Using Mono to Improve Your Mix

Using Mono to Improve Your Mix

It’s easy to avoid the traditional mono compatible mix and cite that “almost everything is stereo nowadays”, but you are missing out on some tremendous benefits.

I messed around with Cubase’s Control Room mixer section to get more familiar with the functions and settings and noticed something which I hadn’t before. When I pushed the Stereo/Mono switch, my mix’s level balance was completely off. Certain elements were way too loud, the bass was less defined and general mix eq was less than satisfactory.

I was curious if this could be the basis of a technique to improve mixes in general and was quite surprised to find that this is an established procedure. The main premise is that if you use panning to achieve definition in your mix, you’re not fixing the problem, you’re avoiding the issue. It’s a bit like trying to get into trousers that don’t fit by only putting in one leg. Most mixes are heard from a distance or any number of less than ideal scenarios. Fixes done with panning thus become obsolete and flaws creep back in.

Unbalanced Elements

Lately I’ve been moving outside my comfort zone as far as genre is concerned. For the most part this was not a problem during production, but lead and melody elements never sat well in the final mix. This was perhaps the most apparent and immediately useful revelation of summing to mono. I was truly surprised at how obvious the imbalances had become and even more surprised at how quickly this could be solved while in mono.

Occupying the Same Space

While panned, it is not always as easy to identify mix elements that occupy similar frequency bands, or at least have significant overlaps. Summing forces elements into a space where proper equing is the only way to regain definition. You could argue that changing levels will also improve mix definition. While true, it might be at the cost of a mix element which you don’t want to lose.

Phase Issues

No need to say much about this as summing to mono making phase issues more pronounced, is fairly predictable. This helped a lot with fixing erratic bass levels and muddiness, as this is where phase is most likely to cause problems due to longer wave lengths. As a result, high pass filtering and low shelf equing suddenly became more accurate and quicker to set up without losing beef in the bottom end.

This overlaps with my previous point about “same band occupation” and goes a long way to clear up the mix while maintaining cohesiveness.

EQ and Automation

While taking care of the above mentioned issues, you might start noticing level automation and tone problems. Although this is related to phase and frequency band occupation, on a conceptual level we often think of this in a different way and start noticing it at different times. Also, clearing up mix definition will gradually bring these flaws to the front, as conflicting elements start finding their place.

With mono summing, level automation smoothing and eq choices are more easily reached. As you are removing one critical listening barrier by bringing mix elements into a single panoramic plain, level fluctuation, masking and tonal conflicts become more evident.

In principle this entire process can be clarified with a parallel to visual dimensions. It’s very hard to gauge the comparative size of 2 objects that vary in distance with respect to the viewer. Placing them in the same depth plane, removes a judgement obstacle, in turn making comparison easier and more accurate.

Cubase Implementation

If you’ve never accessed the control room mixer before it’s quite straightforward.

In Cubase Pro, after clicking the “Window Layout” icon in the mixer window, you can then activate the “Control Room / Meter” option. If the control room is not turned on, click the enable button.

Two things to do if the control room has not been set up before:

  • Go to VST Connections => Studio => Add Channel => Add Monitor – Connect this to the output that feeds your studio monitors
  • Go to VST Connecyions => Outputs – Make sure there are no other connections to your monitors here – This is important. You could end up getting a duplicate output which pushes up your monitor level and will play a stereo signal over the mono signal when changing the monitor downmix.

Having the control room active gives you a quick way to turn on a mono downmix on the output of your choice. If you have Cubase Artist, put a plugin such as StereoEnhancer on your master bus and turn the stereo spread to zero. You can then activate the plugin as needed.

I hope this benefits others as it did me. It’s a simple but very handy tool in your mixing arsenal, which could lead to great results.

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