stereo
August 23, 2006 8:39 PM   Subscribe

Why don't more songs use total stereo seperation of different instruments? It worked for the Beatles. Why did they use it so extensively when few others seem to have?
posted by riotgrrl69 to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because to the unwashed masses, it sounds like the speakers are broken. That's my theory anyway.
posted by frogan at 8:47 PM on August 23, 2006


The Beatles were among the first to use panning and multi tracking. At the time, subtle panning was not an option, except with rather intricate machines with moved the volume pots of the individual right and left tracks.
posted by gally99 at 8:48 PM on August 23, 2006


Sorry, the machines I was thinking of are a bit older, but still, when you have a very limited number tracks, if you want to use panning at all, you want to be able to dedicate it to one track, and not have to use two.
Plus, manual panning using two sliders is a f-ing hassle.
posted by gally99 at 8:52 PM on August 23, 2006


I hope this isn't an evil piggyback, but I'm curious about the original question, plus the followup: Why are the surround channels so poorly used in almost every DVD release? I've reached the point where I don't even have rear speakers hooked up, because they were wasting space (not your ordinary cubes, either, these were real speakers).
posted by knave at 8:57 PM on August 23, 2006


My theory is that every time a new technology is available to an entertainment medium it will be (ab)used in the form that will make it most obvious that said technology is in use. Kind of like how when hardware based 3D rendering took off every game had tons of lens flares, or how every 3D movie has a scene at the very beginning where stuff flys directly at the camera for no real reason (the popcorn scene from Friday the 13th comes to mind). But once the technology matures you'll see more subtle uses that aim to accentuate the entertainment rather than take center stage. Like sparing use of stereo seperation, lens flares only when looking at the sun, and maybe someday 3d movies that aren't one big cheese-fest.
posted by hamhed at 9:12 PM on August 23, 2006


What hamhed said.

Also, listening to the Beatles is, imho, really annoying when using headphones. The all-in-one-ear sound is very unnatural sounding. With speakers you can still hear the instrument in both ears, but with headphones it sounds like you just went deaf in one ear.
posted by PJensen at 9:16 PM on August 23, 2006


An album creates the illusion of hearing a band perform live. That illusion is broken down by "in your face" use of stereo panning. Bear in mind that everything besides bass and drums are still spread around the stereo space. But these days drums and bass are usually run right up the middle, with a bit of "stereo" applied to the drums that are used less. Also, the groove is somewhat more coherent when the bass and drums are holding everything together from the middle.
posted by tcobretti at 9:29 PM on August 23, 2006


IIRC, the hard panning on some of the US releases was an accident, caused by the delivery of the master tapes in a 2-track mode, meant to be mixed to mono and released.

Well, someone just dumped the masters into repro and now we've got a whole continent that thinks it was intentional.

Best mistake ever, as far as I'm concerned. I learned more about arrangement and instrumentation by listening to one channel, then the other, than I did from just about everything else.

Memory is fuzzy, but I believe this is discussed in the George Martin memoir All You Need Is Ears.
posted by Aquaman at 9:39 PM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]


knave: by "used so poorly" you mean you rarely conciously notice them? That's good! The movie audio is not supposed to divert your attention behind you away from the screen.
posted by aubilenon at 10:02 PM on August 23, 2006


Great question... I've thought of asking it too! I am pretty satisfied with the answers.
posted by rolypolyman at 10:11 PM on August 23, 2006


It can actually be very tiring listening to music that does this if you are wearing headphones. So much so that audiophiles like to buy headphone amplifiers that feature crossfeed which decreases the channel separation.
posted by robofunk at 10:11 PM on August 23, 2006


I find this question and series of answers interesting.... I find it interesting htat there's answers at all, really...

Why? Because tons of bands still do this... boatloads of them do it...

Yet somehow people are answering the question "Why doesn't anyone do it?" .. weird.
posted by twiggy at 10:15 PM on August 23, 2006


Panning is used now and often. It's just not used as an audio effect in most popular music unless an artist is trying to be "experimental." The results of spatial placing tracks in a stereo space are subtle, so unless you really listen for it (with good speakers/ headphones) you aren't going to notice it. And that's as it should be, do you really want to listen to songs that are more about panning technique?
posted by bigmusic at 11:05 PM on August 23, 2006


What hamhed said, but I wouldn't have been so cautious about the "(ab)used" bit.

To me, the way the Beatles (and others) used the newish stereo technology seems as if they went up to a particularly unimaginative ten-year-old and asked him to come up with a "really really cool way" of exploiting stereo technology to make music more interesting & enjoyable for the people who had gone out & bought themselves stereos. It just reeks of wide-eyed naivety.

Annoyingly, I would probably have to be consistent & use the same argument against the Velvet Underground's *The Gift*, which has a spoken word track in one channel & all the instrumentation in the other.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:13 PM on August 23, 2006


IANAM, my impression is simply "musicians today now know better". The Beatles were experimenting with a new technology, and those crude wince-inducing experiments helped pave the way to the more sophisticated and refined use of stereo that is commonplace today.

(When I first discovered stereo cassette recording at around the age of 12, my very first experiments were along exactly the same lines. I'm now faintly embarressed to listen to the seperation on those tapes I made. I wonder if the surviving Beatles feel similarly :)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:09 AM on August 24, 2006


It seems to me a distinction between "the use of panning in a stereo recording" and "the extreme hard pan separation of instruments" could be emphasized here. Les Beatles & Sir Martin definitely pioneered many creative and subtle uses of stereo, but the total separation of tracks was, as I described above, a mistake on some US releases.

I could be mistaken...
posted by Aquaman at 12:24 AM on August 24, 2006


An album creates the illusion of hearing a band perform live.

That was true until roughly the time of The Beatles.

Anyway, the answer isn't because "musicians today know better." The answer is basically that fashion has changed. Why did everyone use gated reverb on the snare drum in the 80s? Why did people use walls of distorted electric guitars in the 90s? Why does everyone compress and limit their masters super-aggressively in 2006? Fashion changes.

Stereo was new in the 60s, and people had different ideas about how it should be used. These days it's all been fairly well codified. The basic template has bass, kick, and snare dead center, with cymbals and toms spread slightly. Lead vocal dead center, guitars etc. spread out, but often doubled and tripled and quadrupled to create a big wall of sound.

It is true that in any stereo recording, the listener will not have an accurate stereo image if they aren't positioned properly relative to the speakers. I believe that's one of the reasons Brian Wilson said he preferred mono. But he's also deaf in one ear.

Anyway, people still take advantage of the whole stereo field. It's not some kind of lost art. It just isn't fashionable to make records that way anymore, and so most experienced producers or people working in any kind of mass-market capacity avoid it. They usually don't want to come off sounding anachronistic.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:29 AM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


And plenty of panning on Beatles records was deliberate. Some of the early records were originally mixed for mono, and sound weird when they're reissued in stereo. But by their middle period, Beatles records were being mixed in stereo.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:30 AM on August 24, 2006


But not by the Beatles - they and Martin were present at (and paid great attention to) the mono mix, and generally left the stereo mixes to the engineer. The mono version was the "real" version, it's just that now we've got so used to stereo that we see a stereo version as both inherently superior and the default.

Although they used more than four tracks (George Martin being probably the best source of information on exactly how, and it's a cool engineering story all by itself), the 1967 recordings, at least, were mixed from four tracks (and two of those would often be the lead vocal), so any separation at all was going to be fairly extreme - if I remember correctly, Strawberry Fields Forever has bizarre rhythm part on one track, the other instruments on another and John vocals on the other two tracks. Though I may not be remembering correctly.
posted by Grangousier at 1:58 AM on August 24, 2006


Perhaps another reason this is uncommon is that a recording involves either simulating or re-creating a physical space: a concert hall, a bedroom, a church, etc. Most spaces have walls and other objects in them and some of the sound from a given point source will bounce off some of these objects before reaching your ear. Those portions of the sounds which bounce off something else also take a little longer to reach your ears than the bits which go there directly. Tools for simulating space range from relatively simple effects (such as reverb) to the kind of complex palaver you might find with a binaural recording. The only kind of physical space where sounds from around you will ever sound overwhelmingly as if they come from a given point is an anechoic chamber: and that would be a pretty alien place to hold a gig.
posted by rongorongo at 3:08 AM on August 24, 2006


I'm not sure if it supports or undermines what Aquaman is suggesting, but here's more info about stereo separation on With the Beatles.
posted by mediareport at 4:44 AM on August 24, 2006


I'll take a crack at this, from an angle that I don't think anyone's really taken yet.

Because most bands, and most music, are formulaic and unimaginative. Who's to blame for this is a bigger question, but I'll avoid the derail. (How's that for a sweeping generalization?)

Now, there are definitely bands out there (big ones) that do interesting things with panning. Radiohead comes to mind. So does Sigur Ros. Rarely (if ever) do you hear any of the main elements panned hard left or right, Beatles-style, but there's definitely elements of the track that are solely in one channel. It's definitely going to be the artier bands that do this, rather than the straight-ahead rock bands, at least on this kind of scale.

In the indie world, stuff like this is a little more prevalent, if only because there's generally greater room for experimentation, or sometimes even a contrarian attitude when it comes to production value. A few examples -

1. Stereolab - Their last album, "Margerine Eclipse," is basically two mono mixes, one panned hard left, and one panned hard right. They would record one take, then record another take with slightly varied instrumentation. One take gets mixed and put in the left ear, the other gets mixed and put in the right ear. Really, you've got a choice between either mono mix, or the stereo mix of both.

2. Ben Gibbard (yes, the chunky-cute indie superhero) - He did a split 4-track EP with Andrew Kenny of the American Analog Set. Some (and maybe all, I can't remember) of Ben's tracks were done the same way, albeit with fewer instruments than Stereolab, but the effect is wonderful, nonetheless.

3. Pedro the Lion/Headphones - Their (his) engineer is fantastic, and loves to do subtle but interesting things with his mixes. The example I'm thinking of is on the Headphones album - during the bridge of one song he takes the entire drum kit, compresses the living crap out of it, and puts the whole thing in the right channel.

As for songs that have truly exreme panning, I know they're out there - I've got some, for sure. I can't for the life of me remember specific songs, though.
posted by god hates math at 7:45 AM on August 24, 2006


and, for Bob Dylan's opinion on a similar matter, see this post from today
posted by poppo at 7:48 AM on August 24, 2006


I was always intrigued by Peter, Paul, and Mary's Moving album in which Peter and Paul are on one channel and Mary is in the middle. When I first heard this I used to flip one speaker off and sing the part (you could actually hear the "off" channel singer in the background coming from the "on" speaker, which gave me the sense they were in the same room at the same time).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:25 AM on August 24, 2006


Well, someone just dumped the masters into repro and now we've got a whole continent that thinks it was intentional.

First I've heard of this. What I do know is the first four Beatle CDs were only released in mono, so those of us familar with the original (American?) LPs were somewhat annoyed with that loss of data -- we were used to their extreme stereo sep which has fallen out of favor. I remember lots of mid-90s discussion on this subject in rec.music.beatles.
posted by Rash at 9:36 AM on August 24, 2006


A great chococat track from MeFiMu features hard panned vocals.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:10 AM on August 24, 2006


yeah, aquaman, i hadn't heard that either. do you have a source other then the george martin book you linked?
posted by lester at 10:10 AM on August 24, 2006


But not by the Beatles - they and Martin were present at (and paid great attention to) the mono mix, and generally left the stereo mixes to the engineer.

What's your source for this? I seriously doubt that The Beatles/George Martin weren't doing the stereo mixing for Revolver and later.

Perhaps another reason this is uncommon is that a recording involves either simulating or re-creating a physical space

No it doesn't. Like I said, The Beatles were in large part responsible for changing this paradigm.

the 1967 recordings, at least, were mixed from four tracks (and two of those would often be the lead vocal), so any separation at all was going to be fairly extreme - if I remember correctly, Strawberry Fields Forever has bizarre rhythm part on one track, the other instruments on another and John vocals on the other two tracks. Though I may not be remembering correctly.

I don't know for sure about Strawberry Fields, but Sgt. Pepper's used more than four tracks. Regardless, this is irrelevant - the number of tracks used has nothing to do with how they're panned. I can record four tracks and pan them straight down the center, or I could put them way out on the sides.

and, for Bob Dylan's opinion on a similar matter, see this post from today

I don't think he was talking about the same thing.

Anyway, all modern records use panning, it's just not always as notcieable. It's common to double elements, like guitars, and put them on either side so that they sound bigger.

But for bands that mix with more of a 60s aesthetic, you could check out the Elephant 6 groups.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:14 AM on August 24, 2006


I'd swear I remember some beatles-era albums that hyped the stereo seperation as a sort of karaoke benefit, wherein you could sing along without the vocals.
posted by nomisxid at 11:14 AM on August 24, 2006


The Beatles albums were mixed using 4 track recorders - these were sometimes daisy chained together to give 8 or in the case of Sgt Pepper even 16 tracks. They simply didnt have enough spare tracks to record all the intruments on both left and right channels.
posted by Lanark at 12:03 PM on August 24, 2006


There's a big difference between contemporary recordings and the work that was being done when stereo was brand new—we have a working vocabulary now, a theory of stereo recording and mixing.

As has been said, the Beatles (and anyone else playing with stereo at the time) would have been mucking around in a brand new toybox, but it goes a step further than that: if stereo recording hadn't been done up to that point, then married to the lack of subtle stereo technique was a lack of listener understanding of stereo.

Things that we might now consider natural, and be able to discuss—the emotional impact of a track panned hard right, or of a sweeping pan into or out of the center of the field—were unknowns then. It was a novel experience for engineers and listeners alike.

So now, when someone pans a track hard right, they're much more likely to know better, in a sense. Anyone who has spent time listening to music in stereo is going to have picked up some of the language, some of the conventions of that, even if only subconsciously in some cases, and you'll see that reflected in the recordings they make, from the kid in his bedroom up to a career recordist. Similar growth in conventions and language have typified other aspects of audio recording, to say nothing of other media (cinematography, photography, etc).
posted by cortex at 12:20 PM on August 24, 2006


the Beatles...and Martin were present at (and paid great attention to) the mono mix, and generally left the stereo mixes to the engineer.

What's your source for this? I seriously doubt that The Beatles/George Martin weren't doing the stereo mixing for Revolver and later.

But it's true, at least up to & including Sgt Pepper. Stereo was such a new thing in 1967, a gimmick, that the Fab Four considered the mono version the end product. For exhaustive details about how the versions differ, see the Usenet Guide to Beatles Recording Variations. (Link's to the 1967 section, for Sgt Pepper -- most obvious places are "Lucy in the Sky", which has subtle psychedelic phasing effects omitted from the stereo, and "Sgt Pepper Reprise".)
posted by Rash at 5:09 PM on August 24, 2006


The Beatles albums were mixed using 4 track recorders - these were sometimes daisy chained together to give 8 or in the case of Sgt Pepper even 16 tracks. They simply didnt have enough spare tracks to record all the intruments on both left and right channels.

Putting a track in the center in a stereo recording means it comes out of both channels. It doesn't require recording 2 separate tracks. As far as I know this has always been the case.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:56 PM on August 24, 2006


A 'track in the center' would be mono: During two-channel stereo recording, two microphones are placed in strategic locations in relation to the source, both record at once. Each channel will be similar, but each will have distinct time-of-arrival difference and sound pressure level difference information. On playback, the listener's brain uses the subtle differences in timing and level to triangulate the positions of the recorded objects.

Of course many recordings will include both stereo and mono sources, but in those early days I think each instrument was recorded as a single mono track. Panning them from left to right gives some impression of a sound stage, but it's not true stereophonic sound.
posted by Lanark at 7:41 AM on August 25, 2006


Not sure what your point is, Lanark. I was pointing out that it doesn't take two tracks to make something come out of the left and right channels. But something could be recoded in mono or in stereo and still sound like it was in the center. Although things like guitars and vocals tend to be recorded in mono. But using mono sound sources doesn't make the resultant recording any less stereophonic.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:48 AM on August 25, 2006


I'm reading a good book on mixing right now and got to a part that reminded me of this question. It says:

"When stereo first came into widespread use in the mid-1960s, it was common for mixers to pan most of the music from the band to one side while the vocals were panned opposite. This was because stereo was so new that the recording and mixing techniques for the format hadn't been discovered or refined yet, so pan pots were not available on mixing consoles. Instead, a three way switch was used to assign the track to the left output, right output, or both (the center)."
posted by ludwig_van at 12:10 PM on December 9, 2006


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