We’re all looking for the secret to amazing mixes; a silver bullet that makes them pop. No more mud; clear mids, deep lows and crisp, shiny highs. Mixing in mono might not be silver bullet, but it's a damn good place to start.
We all know how ESSENTIAL a great mix is if we want our tracks playing alongside those by our favourite producers, or released on our favourite labels.
Well, whilst there are many aspects to what makes a great mix (and even more techniques to achieve them), there are a few game-changers that you’ll come across in your journey to mastery that'll make you go “aha!”, and suddenly you'll never mix in the same way again.
Well, this is one of them, and it may surprise you…
Before you start ANY mix (or, actually, any new project in general), do this ONE thing…
Mixing in Mono
Create a keyboard shortcut in your Digital Audio Workstation for quickly switching your mix from stereo to mono, then PRIMARILY MIX IN MONO.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s it? Why? Mono sounds rubbish and stereo sounds great.”
A few years ago (OK, I admit….over 10 years ago) I had just finished a new track with a singer. We were stoked, and really excited to hear it on a club system. I had a weekly Friday night DJ residency in London at the time, so I burnt it to CD, slipped it in the set-list and dropped it at peak time.
“Awesome!”, I thought. “The breakdown is building up and we’re about to hit the first drop. The crowd seem to be loving it…they’ll go nuts!” (In this particular track the singer belted out the chorus on the drop).
So the tension builds (if you don’t know about the darth-vader-style importance of tension, check this post), the drums roll and the sweeps sweep. 4, 3, 2, 1, aaaaaaaand: *NO VOCALS WHATSOEVER*
The beats are there. The bass is there. Everything else is there, so where are the vocals? I’m sure I checked this mix a hundred times before leaving the house, and I spent SO LONG getting these vocals sounding FAT.
It turned out (as I later discovered), that the issue was something known as “phase cancellation”. Sounds fancy, but bear with me; I’ll break it down quickly and simply, then let you know why mixing in mono is great.
An audio signal is made of sound waves. This includes music. If sound waves can be visualised as the waves of the sea, a recorded stereo signal has one set of waves on the left channel, and one set on the right channel. If the left and right waves are different from each other, the audio sounds stereo. If they identical, the audio sounds mono. However, what happens when they are PERFECTLY OPPOSITE from each other?
This is phase cancellation. Using the sea analogy, imagine two waves hitting into each other. It happens when they roll into a harbour wall and bounce back into the oncoming waves. They stop eachother. They cancel each other out and both waves stop. This is exactly what happens with equal and opposite audio waves.
Widening effects (like choruses, phasers and flangers) can sound GREAT in stereo, but if you sum (combine) the left and right channels together into mono after applying the effect, sometimes these phase issues can arise, as the effect has duplicated the sound wave and spread it left and right.
Many night clubs run their sound systems in mono, so this what happened to our track.
Mixing your track in mono allows you to avoid these problems.
Also, the added (but very important) bonus of mixing in mono is that big wide effects sound great in stereo, but can distract you from the more important task of balancing the levels of the various track elements.
If you can get a track sounding amazing in mono, AND THEN start carefully adding stereo effects, and panning elements left and right, you’ll be laughing. Just make sure to frequently switch from stereo to mono to check your mix still sounds good.
Trust me…this is a game-changer.
How to do it? Check the video and written instructions below:
In Ableton Live, use the Utility plugin (and assign a keyboard shortcut to toggle between 0% width and 100% width). I use “Alt M” on my Mac as it’s easy to reach and not used for anything else.
In Logic Pro X, use the Gain plugin on the output channel. Set it to mono and simply toggle on and off.
In FL Studio, below the effects rack in the master track there is a stereo separation knob. I don’t use FL Studio, but I imagine you can assign a keyboard shortcut to toggle it to fully stereo or mono.
What do you think of this technique? Have you tried it? Let me know in the comments below 🙂