vinyl records mono vs stereo featured image

Vinyl records can either be mono or stereo. Modern records are likely stereo, but there are still mono records out there. Neither mono nor stereo records sound inherently better, but stereo does offer more possibilities in recording and production. However, stereo introduces some new issues with phasing.

In this article, I’m answering whether vinyl records are mono or stereo. To give the full picture I explore the differences between mono and stereo audio and how these relate to vinyl records and record players. I’m also going over some related topics like turning mono into stereo and multi-tracks.


What Is Mono Audio

Mono audio means sound recorded using a single audio channel. One normal microphone records one audio channel even if it’s recording multiple instruments.

‘Mono’ comes from the Greek word ‘monos’ which means ‘alone’

Mono audio isn’t inherently bad. High-quality mono audio can be perceived as bad because we, as humans, are used to two-channel audio biologically. This is because our ears both have their own “channel” which are both combined for our perceived sound.

For example, if you listen to mono audio using headphones you get 2 identical streams of sound into both ears. In nature this is very rare because sound streams would be influenced by positioning, obstacles, airflow, and more. This is why mono audio using headphones can sound unnatural because it is in a way.

Other words for ‘mono audio’ are ‘monaural’ and ‘monophonic’


What Is Stereo Audio

Stereo audio means sound recorded using 2 audio channels. Recording stereo requires 2 or more microphones, normally at different positions. These each of these 2 channels can now be played back using multiple speakers or headphones to create the stereo effect.

The stereo effect uses the 2 channels in audio to create a sense of realism and direction to recorded sounds. When played back using properly positioned speakers or headphones it will sound more natural to us humans, because of our bi-auricle biology, when compared to mono audio.

‘Stereo’ comes from the Greek word ‘stereós’ which means ‘solid’

Most devices you use that produce audio, like your headphones, are likely playing stereo audio. Audio doesn’t necessarily need to be recorded in stereo to be played back as stereo. This is called pseudo or simulated stereo, but I will elaborate on this later.


Vinyl Records – Mono Or Stereo

Vinyl records can either be mono or stereo. Modern records are likely stereo, but there are still mono vinyl records out there. The audio channels are recorded analogously in a spiraling groove in the vinyl material.

Mono vinyl grooves move sideways, like a river, resembling audio frequencies. Stereo grooves have each channel on a separate side of the groove, the inner side is for the left channel and the outer one for the right channel. Both channels are now in a single groove, so the movement has to be angled at 45 degrees per channel.

mono vs stereo vinyl grooves

During the 60s and 70s, both mono and stereo records were being produced. Consumers would have to choose which one they bought based on their audio equipment at home. A lot of mono records are very popular for collectors these days.

There are three main ways to tell if a vinyl record is mono or stereo. The first one is to check the label, which might just tell you. The second way is to listen using headphones and listen for the stereo effect. Finally, you could use an oscilloscope.


Record Players – Mono Or Stereo

Whether a record player can play mono or stereo depends on its cartridge and needle. The cartridge is the device, at the end of the tonearm, that’s used to translate groove shape into an electrical signal representing the recorded audio. The needle, or stylus, is the component of the cartridge that’s tracking the groove shape.

cartridge layout schema
cartridge layout, from uturnaudio.com

There’s a distinction between real mono cartridges and fake mono cartridges, which are just stereo cartridges wired for a mono signal.

The difference between a stereo cartridge and a real mono cartridge is the following. The mono cartridge uses a spherical stylus, which is expecting the more U-shaped groove that mono records have. A stereo cartridge is more likely to use an elliptical stylus to track a less wide groove with vertical variance.

Stereo cartridges and needles can play both mono and stereo records, but real mono cartridges and needles should only be used to play mono records. Don’t use mono cartridges for stereo records, because mono cartridges can damage the unexpected shape of the 2-channel stereo groove.

You can play mono records on a stereo turntable. But a real mono cartridge is worth it for vintage mono records. Mainly because the stylus of a mono cartridge is shaped specifically for the vintage mono groove shape.


Speakers And Headphones – Mono Or Stereo

The majority of modern headphones are stereo. Since headphones have a separate speaker for each ear, they’re well-positioned for stereo audio. These stereo headphones will still be able to play mono audio because it will just play the same sound channel for both ears.

A reason to listen to mono audio with headphones is being deaf in one ear. All the audio will be part of the single-channel, so you can hear everything. Phones and walkie-talkies are examples of devices that are likely to play mono audio.

A single speaker can’t be stereo. Since stereo has 2 channels it’d need more than one speaker to play them separately. If the channels aren’t separated and combined into one speaker, then it’d be mono audio being played.


Is Stereo Better Than Mono

Stereo isn’t necessarily better than mono. It depends on the technique of the recording. If audio was recorded as mono without any extra production then there’s no added value for stereo. However, stereo can do all the things mono can while also offering extra possibilities like panning.

Panning is a technique used to shift audio between the left and right channels to add a sense of movement and direction to the recorded audio.

The stereo version of audio can sound louder than the mono version because of the extra width. But a stereo channel by itself isn’t necessarily louder than the mono channel by volume.

Width, often achieved by panning, is how sounds move from one side to the other

So either mono or stereo records don’t inherently sound better than the other, but stereo does offer more possibilities in recording and production. However, stereo also introduces some new issues with phasing.

Phasing is the difference in timing when nearly identical signals are combined. Phasing issues are more likely to occur in stereo audio, because of the increased width. These issues can be countered during mixing.


Turning Mono Into Stereo

Mono can be turned into stereo, but the spatial effect wouldn’t be realistic as stereo recorded audio. There are several techniques used to create this fake stereo from mono.

Fake stereo can be made from mono by duplicating a mono source. Then panning one fully to the left channel and the other to the right. At this point, it’ll still sound mono just louder. So we lower the volume for both to rebalance and then to give add width we can change the EQ curve of one of the two channels.

Fake stereo is also called ‘simulated stereo’, ‘pseudo stereo’, and ‘analog stereo’

Splitting a mono signal to stereo is done using a y-splitter cable, which splits the mono signal to a left and right channel, and connecting those to a stereo power amplifier. This amplifier now outputs this stereo signal to your speakers.


What Is Multi-track

Multi-track is not the same thing as stereo. Stereo is audio with 2 channels. A multi-track is a recorded song with all sounds on their own separate tracks. Curtis Daniel the owner and studio manager at Patchwerk Recording Studios explains it perfectly.

A multi-track is just what the name says, it’s multiple tracks. So the way that the song was typically recorded, if it was recorded properly, all the different sounds that make up the song are recorded on multiple tracks. Any sound that makes up the song is on its own separate track.“, says Curtis Daniel.

He continues, “And that’s what we need for the mix engineers so he can isolate every single different sound and mix it down to a 2-track and deliver it to the master engineer.


Thanks for reading, I hope I fully answered any questions you had. If not, consider leaving a comment and I’ll try to respond as quickly as possible. I have a lot of educational articles related to vinyl and record players. Also, consider subscribing to my free newsletter below.

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Sources

  1. John Eargle, “The Microphone Book, Second Edition: From mono to stereo to surround“, 2004.
  2. Steven Hargreaves, Anssi Klapuri, Mark Sandler, “Structural Segmentation of Multitrack Audio“, December 2012
  3. Curtis Daniel, Owner/ Studio Manager at Patchwerk Recording Studios

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