing the right
hand side of the track! The answer is to play your backing tracks
in MONO, not stereo - this way, everybody in the venue can hear
So, does that mean you should re-record all your backing tracks
to mono I hear you ask?
Backing tracks will always
sound best if they are left in their original mastered state (which
is stereo). But although you should set everything up on your
mixing desk in stereo, this doesn't mean you have to put out a
stereo sound through your speakers.
What I mean by this is that the "stereo" Left and Right
out of your mixing desk can go in to a bridged stereo amp,
so the amp gives out a mono output (all the music will still be
there because you have routed L and R from the mixer to the amp
but the amp has "combined" both channels by "bridging"
them). If you use a combined mixer/amp and can't "bridge"
the signal, then don't worry - you can still force out a mono
signal by "panning" the left and right stereo positioners
on your mixing desk to the "centre" (the 12 O'Clock
position on most desks).
It has to be said that musicians
and sound engineers have argued for years over whether the audience
should hear a mono sound or stereo sound and all I can do is toss
my hat in to the ring and tell you why I have come to my "Mono
instead of stereo" conclusion.
I have gigged for years, all over the world and in venues big
and small and worked in both stereo and mono.
I prefer mono - always.
While the venue shape is usually the decider for most singers
on whether they should use mono or stereo, to be honest, I've
never ever worked in a venue where ALL the audience
sit absolutely right at the centre of the room facing the stage.
And, the centre of the room is is the ONLY place an audience
can truly benefit from stereo sound (because they need to hear
the Left and Right speakers equally well).
I remember a few years ago working with sound engineers who were
mixing the sound for a large stadium gig. There were a few musicians
there that day and some were shocked to find out that a gig of
this magnitude wasn't going out in stereo...and they asked
The sound man's reply was short and straight to the point - he
said "...we output the sound in mono so that the fans who
have paid money to see the gig will all be able to hear it perfectly,
no matter where they are sitting in the stadium".
I couldn't have put it better myself!
Room acoustics and bass
Another major factor of why backing tracks can sound different
in different venues is the acoustics of the room. Every room has
different acoustics. Rooms with lots of carpet and wall coverings
tend to deaden the sound (which is actually quite good because
it gives you the opportunity to add in exactly the type of acoustics
you want via your reverb and eq controls).
Other rooms with stone or tiled floors, ceilings and brick or
plastered walls are often boomy and make bass response much more
difficult to get right. No matter what type of room you are singing
in, you will still need to eq (equalize ie treble, mid, and bass)
the two channels your backing tracks are playing through to get
them to sound just right.
Here's a tip. 90% of poor sound problems can be attributed to
the bass response of a room so can usually be fixed relatively
simply by just adjusting the bass on your equalizer. Some rooms
are more bassy than others so usually a boost or a cut to the
bass is enough to give you that good sound you're after. Of course,
there are other eq settings you may need to fiddle with, but generally,
the bass eq level is the first place you should look when troubleshooting
sound, and if this doesn't fix your poor sound, then feel free
to move on to other controls such as treble, mid, echo, reverb
Also remember, just as you probably change the volume and eq of
your microphone at each venue (and probably make a few tweaks
during the nights performance), you should be doing the same with
your backing tracks.
I'm sure by now that if you've performed a few gigs, you will
have discovered that the sound in a venue is very different towards
the end of the night from what it was at the start of the night.
As the gig progresses, the venue usually gets busier and the audience
get louder. You're probably familiar with increasing your master
volume by increments throughout the night, but the noise of the
audience is only one factor that affects your sound. The other
factor is that people absorb sound (especially high frequencies)
so as the venue gets busier, your high frequencies are getting
absorbed by the crowd so onstage you will probably be hearing
The reason for this is that although both high frequencies and
low frequencies go out to your audience at the same volume, both
are not bouncing back to you onstage in the same proportion. The
high frequencies are absorbed more by the bodies out front, so
you're not hearing those highs getting back to you as much as
you are hearing the bass getting back to you. Of course, as you
raise the volume during the nights peformance, it will probably
sound like the bass is getting louder (because more people means
the highs are being lost to your ears in a greater proportion).
It's only you onstage who hears this "uneven sound",
so don't worry - the sound will still sound well balanced to the
audience out front. However, it can be very off-putting when,
as the gig progresses, you start to hear more and more of a dull,
wooly sound onstage.
So, for this reason, I ALWAYS use an onstage monitor, even
in small venues where you would think I'd be able to hear the
PA relatively well and you'd think a monitor wasn't necessary.
I have a powered monitor with it's own eq so I can change the
eq as the night goes on, so I always hear a perfectly eq'd sound
onstage. The only thing I have to change at my main PA during
the evenings performance is the master volume (which goes up as
the venue gets busier and the people get noisier).
My powered monitor helps me maintain a sound onstage that I'm
comfortable with. If you haven't tried this before, then I strongly
recommend it (the Wharfedale
powered monitor is good for small to medium sized venues).
Article Written by Kenny Campbell
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