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Understanding Stereo and Mono

When dealing with samples in an Akai MPC, you’ll typically be dealing with either stereo or mono sources. In this article I’ll be explaining the difference between the two.

Stereo sounds

When you listen to music on a home music system, you are usually listening to a stereo audio source. Your sound system will most likely have two speakers, and out of those speakers you will often hear certain sounds appear to be emanating from one side more than the other. For example, a drum performance may feature a cymbal that sounds like it is coming from the left speaker more than the right.

This is an example of ’panning’, and these panned audio elements are what defines a stereo sound source. Stereo sources feature two channels (left and right) and to be truly stereo the left channel will differ to the right. So in the previous example, the cymbal is said to be panned more to the left, and as such if you were to listen to each channel individually, the cymbal will simply sound louder in the left channel.

If you stand in front of a typical drum kit you’ll both see and hear the effect of panning very clearly. The kick is placed centrally, so the kick also sounds as if it is placed in the middle of the ‘mix’. The hats will be slightly to (say) the left, so if you close your eyes and listen, you should hear that the hats sound slightly louder on the left hand side.

Mono sounds

A mono sound consists of a single channel only; hence there is no panning information present everything is heard equally in both the left and right ears. When a singer is recorded with a standard microphone, the resulting recording will be in mono. Similarly, a bass guitar recorded from the single lead plugged into its jack input will also be mono.

Returning to our drum kit, if we were to place a microphone in front of each individual instrument, the resulting recordings would each individually be mono. However if we then transfer each of these mono recordings to a mixer we can transform the combination of mono sources into a single stereo source. To do this, we simply position each mono source in a different position within the stereo ’field’.

This is done by adjusting the panning knob on the mixer for each individual channel. So to recreate the stereo drum kit we discussed previously, we would leave the kick and snare channels centrally panned, the hats panned slightly to the left, and the crash cymbal panned fairly wide to the right.

When creating a mix, the position of your mono sources is what defines the perceived stereo field.

Making stereo from mono

A mono vocal recording can be transformed into a stereo performance by applying a stereo effect to the recording. For example a stereo delay which adds panned delays to the source will help give the impression that the mono vocal is actually a stereo vocal.

Another way to create stereo is to combine two mono sources. A quick and dirty method is to take a kick drum, copy it, tune down the copy and then place that copy in the right channel (panned hard right) and the original kick in the left channel (panned hard left). This can be done in any audio editor or even in an MPC.

There are other advanced ways of creating stereo sounds from mono sources, many of which require in-depth knowledge of waveform and frequency manipulation.

Choosing mono or stereo sounds

In the early days of sampling, we tended to use mono sources as they use half as much memory. These days the newer MPCs have enough memory for this to not be a massive problem. However it always pays to be frugal where possible as you never know when you’ll need that extra MB or two! If your source sample contains no panning information, quite simply there is no benefit in using a two channel version. Simply convert to mono in TRIM > EDIT.

MPC-Samples.com’s drum sample packs contain a mixture of stereo and mono sounds, depending on the required audio effect we wish to achieve. Our layered MPC snares are mostly stereo and feature careful waveform manipulation to help control both the stereo field and the resulting fatness of the sound. Kicks are often in mono, as in most situations we tend to avoid excessively ‘wide’ kicks sounds unless a special effect is being desired.

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