Question everything

June 7, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

How did we come to use mono microphones to capture music on stereo recordings?

I know I’ve ranted before about this but I cannot get it out of my head.

The more I get into the art of recording the more I am questioning the accepted practices so ingrained into the recording culture as to be almost sacrosanct.

There’s clearly a “religion” around the culture. A pervasive thought process that goes something like:

“Why do it that way? Well, because that’s the way it’s always been done and surely there’s a reason for that.” (or the corolary “that’s what the pros do”)

My motto (which I know drives our team crazy) is Question everything.

And especially question the things that everyone (and in particular the pros) has always done.

When you’re working on building something that is striving to be the best in the world it probably pays to question what everyone else who is not the best in the world is doing.

Seems to just make sense.

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34 comments on “Question everything”

  1. For this kind of question it might be helpful to reflect/learn about the recording techniques used on some of the earliest recordings (e.g., Living Stereo, Mercury Living, etc.) to more contemporary recordings using the Decca configuration or any number of other techniques. There are iconic recordings from any genre/timeframe that set the bar in terms of sound quality. In the end, there are probably no right/wrong answers to your question if you are getting the intended results you want from a given recording.
    Why not use both stereo and mono microphones?

  2. That questioning is exactly right, especially in this case, I’m sure!

    The only point to be careful (in order to currently ensure proper results) probably is, where long practiced habits of engineers hit new tools and procedures. The immediate result then might be worse for a certain time, than later in steady-state condition again. And probably it’s also important to realize the difference of producing an optimal result for a certain speaker and surrounding vs. an optimal result for everyone buying the music (even if focused on a high end audience).

  3. It does make sense but it also makes it difficult. Still, nobody ever said that being the best was going to be easy. However, someone somewhere in the world is currently the best so could be worthwhile to see what they’re doing. It reminds me of this conundrum.

    You’re running in a race and you overtake the person in second place, what place are you now in? The initial tendency is to answer first but of course the answer is second.

  4. Paul, You mentioned once that you had a friend who is a recording engineer and that he can always tell what microphones were used to record a given piece of music. I, on the other hand, have never been able to do that. Why? Because while I buy a lot of recorded music, I have never been exposed to the recorded music production industry. I have always found it fun to learn new things and immerse myself in understanding them and asking why and what if. But, at the end of the day, remember that most of the people that buy recorded music from Octave Records will do so because first, they like the music and second, they know that it will sound good on their playback system. Do not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

  5. Shouldn’t you primarily ask: what is the goal? If you want to record an audio book, you might only focus on mono and a microphone optimized for the frequency range of the human voice. But how to create a recording intended for either “they are here” or “I am there” the latter requiring to correctly capture the “ambiance” of a concert hall? To realize the goal of “I am there” might only require a dummy head microphone placed on the best seat in the auditorium of the concert hall for capturing the sound field at the ears but reduced to one dimension. The reproduction however would require inter-loudspeaker-crosstalk cancellation. However there is still the problem of the individual HRTF allowing us to better detect the localization of sound sources. In fe end you have to find an arrangement of microphones which cam mimic the fantastic abilities of our “ears” in detecting the origins of sound sources and characteristic sound patterns. There are ideas for ambiophonic microphones! The only alternative to the most simple approach of 2-channel stereo is the concept wave-field synthesis requiring some hundred loudspeakers for reproduction of the complete 3-D sound field.

  6. It’s because in most cases, you’re not recording stereo as in a live performance, you’re recording tracks that are then used to engineer a faux stereo presentation in mixing and engineering.

    There’s no need to point a stereo mic at a guitar when the guitar will be placed in the soundstage by the mixer, and that’s if it’s even miked, it’s much more likely the signal will come from a pickup inside the guitar.

    The same is true for an electronic keyboard; the output may be mono or stereo, but stereo to what end giving the output is synthetic?

    Now vocals. There may be vocalists in an array in the studio, but odds are mono mics will be used to record them to individual tracks that are used to place them in space in the mix.

    So much of what we hear on beloved recordings are just pure fictions created by mixers and engineers making a stereo soundstage out of six or more indiivdual mono tracks., especially today when in fact each instrument was probably recorded individually in a sound booth to a single Pro Tools track with reverb and other effects added to taste, then placed 3/4 of the way to the left and adjusted in volume to audibly appear 2/3 of the way upstage.

    Odds are, the placement of that trumpet right there, where you can hear it in the recording was a fiction created at the mixing board/with the Pro Tools cursor.

    Here’s a great primer:

    1. Well said Bill.
      The first time that I heard the drums coming from behind the rest of
      the band, playing between my Harbeths back in ’93, I was amazed.

  7. Like Tony above I’ve never been exposed to the actual recording and mixing techniques. Typically I only get to hear the end result.

    BillK makes some great points.

    I would ask this question… Once you have what is deemed to be the best in the world recording and mixing techniques, Then what? Does that knowledge stay at Octave Records, or will a concerted effort be made to continuously train and educate those in the recording industry?

    By the same token of the question everything statement, doing something different for that sake alone doesn’t always equate to better, just different.

    1. We will happily share whatever it is we learn with anyone interested in listening. That’s one of the reasons we created a separate YouTube channel for Octave Records.

      You are absolutely correct that different doesn’t automatically mean better. But like the old definition of insanity, doing some over and over hoping for different results, different is the way out of the maze.

  8. There was a time in my children’s life they questioned everything. At times it was annoying and at times it made me stop to think. Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? The innocence of an open mind.
    Then they went to school and stopped asking questions…

  9. Finally pro’s and audiophiles question each other since long. I think both are right in a certain way. Pro’s, because they know what makes real difference (opposed to in their eyes minor tweaking stuff, audiophiles insist in). Audiophiles, because they thematize the ignorance of many pro’s regarding options to improve HW and procedures.

    Although I’m generally on Paul’s side here, I also respect the experience and know how of those who do this in a dedicated way for long time. But I think he also does, otherwise he’d command, not question and try to understand.

  10. This post makes me think of the golden era of tubes and there technology from the 1920’s to about 1938. I think it wasn’t till around world war 2 times (1940 to 1945) where the twin triode heated Filament rectifier tube was introduced. My point is that tube technology didn’t change much for many many years until other technically gifted people started to question and make things better and more efficient.

    I believe nothing should be set in stone no matter how good it works because coming up with different ways to do things like refinement is important. I’m a guy who questions a lot and I know it doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, but such in is life. I don’t care. Question everything!!!

  11. When I learn a song I like to research as much as possible about it so I can recreate the groove rather than create a note for note recital.
    The time, the place, the background. Why, what, who?
    Question everything and may times to my delight what appears as simple can be found not so simple.
    For example I did a harmonic analysis of “Walk this Way” by Aerosmith.
    It contains a blues “riff” in E (intro) and another riff in C (verse and chorus). The song moves between these two keys.
    Why? I found all sort of theory that concocted a reason to support the shift.
    Why? According to Joe Perry said he shifted the tonal center “because it sounded good”.
    Also after listening to the verse very closely (guitar), I found it to have a very funky swing – intended to support the lyrics about a cheerleader…
    The fun part about getting immersed in the whys and when of a piece of music is after a few shots and the setting is right we go into the long version or create a medley. Why? Because we can.

  12. When I began my career in the mid 1960s, we were all asking these same questions in the transition from mono to stereo. The key to financial success in recording turned out to be the best musical translation from environment to environment. This turned out to require hanging on to a lot of the older mono practices because when we let go of them, we wound up making records that did not translate nearly as well musically.

    1. Did questioning in the 60s not lead to a change because you engineers as part of the gear train (and not being a label owner) didn’t have the influence, or because no one thought out what else than just the mics would have to change to get an overall improved result (also musically)?

      1. Management really wanted the higher priced stereo records to be more musical. The problem remains that when you switch to mono without saying what you did, most people hear an improvement. This is partly because there is no sweet spot.

        1. Yes…and because most only listen tonality orientated. My guess is, even many engineers today don’t listen for things like holographic voices or transparency/air in their recordings too much, could that be? Could it be that a lot of studio setups even can’t reproduce that properly? It seems to me much is still done as if it still was for mono reproduction. Without care for great, natural stereo illusions, just for the basic characteristics of tonality and dynamics.

          1. Unfortunately, people who have only been exposed to recorded or amplified concert music in random locations as opposed to live, unamplified music have no idea of what “fidelity” means.

            1. Bob, My system would not be any different today if I had based my system on things like singing Judy Collins playing acoustic guitar ten feet away from me or hearing the Eagles or Eric Clapton playing MSG. I used all of these inputs in getting my system right, not just the live ones.

  13. Some other aspects of recordings that need questioning: instrument size and “veracity”. For size, consider Track 2 on Masters VI, where, at least on my system, Trenet’s accordion stretches from center slightly right all the way to the left speaker. Maybe possible on a bandoneon but not on a accordion. For veracity, Don Grusin’s piano has unmatched piano tone but, as he ascends the scale, tones move back and forth across the center in ways never heard on a live piano. These problems seem to arise from the use of multiple microphones to record small groups or individual instruments–perhaps to accurately capture the full range of the instrument but at the expense of the image.

  14. Mono microphones would be fine as long as you are using 2 to create a “stereo” sound right? Isn’t that the meaning of “stereo” ? I know many prefer the sound of Mono vs Stereo this I can somewhat relate to. Often times the actual sound can be better less hiss ect but personally would never do since I miss hearing a “soundstage”. The other day I was listening to White Room on F.M. I have always loved the sound of those drums. Crisp and snappy. For some reason I hit the “Mono” button and was very dismayed to find the drums sounded much different rather stale and boring (seemed to have lost the snap and crispness). I always though Mono had to deal with “sound stage” only and got rid of some issues with stereo but now I am looking for answers.

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