Should I Or Shouldn’t I: Recording In Stereo

stereo4
Download
Listen to “Should I Or Shouldn’t I: Recording In Stereo”

Despite my severe hesitation around recording in stereo (I practically break out in hives thinking about it), I put together the following FAQ for beginners. It’s based on my conversation with former NPR engineer Flawn Williams on this edition of HowSound and my own field recording experiences. This is meant to be a quick and dirty set of guidelines for recording stereo while reporting a story.

What’s the difference between mono and stereo?

In short, a mono recording is one where the sound in the left and right channels is the same. A stereo recording has different sounds in each channel.

Why do I get hives?

Frankly, recording in stereo seems fraught. It’s more complicated. I like to keep my recordings simple and mono is simple.

What’s complicated?

Two things immediately come to mind. First, you have to take into consideration the directionality of the sound. Let’s say I’m recording in stereo walking on a beach and the ocean waves are to my right. If I turn around and head in the other direction, the waves are now on my left. Now I stop and face the ocean. The waves are in the middle of the stereo field. First right. Then left. Then center. Yeesh. In mono, that’s less of an issue.

And then there’s editing. I don’t want the ocean to drastically change position as I edit. As Flawn says: “Having a mono recording makes it a lot easier to find places where you can unobtrusively jump (edit) from one section of a conversation to another or something like that. But, because of the heightened realism of stereo, any change, abrupt change in the background sound is going to be more noticeable and harder to make unobtrusive, harder to mask than editing the same material would be in mono.”

So, why record in stereo at all?

Flawn said it best during our interview. “I find that listening to sound in the most realistic fashion is the best way to relate to it. And, something that can really put me into a location is something that I really enjoy… It is that sense of immediacy. It is that sense of involvement of the ears. If you listen to something like…a rain forest ambiance or even a temperate forest or a city streetscape…your ears and your brain, translating what your ears are giving it, is going to be much more engaged because you’re paying attention to things in terms of direction as well as loudness and proximity.”

For me, it’s about information. Is there something about the “stereo information” that you want people to hear. Or, will they get the same “info” from a mono recording.

Take a construction site, for instance. If there’s just a couple of people hammering some nails, I’d chose mono. But, if it is a site full of activity and sound is everywhere — hammering, sawing, trucks backing up, people shouting from the roof — AND that commotion is part of the story, then I might decide to record in stereo because I want to communicate more fully the bustle of the workers. Otherwise, I’m going mono.

For recording in stereo, I only have built-in mics. Can I use those?

Maybe. But be VERY careful. Those mics tend to be sensitive to mic handling noise and wind. If you can avoid those problems, then go for it.

Should I record an interview in stereo?

No.

No? Never?? Let’s say I’m stuck. I don’t have an external mono mic with me and really, really need to record an interview.

My first response is always carry a mono mic!

But, if you’re in a pinch… go for it.

Consider trying it this way: Turn your recorder sideways. Face one mic toward the interviewee and one mic toward you.

As always, beware of mic handling, wind, and p-pops. Also, because the recorder is sideways, you may have difficulty reading the meters and adjusting levels.

Later, in your editing software, you’ll probably want to split the recording into two mono-files. More on “split-track” below.

And, a friendly reminder: You still have to get the mic in close. You’ll need to move the recorder back and forth between you and the interviewee to get good sound.

What about recording ambient sound in stereo with my built-in mics?

Ambi is the most obvious sound to record in stereo. My advice is to stand still and point your mic in a single direction. As Flawn suggests in this episode you could also walk slowly through a scene or pan (move) your mic slowly in one direction.

I plan to be moving around a lot while recording. Can I still record in stereo?

It’s not a good idea to move around quickly and aim the mic in several different directions. Or, as Flawn put it “Don’t wildly flail the microphone around.” The sound will move around in the left and right channels and the listener may not know why. It could be more annoying than interesting.

Music?

Yup. Pick a nice spot, probably near the front and in the center. Face the mic toward the music and stand still.

There is a lot to consider in terms of how close to get: Do you want to sound like you’re practically on stage? At the back of the hall? How much of the audience do you want in the recording? If you have time, stand in several places so you have choices later on. But, typically, a few rows back and in the center is best.

My recorder has an option to record mono files and stereo files. What’s that all about?

Yikes. I was afraid you were going to ask that.

The short story is this: If you’re making a stereo recording, chose a stereo file. If you’re recording in mono, chose a mono file. (BTW, mono files are about half the size of stereo files.)

To elaborate: A mono file captures the audio in such a way that all the sound you record is the same in both channels. Even if you’re using built-in or external stereo mics, the sound will be mono — the same in both channels.

A stereo file, on the other hand, captures the audio and makes a distinction between what’s intended for the left channel and what’s intended for the right channel. In a manner of speaking, it’s like there are two separate pieces of information in one file.

Is this the part where “split-track” comes in?

Yes. Ready?

Let’s take the interviewing example from above. You don’t have your external mono mic with you and decide to record an interview with built-in stereo mics. One mic faces the interviewer; the other faces the interviewee.

Or, maybe you’ve got a recorder that allows you to plug in two different mics. Again, one faces the interviewer; the other faces the interviewee.

If you chose to record a stereo file, one person will be primarily in the left channel, the other will be primarily in the right.

Even though recording this way in a pinch makes some sense, ultimately, you don’t want people to sound far to the left and far to the right in the final story. You want people to be in the middle — to sound like you’re in mono.

You can fix that problem in your editing software. Chances are, you have an option to “split stereo.” This will take your stereo file and split it in two. In Hindenburg, for instance, the software not only splits the file in two, it gives each channel its own track. That way, you have more control over each element — the interviewer and the interviewee.

Now, if you’re still following me…

You could choose to record a mono file in this interviewing scenario. That way you don’t have to deal with “splitting” the file later on. But here’s a catch — there’s actually a hidden advantage to recording split track: the idea of being able to control each element.

Here’s what I mean: Say someone is giving me an answer while I record them in the left channel and over in the right channel, I squeak my chair. Later, after I split the file in the software, I can delete the squeak. You can still hear the squeak in the other channel, but less so.

Final question: What if I have an external stereo mic?

I think every answer above applies. An advantage to using an external stereo mic is that you can probably put a pistol grip on it in order to isolate mic handling sound.

We’d love to hear more examples, so please share stories produced in stereo — even stories where recording in stereo was a bad idea.

Or, if you have additional stereo recording tips, let us know.

Here’s some more good listening from Flawn about recording howler monkeys in the Amazon.

Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Website

  • Joe Turner (@bucksci)

    2.09.16

    Reply

    I really like the London Sound Survey field sounds, which I think are recorded in stereo with binaural microphones: https://soundcloud.com/london-sound-survey

    (I could be wrong, but they’re still great!)

    • TheLondonSoundSurvey (@LondonSounds)

      2.16.16

      Reply

      Thanks Joe. Many of the recordings on the London Sound Survey are made in a semi-binaural way, with the mics positioned at the temples or just before the ears rather than inside the ears themselves. This means that the two channels are not as isolated from one another as with in-ear binaural recording, and so the recording reproduces better over speakers – although it will lack the very precise localisation which a true binaural recording can reproduce with headphone listening. Any pair of small omnidirectional mics can be used in this way. It’s just a matter of working out how to fix them to your head. The drawback is that this doesn’t work well in very windy weather, and in those situations I tend to use a single-point stereo mic inside a Rode blimp windshield.

  • Flawn Williams

    2.09.16

    Reply

    Soundcloud hosts a lot of nature recordings, too. That’s a great place to exercise your appetite for stereo immersion!

  • John Biewen

    2.09.16

    Reply

    Hey Rob, excellent show. So great to hear Flawn’s amazing recordings. Another stereo evangelist here. I want listeners to feel they’re IN the story whenever possible, not just being told one. So when recording ambi or scenes — pretty much in any situation with more than one source of sound — I record in stereo. Here’s an example from Scene on Radio, the podcast we recently launched at CDS: http://podcast.cdsporch.org/episode-5-a-level-playing-field/
    (Lots of stereo throughout but some of the more vivid scenes happen around 7:00 – 9:15 and 11:30 – 18:00)
    Thanks for doing this ep!

  • Flawn Williams

    2.10.16

    Reply

    Some clarifications about what you hear in the examples here: most of these stereo images are built up with two or more layers of stereo recordings, and then voices are mixed in in the middle of the stereo image. I.e., the voices are typically recorded at a different time and added to the stereo ambiances in mono. (The exception here is the Indian market ambiance, which included Alex Chadwick describing the scene into a stereo mike pair.)

    The split track technique is great for this, making use of a ‘stereo’ recorder to mike two voices closely with two separate mono mikes rather than trying to get two people to huddle around a single point stereo mike. But even with built-in mikes, if you orient each mike toward a person, then later use just one of those mikes at a time, panned to the center, you can get a clearer image of each voice than if you point the stereo pair at a voice.

    Remember, even in the fancy surround sound extravaganzas you hear in movies, nearly all of the ‘dialogue’ is coming from a front middle speaker.

    Also, Rob’s cautions about handling noise and wind noise apply to ANY directional mikes, not just the built-in ones your recorder may have. When it comes to wind protection and handling noise issues, omni mikes are a much safer bet than typical cardioid ‘ball’ mikes or short shotguns. You just have to get omnis closer to the sound source than you would with directional mikes.

    • Danny

      2.17.16

      Reply

      Where can I hear the story of ” James Scott Prison Boxer 57735 ” ? I would love to hear it in full. Great subject

      • Rob Rosenthal

        2.18.16

        Danny – The “James Scott…” piece is one of those stories that people refer to with reverence as an example of pub radio’s creative and artistic side back in the day — like “Father Cares” which I featured a few episodes ago. I wasn’t able to find “James Scott…” online. Flawn provided me with a copy. Maybe Flawn knows where to find it online. — r

  • Joe Turner (@bucksci)

    2.10.16

    Reply

    John, I love that. But then I really like being immersed in the background sounds as they move from one side to the other. I’m probably unusual in that sometimes I’m more interested in the sound than the story.

    Flawn, thanks for that explanation, that’s really interesting, I was wondering whether it was a silly question to ask about mixing mono over stereo backing sounds.

  • Rob Rosenthal

    2.10.16

    Reply

    Wow. So great to have everyone chiming in on this! Thanks!! — r

  • Ian

    2.19.16

    Reply

    As always so much to learn from this episode. Stereo versers mono isn’t about absolutes and all points mentioned are worth considering within context.
    In my little irregular podcast I like to record using stereo lapel mics onto a single track which creates an extreme left/right effect but after editing the interview I export a mono mix and then sync it with the stereo version reducing the levels of the stereo to give a more subtle stereo effect allowing the mono mix to be 60 to 80% of the level. I find it helps to create a more natural feel for the listener as though they’re simply listening in on a private conversation.
    Again, thanks Rob.

  • Jeff Bosley

    3.24.16

    Reply

    Hello, great article, I saw this on Flawn’s FB and found it informative.

    I’d like to recommend Mid-Side recording as a way to capture both mono AND stereo info. Typically, M-S uses a bi-direction for side and a cardioid for mid.
    Functionally, the card records a mono signal just like any mono mic. The beauty is the side mic, you can add varying amouts of stereo field info while you mix by properly matrixing the two channels, (You can also reverse a stereo recording into a mid and a side channel, we do this often in mastering a track).

    I often use M-S for live instrument recording, I record both M & S, while sending the mid card to the FoH console… I get the big wide sound for the recording (variable at mixdown) and a nice solid mono feed for the PA.

    M-S isn’t perfect, the side mic loses some low freq info because of cancellation but a single-point M-S mic has zero phase issues.

    I use several stereo mics for this, Shure VP88 and Neumann USM69 both work well in this manner.

  • Darin

    4.16.16

    Reply

    Hi Rob. Thanks for this article. I have a question. I’m a novice with audio and video, and I want to record some interviews for my blog (myself and one other person). When I do my blog videos by myself, I use my H4N Zoom and a wireless lav mic on mono (as you mentioned above). But, I was told by someone that when I do my interviews (using 2 wireless lav mics – one on me and one on the subject) I should turn the mono mix off on the H4N Zoom. This creates two channels with myself on one and the subject on the other. Do you recommend this as well, or should i use mono in the interview? I’m looking for the simplest thing that will create a good sounding final result. I edit my video in Final Cut Pro X, but I’ve never used many of their audio editing tools (I was told that audio options on Final Cut Pro X were fairly limited). I’m assuming that there’s the option to do “split-track” as you mentioned above. So, do you recommend mono (assuming I can do that with two lav mics) or two-channels and mix it later? Thanks for any advice.

  • Rob Rosenthal

    4.18.16

    Reply

    Hi Darin,

    Thanks for listening and writing.

    I think you should record in stereo and make a “split-track recording.”

    What you’ll hear when you import the audio is your voice entirely on one side and the interviewees voice on the other side. As you suggest, just use the “split-track” function to separate the two sides of the file. If Final Cut works like Hindenburg, the software I use, the voices will automatically be panned to the middle.

    The advantage is simple: If you step on each other during the interview, it’s easier to cut one of the voices out. Of course, you may still be able to hear the voice you’ve cut in the background of the other recording, but it won’t be in the foreground.

    Also, since you’re using lavs, there’s a risk of breathing, sniffling, the rustling of clothes, etc. getting recorded while someone is talking. That’s easily deleted if you record in stereo.

    Hope this helps.

    Best,
    Rob

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*