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Some Thoughts on "True Stereo" Recording

by Harvey Reid

I am a believer that stereo is one of the greatest inventions in the history of recording, and that it is almost impossible to find anything to listen to that was actually recorded in stereo, with the exception of some classical music. I find myself wishing that Robert Johnson had used a DAT machine. Back in the days when they made records just by playing into the tape machine, wouldn't it have been nice if they had also had DAT machines and stereo? Now that we have much better tools to do that job, the only people who seem to be using them are radio journalists and people who record the sounds of the jungle, the ocean or thunderstorms.

When you do direct-to-digital recording of a solo performer, for example, you have a good opportunity to really explore the mysteries of capturing sound in stereo, and to learn about True Stereo. Almost nothing you hear on recordings any more is true stereo (living stereo they used to call it), and in my opinion it is a lost art that deserves to be rediscovered.

There are a couple modern forces butting heads and it's not clear who is going to win. On one side is the fact that stereo takes twice as many wires, and eats up more bandwidth and hard drive space than mono. Many people are listening on phones and tiny speakers. These are all reason to not bother with stereo. Stereo is amazing in two situations: 

1) when you are between the pair of speakers in front of the stereo field. The old "living room" scenario when people would sit on a couch a listen to music as a primary activity seems to be gone, but now an increasing and significant number of homes have home theater setups, with real speakers and amplifiers.

2) when you use headphones or earbuds. This is a big chunk of the world, and may keep stereo alive better than anything else.

The stereo spectrum is used in recording studios now as a way to separate the instruments and vocals so they don't pile up on each other, but there is no spatial quality to the music when the panning knob on the mixing board is set to 30 degrees off center and your guitar is stuck there for the whole song. Multi-track stereo recording is essentially just multi-track mono, and they use the pan pots to spread the various tracks out to create an illusion of spatial depth. True Stereo involves a perception of depth like seeing with two eyes, and it does just what they said it did when they invented it.

The word binaural is used to describe a technique of putting 2 mikes in a position that approximates human ears, though I personally use a wider range of mike placements, and often place them farther apart and pointing in more unusual directions. "Recreate the sound of the orchestra in your living room!" the ads used to say. And they were right. Problem is, almost nobody records with just a pair of mikes any more. The classical music engineers used to use two mikes, then they went to multitracking and mixing and after trying it all, a lot of them are back to using two or three well-placed mikes. If your goal is to reproduce on tape the sound of something in real life, you can do an incredible job of it with two mikes and a digital recorder. I have done a good amount of experimenting with the 3-mike, so called Telarc technique which uses one omni mike and two directional mikes, and I find that for recording one or two people, it sounds much sharper and clearer to use a pair of mikes only. Perhaps when recording a bigger sound like a chamber orchestra the 3-mike method is better.

With two mikes in an X-pattern, you get a very 3-dimensional sound when you listen in a proper stereo setting. If you are a singer and you move around ever so slightly while you sing into an X pattern miking configuration, the small motions you make will translate into much larger motions in a living room stereo setting, and your voice will move around the room rather than be locked in absolutely the same place in the stereo spectrum by the panning pot on the mixer.

I think that the musicians of the world have gone totally overboard with overdubbing and multitracking and splicing, and that the world could use more recordings that represented something real that actually happened. To me the act of playing guitar for people is a perfect act, and all I want from musical technology is to interfere with it as little as possible. With two mikes, chosen and placed by me and two speakers chosen and placed by the listener, there is a minimum of noise in the channel between player and listener.

I am going to continue to experiment with recording larger groups of musicians without multi-tracking, and also to pursue the holy grail of on-location recording, which is natural reverb. There is no question that music sounds better in certain acoustical settings, and there may be some way to capture that in a recording.

©1996 by Harvey Rei d