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Left ear: melody. Right ear: harmony. More, please!
October 24, 2008 3:11 PM   Subscribe

Left ear: melody. Right ear: harmony. More, please!

In an effort to increase my personal safety, I'm walking the dog in the morning with only one earbud in. It's been fun to shuffle through my iPod and get the occasional song where the music I hear in one ear is markedly different than what you hear when listening with the other ear. It seems to happen mostly with mid- to late-'60s songs - Mamas & Papas, CSN, Grateful Dead.

So as I walk, I wonder:
- Was that production style a trend specifically in that era? Did it have to do with the transition from mono to stereo? Why did people stop doing this?
- Can you give me any more examples of artists and/or songs that utilize this technique (any era, any style)? It's kind of fun to listen with one ear, then the other. I think I'm learning more about harmony, which is kind of cool.

Thanks!
posted by Sweetie Darling to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Check out the song My Sound by Squarepusher off the album Music Has Rotted One Note.
posted by knowles at 3:28 PM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is the case with more than a few Bowie songs.
posted by the latin mouse at 3:29 PM on October 24, 2008


Stereolab's Margerine Eclipse album is mixed this way.

My theory for why people stopped is twofold: the newness of stereo wore off; people started to use headphones, and many (including me) find this type of hard left/right panning really irritating.
posted by zsazsa at 3:41 PM on October 24, 2008


Related.
posted by zsazsa at 3:45 PM on October 24, 2008


The Beatles' Rubber Soul is an extreme example, most of the vocals hard panned to one side, band to the other. At least on the ol' vinyl it is.

I think folks didn't really know what to do with stereo at first.
posted by quarterframer at 3:51 PM on October 24, 2008


You could check out Zaireeka by the Flaming Lips. No matter which CD you listen to, you will only be getting a part of each song.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 4:14 PM on October 24, 2008


Just off the top of my head: some Moody Blues, lots of 1966-68 Beatles, some Jimi Hendrix (I think Purple Haze), and limited bits of ELO and Queen (e.g. Bohemian Rhapsody). Most music after 1975 sounds pretty flat, stereophonically.
posted by crapmatic at 4:27 PM on October 24, 2008


In '65-'66 you probably only had four tracks to begin with, so there was really only so much you could do to create something recognizably "stereo". You don't start hearing full-scale, "spacial" mixes of the kind we are accustomed to today until the multitracking technology caught up and expanded beyond 8 tracks.
posted by anazgnos at 4:43 PM on October 24, 2008


Some of the songs from the Beatles' middle period do this -- I think Taxman is an example, and maybe some other songs from Revolver.

I assume -- just based on my experience listening to recordings from different time periods -- that when stereo came out, people felt like they should show it off like a special effect. But then people realized that it doesn't sound very good, so they stopped doing it.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:49 PM on October 24, 2008


On another note - this is why, for my money, at the point where people were doing mono and stereo mixes at the same time, the mono mixes always kick the stereo mixes' collective asses. Sgt. Pepper's is a great example. There was a naivete and stuntiness to all the hard panning...but the mono mixes were where all the real creativity was going down. Ditto Piper at the Gates of Dawn...The Who Sell Out...Safe as Milk...
posted by anazgnos at 4:53 PM on October 24, 2008


The Lady Marmalade version with Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya, and Lil Kim (easily one of my most favorite covers ever, seriously) does this.
Towards the 2nd half where they constantly switch up lines and runs Pink and Mya are split into either ear. Christina (as well as Lil Kim... but does she even count?) appear on both sides. I don't know the reasoning behind this division, but, it made me listen to the song 1,000 times more so I could experiment with blocking out the right or the left ear.
posted by simplethings at 5:19 PM on October 24, 2008


Incidentally, this is a nightmare for those of us with hearing loss in a single ear!
posted by SamuelBowman at 5:22 PM on October 24, 2008


Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?"
posted by mkb at 6:45 PM on October 24, 2008


Was that production style a trend specifically in that era?

Yes. At least, you'll find a lot more of it going on in 60s and 70s mixes than you will today, though there are certainly exceptions.

Did it have to do with the transition from mono to stereo?

Probably. Panning as an extreme effect was a new idea. People exploited it for a while, but then the new wore off and most producers started trying to do more realistic things with it, like mimicking the live space in which you would expect to hear music in the real word.

Why did people stop doing this?

Because it got old and sounds like crap if one of the channels of your stereo is out.
posted by wheat at 6:53 PM on October 24, 2008


I believe that originally, the recordings that were released like that were intended to be released as mono recordings. The record company either intentionally or accidentally released them as stereo, or intended them to be listened to in mono mode but found this technique resulted in better or louder sound. (I've heard various stories.) It became a sound in its own right for a short time, and producers used it to highlight their vocalist.
posted by kindall at 8:16 PM on October 24, 2008


I had a set of speakers that was broken on one side in some sectios, and I found out that many theatrical cast recordings are recorded in stereo.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:15 PM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another reason for the reluctance of modern producers to use dramatic stereo is that music is often used on TV: music videos, commercials, etc. - so making the mix sound good in mono is considered more important than taking full advantage of stereo.

A couple of artists who use crazy stereo separation: The Art of Noise (most of their 80s stuff), BT
posted by mmoncur at 11:11 PM on October 24, 2008


Your first question was answered in the thread zsazsa links to.

For listening recommendations, check out Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies, which, panning aside, is an incredible album.


I found out that many theatrical cast recordings are recorded in stereo.


Slight derail, but there's an important distinction to be made here between stereo recording and stereo mixing. Recording in stereo means multiple microphones were used to capture the sound source and its spatial information. This is not uncommon, but it's not always necessary, so many sources are recorded in mono, with a single mic.

Mixing in stereo means working with multiple tracks in an environment that allows them to be panned around in the stereo field. The resulting music will contain different information in the left channel than the right. Nearly all music anymore is mixed in stereo.

Something doesn't have to be recorded in stereo for the mix to be stereo. In fact a stereo recording could yield a mono mix if both microphones capture exactly the same information.

Neither of these are what the OP is asking about specifically, which is music mixed in stereo that features hard-panned tracks -- that is, elements that are entirely in one channel or the other.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:15 PM on October 24, 2008


Interesting how memory works. Your question reminded me of this comment left ages ago in chococat's song. He used to do that kind of hard panning a lot and his songs are really, really good (plus you can get them for free at Music) so there you go.
posted by micayetoca at 8:29 AM on October 25, 2008


I personally would downplay the whole, “They were exploring the artistic merits of hard panning,” take on the subject. I think the ultimate reasons stem from more technical considerations. In particular, the number of tracks available for recording was probably the biggest factor in deciding how to put particular instruments to tape, as both anazgnos says above and Lanark points in the previous thread (linked to by zsazsa and ludwig_van). If you can only afford enough tracks to record an instrument in mono, it limits the ways you can include that instrument in your final stereo mixdown.

Another point I haven’t seen made yet is that a speaker is only approximating the actual sound made by the drums/piano/vocals at the time of recording. Asking any one speaker cone to reproduce ALL the instruments in the recording (which you would have to do if you “soft-panned” every instrument) is very taxing, and ultimately affects the ability of that speaker to reproduce any one sound accurately. In other words, you can actually increase the fidelity of the sound exiting your speakers by making one speaker produce only the drums and vocals, while another speakers job is just the electric basses and guitars. I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere that this was a definite consideration of at least The Beatles and their engineers at one point in time (no source).

The people who point out that this is a pre-headphones consideration are absolutely correct. This strategy assumes you are sitting in a room listening to two reasonably placed speakers, so that the end result is decidedly not an extreme stereo separation of sound, but rather a high quality reproduction of individual sounds and a nice acoustic separation of the various instruments.

Since speaker technology hasn't changed that much in the last 50 years, the question remains: why don't people apply this technique when doing mixdowns today? The answer is probably that there are too many other factors that render this approach ineffective, not the least of which is the sheer number of headphones people wear these days. You can still find recordings with hard panned drums and vocals, often to great effect, but the technique is no longer part of the today's mainstream "mixing language".

To summarize, hard panning is a technical decision with artistic consequences, not the other way around.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 11:59 AM on October 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Drums and Guns by Low has a lot of hard panning to the left and right if you're looking for something made in the past few years.
posted by K.P. at 12:55 PM on October 25, 2008


If you can only afford enough tracks to record an instrument in mono, it limits the ways you can include that instrument in your final stereo mixdown.

If I understand what you're saying, this is inaccurate, which is what I was getting at in my previous comment. Recording in mono -- meaning capturing a sound with a single microphone -- doesn't impede your ability to mix in stereo. A stereo mix can be made entirely from mono tracks.

Asking any one speaker cone to reproduce ALL the instruments in the recording (which you would have to do if you “soft-panned” every instrument) is very taxing, and ultimately affects the ability of that speaker to reproduce any one sound accurately. In other words, you can actually increase the fidelity of the sound exiting your speakers by making one speaker produce only the drums and vocals, while another speakers job is just the electric basses and guitars.

I'm also skeptical about this, but I could be wrong.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:10 PM on October 25, 2008


This is really interesting - thanks so much for the background and the suggestions - keep 'em coming if you've got them!
posted by Sweetie Darling at 1:32 PM on October 25, 2008


Recording in mono -- meaning capturing a sound with a single microphone -- doesn't impede your ability to mix in stereo. A stereo mix can be made entirely from mono tracks.

You're right. You can still spread the mono track out in the stereo mix. I think I was grasping at the other point you already made, which is that you can also record an instrument in stereo, which maybe wasn't done as often due to track limitations. But now that you've got me thinking more clearly, I can't justify why you wouldn't pan all the mono tracks somewhat towards the middle. Maybe it was artistic after all!

I'm also skeptical about this, but I could be wrong.

I should emphasize my understanding of this phenomenon is anecdotal, I can't back it up with technical specifics of the way speakers work. But I've found this to be true in my own experience, listening to hard panned tracks in a room, where they don't sound hard panned, but do sound awesome. I'm thinking specifically of The Beatles here.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 7:42 PM on October 25, 2008


The Olivia Tremor Control. Everything they recorded has funky stereo effects going on.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:43 AM on October 26, 2008


Seconding Queen - The right side speakers in my first car did not function and I could never hear the "echo" parts in Bohemian Rhapsody!
posted by odi.et.amo at 9:39 AM on October 26, 2008


The Decemberists' "July, July!" does this too. I find it really distracting.
posted by Who_Am_I at 8:46 AM on October 27, 2008


Lots of further examples here.
posted by the latin mouse at 2:15 AM on October 28, 2008


Another point I haven’t seen made yet is that a speaker is only approximating the actual sound made by the drums/piano/vocals at the time of recording. Asking any one speaker cone to reproduce ALL the instruments in the recording (which you would have to do if you “soft-panned” every instrument) is very taxing, and ultimately affects the ability of that speaker to reproduce any one sound accurately. In other words, you can actually increase the fidelity of the sound exiting your speakers by making one speaker produce only the drums and vocals, while another speakers job is just the electric basses and guitars. I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere that this was a definite consideration of at least The Beatles and their engineers at one point in time (no source).

This is kind of true, but a bit misleading. It comes down to the property of linearity, which is one of the things you aim for when designing a speaker. One way to think about linearity is to imagine the system (a speaker or a guitar pedal or complicated DSP unit) having two signals fed in to it, A and B. If the system is perfectly linear, you input both signals, and then when you subtract B from the output, you get A back exactly - mixing signals together doesn't "color" or "distort" the final result. A perfect speaker would do exactly this - if I play an oboe sound and then a super deep bassline through the speaker at the same time, it won't effect the oboe part of the signal at all.

Most speakers are not very linear at all. Any physical speaker will have some nonlinearity. An extreme example of nonlinearity would be clipping, which introduces a whole bunch of high order harmonics (used to great effect by almost everyone to send instruments through amps).

So yes, if you have a really nonlinear speaker, having it "represent" many different instruments is going to make the nonlinearity more noticeable - each input signal (Paul, John, the piano) will affect the representation of the others. I'm not sure it's fair to say that hard panning "increases" fidelity though, because the nonlinearity will still be there if you hard pan your instruments. The benefit is that the various instruments won't induce "coloration" (distortion in the technical sense, but most people mean "clipping" when they say distortion) of the other signals.

That said, speaker design has advanced quite a bit - people are designing much more linear sound reproduction signal chains. Remember that the recording media itself can introduce a great deal of nonlinearity - vinyl colors sound a hell of a lot. Also, stereo vinyl works as described here - through a process of vector addition of signals. That means that the left and right channel's nonlinear properties will effect one another, even if you do hard pan! I don't really know, but I'm guessing the speaker's distortion issues would be a bigger deal.

Anyway, I can't stand it when people hard pan today - it's something that seems confined to indie kids and amateurs. I listen to most music on headphones, as I think is the case generally, and it makes suspension of disbelief impossible. Most people just don't have good speakers anyway, and the result is a jarringly "broken" stereo image - it sounds very unnatural if you don't at least have some cross feeding.
posted by phrontist at 8:25 AM on November 12, 2008


On a related note, Rob Schneider of the Elephant Six collective (Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, etc.) is an acquaintance of mine (we both take math classes at U of KY), and he has produced a lot of stuff in this style. I was talking to him about it and pulled out one of my favorite bits of trivia - that Brian Wilson was essentially deaf in one ear an hated stereo recordings, and he was quite familiar with this. Next time I see him I'll ask whether the hard panning is just to evoke that old school sound (this is where I'd put my money) of if it's actually a fidelity thing.
posted by phrontist at 8:34 AM on November 12, 2008


Full circle: you inspired a song that was mixed like this because of this question it was written and recorded by Karlos the Jackal and if you haven't heard his stuff, you should, he is great.
posted by micayetoca at 1:18 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


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