Is Your Digital Experience Mono or Stereo?

Recently, Tom and I had a discussion about mono vs. stereo sound and why some records might sound better in the former mix than in the latter, more modern composition. After all, stereo sound is all about spatial modeling of sound that puts the listener “in” the mix. It’s the exploitation of an aural trick our minds play on us to make us think sounds are coming from multiple directions, when in fact they’re coming from only two: left and right. So, why would the flat sound of a mono mix work better with certain kinds of music? It’s about sensory overload.

The best visual explanation I can find of how stereo sound “maps” out signals is found on the inside sleeve of Paul McCartney’s 1986 album Press to Play. Inside are sketches (sample above) from Sir Paul that show how he wanted the various instruments to sit within the mix of the song. The mix is extremely important because certain tones modulate in opposite patterns of others, which causes them to cancel each other out. It’s called “phasing” and without careful consideration of where each instrument is in the mix the user might never hear that awesome flourish in the middle of the bridge.

Before being sent to prison for murdering a woman in the foyer of his mansion, Phil Spector was an icon in the music industry. In addition to writing several hit songs (including “To Know Him is to Love Him”) and assembling mega girl group The Ronnettes , Spector created a production method called “Wall of Sound” that became the template against which all girl groups created their hits. The basic premise of the Wall of Sound is that Spector would fill all empty space in the mix with various sounds. Lots of tambourines, shakers, orchestration, and reverb. Given that he mixed all of his early albums in mono, which is a flat signal with all instruments sounding as if from the same source, it created a “wall” of music that was powerful and moving. It truly was/is a marvel to hear in a mono mix, but translated to stereo it can be…cacophonous.

Imagine being confronted by a dozen or more musicians all playing at the same time at full volume. Standing in front of you like an immovable barricade of sound. Even when employing a mapping technique like Macca’s, it gets to be a bit much. As home entertainment systems improved in the mid- to late-60s, stereo became the dominant mix in popular music, Spector’s Wall of Sound waned. While the music sometimes became more complex, the production became simpler and the idea of “open” space in the mix was embraced—it gave the listener some relief and a sense of their own position within the music they were listening to. It was a concept Spetcor struggled to adopt and one need only look to another Beatle’s solo album for proof of Spector’s failure: John Lennon’s Rock and Roll is a complicated mess, even though it was supposed to be a simple homage to the music of his youth. Even sections of Lennon’s masterpiece Imagine, also produced by Phil Spector, get to be a bit overwrought.

John Lennon & Phil Spector in the Studio

Well, like all theoretical discussions, Tom had some ideas of how this is analogous to digital communications.

Tom: I get more pleasure from “marketing” when it’s in artful layers, so my mind can piece it together as I want to, instead of simply reacting to ‘impulse’ all around… wall of sound is precisely that: a wall of information to be confronted/reacted to.

Derek: Right. It’s basically hitting the user with everything at once.

Tom: So think of that as a mental exercise too. If I provide you EVERYTHING (SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY!) then you can’t actually enter my space.

Derek: Right. It’s the prioritization and timing of certain signals that make it welcoming and engaging vs. a barrage of information. Throw it all at once and the user is likely to miss what’s actually important. The messages phase each other out.

Tom: So creating relationships among content is actually another Dimension…

Derek: Exactly.

Tom: It should be more of “Come in… let your mind grok this… become part of it.. own your own relationship to it.” It’s more than sensory or cognitive overload. It’s Wall vs. Room.

Derek: Yeah, it’s about space, relief, immersion…an orchestrated experience. Do I want to be slammed with all possible messaging at once? Or do I want some thought behind where things are, how they’re presented, when they’re quiet? Too many web experiences are still in MONO: Do this! Buy that! Like this! All at once.

Tom: A little relief goes a long way then? So stop creating “content” roadblocks… have a little respect for a user, and let them into your creative space. They’ll respond.

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