Will my head explode if I wear my earphones the wrong way round?
March 23, 2008 1:01 PM   Subscribe

stupid question: why are there left and right stereo speakers?

Okay, I understand (and appreciate) that there are two sets of sounds and that they're separated in space. But I don't get the specificity of left and right. On my headphones, one speaker is labeled L and the other is labeled R.

Several times a day, I start to put them on without first checking that I'm matching the speakers to the correct ears. Then I realize what I'm doing and check the labels. Part of me feels like it's a good thing I'm doing this; another part of me feels like a lemming, mindlessly following directions to march off a cliff.

Would it make any difference if I listened to L with my right ear and R with my left ear? When I've boldly (and guiltily) done this, I haven't noticed any difference. Is this because L and R are bullshit labels? Or is it because I'm not a sophisticated enough listener to appreciate L and R? Would a real audiophile exclaim, "What's going on? Why is the string section on the right?!?"
posted by grumblebee to Technology (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Left and Right are mostly arbitrary, when it comes to listening to recorded music. Not so arbitrary when you combine that with a movie or a videogame, for instance. Something whooshes off stage left and your ears hear it exit stage right.

But for music, not so much. There may be more subtle considerations based on the ergonomics of the headphones themselves, like a minute twist to the ear cups that make them sit more comfortably on the head.

Nobody will call you out for listening to classical music the "wrong way". Although if you were a more avid concertgoer, you might be thrown off by the violins being on the "wrong" side of the soundstage, for instance.
posted by Aquaman at 1:10 PM on March 23, 2008

A real audiophile would indeed exclaim, "What's going on? Why is the string section on the right?"

A non-audiophile may use the headphones to watch a movie on a portable DVD player or iPod-like device, and have the disorienting, ghostly sensation of seeing someone on the left side of the screen talk, and have it come from the right in the headphones.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 1:11 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

They're 'left' and 'right' because the engineer that recorded/mixed the music specifically designated sounds for the left or right, not because it sounds better out of one ear than the other, but because that was how they envisioned it. Usually this comes from stage setup, trying to replicate the arrangement of instruments on a stage. In other words, Left and Right aren;t 'bullshit' labels, they're labels for what you're intended to hear in your left or right ear. Funny how that works out...
posted by pupdog at 1:23 PM on March 23, 2008

Best answer: I EAT TAPAS hit the nail on the head.

it's all about fidelity to the original recording environment and the way it is meant to be experienced. not adhering to the left right guidelines would negate the stereo 3D sound staging. As tapas's example illustrated, when listening to an orchestra the violins are to the left of the conductor, thus if you were in the audience you would hear the violins more predominantly from the left side. without the stereo imaging, you would have the same auditory information coming from both channels, hence losing that 3D spatial illusion and result in a flatter less realistic sound, ie. the violins in this example would not be grouped together but seated haphazardly throughout the orchestra.
posted by dawdle at 1:24 PM on March 23, 2008

Response by poster: Bighappyfunhouse, just to clarify, I understand the need for two speakers. And i love listening to stereo recordings. I'm just don't get why (or if) there's something to be gained by listening to the left speaker with my left ear (as opposed to my right) and the same for the right speaker/right ear.

I also understand how it might be important with narrative (movies, games) -- or anything with a visual. It would be odd if a character was standing on the left but you heard his voice on the right. I'm talking about music.
posted by grumblebee at 1:26 PM on March 23, 2008

Response by poster: your enjoyment of life will just be all the poorer for it.

In what way?
posted by grumblebee at 1:27 PM on March 23, 2008

Put on your headphones and listen to the Virtual Barber Shop. It is a good example of stereo recording. For most things you won't notice the difference.
posted by Yorrick at 1:29 PM on March 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

in the same way you can chug down a glass of cheap ripple or savor a glass of '74 Chateau Latour. both contain alcohol, both will give you a buzz. the latter will leave you a memory you can cherish later, while the former will just give you a headache.
posted by dawdle at 1:31 PM on March 23, 2008

It is so you will listen to it as the artist expected you to. If a band wanted the guitars to be on the "left" of the "stage" there's probably a reason. If you swap sides you're not hearing the song in the way the artist intended. That's entirely up to you whether or not you want to respect that. Some will say "it does not matter" but most musicians and/or produceers make specific choices when it comes to decisions such as "how far to the right should I pan the rhythm guitar?"
posted by afx114 at 1:38 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

So is there a reason the violins are to the left of the conductor, rather than the right? When bands set up on stage, is there a specific reason not to use the mirror image of the configuration they choose?

I regained hearing in my left ear recently after about ten years without, and I am now extremely appreciative of the stereo listening experience. But I've had the same question as grumblebee as to the specific directionality of it and whether there's some artistic reason it shouldn't be flipped. What goes into the decision that a sound should be on the left rather than the right? (Not "how far to the right should I pan the rhythm guitar," but why the rhythm guitar should be on the right rather than the left in the first place.)
posted by yarrow at 1:44 PM on March 23, 2008

all of these considerations make up the experience we call High Fidelity. that's all. no other reason than that.
posted by dawdle at 1:53 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of people here are missing a bit of the question. Grumblebee is not asking "what is the purpose of stereo recordings?" He works in theater for gosh sakes. He is asking, for music strictly, with no visual or other sensory accompaniment, does it matter, preserving the fact that there are two different channels if I listen to the "left" channel on the right side and the "right" channel on the left side.

My answer is "it matters", along the lines of what tapas and dawdle said. The orchestra example is a good one. This could apply to live shows as well, especially. If you listen to Your Favorite Band, Live at Famous Show, and at said show, the guitarist and vocalist were on your left, as you face the stage, and the left speakers at the show played them, and the banjo and tuba were on the right, but in the recording those are reversed, then you're arguably getting a different experience than what people actually experienced at the show. Or, if you're like most people (non-audiophiles and live recording enthusiasts who are concerned with minutiae), it really doesn't matter.

Getting a bit back to stereo in general, I would add, listening to headphones, for me, is very very different from listening to speakers. When you listen to speakers, all the sound goes everywhere in the room, so you hear that some sounds are coming from the right speakers, and some are coming from the left, but your right ear hears a bit of the left speaker, and vice versa. This is something that I find very disconcerting sometimes when I listen to recordings with very different left and right recordings. To me, listening to stereo headphones is not not not the same as listening to stereo speakers, much less live music. To me, stereo headphones to stereo speakers is almost the same as mono speakers to live music. It can often sound just unnatural.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 1:57 PM on March 23, 2008

Is this because L and R are bullshit labels?

No. Musicians make music that is mixed down to stereo. There a lot of Beatles songs that have vocals in one ear and music in the other. Say, the Beatles meant for you to hear John's voice in your left ear and the music in your right, then these labels come in very handy. Or music thats mixed so that you hear that the guitars sweep in one the left and go to the right.

Look, its not that big of a deal, but if they started making headphones without these labels it would piss people like me off. If you dont want to follow them that's fine, but you'll find that some modern headphones are designed in a way that makes them uncomfortable if you have them on backwards. So you now have two incentives to spend 30ms looking for the L sticker and putting them on properly.

Life is full of these little rules. Why is the fork usually on the left? Why drive on the right? Why write 'you' instead of 'u' on message boards? There's a certain level of convenience and standardization that we do everyday and dont think too much about. Standardization is something that's easy to take for granted.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:58 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

FWIW, there's a led zeppling song where Jimmy's wall-of-guitars come sweeping in on one side and out the other. I heard it backwards once and it drove me batty. So you really dont have to be this classical music snob to notice or care.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:59 PM on March 23, 2008

amen, damn dirty ape - I was just thinking that a spin of "Dark Side Of The Moon" could tell me instantly if my channels were backwards, and would drive me *crazy* if they were. Does it really matter which way the effects pan? Only in that when experiencing all kinds of art, I like to know that I'm hearing (or seeing) what the artist wanted me to hear or see. If the sound effect is supposed to pan left-to-right, that's how I'd like to hear it.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 2:38 PM on March 23, 2008

Put on your headphones and listen to the Virtual Barber Shop. It is a good example of stereo recording.

It is stereo, and stereo is necessary for the effect to work, but that's not a sufficient description of what's going on. Technically it's a binaural recording, which is a lot more impressive than mere stereo sound.
posted by matthewr at 2:46 PM on March 23, 2008

The answer is that it basically doesn't matter, but whoever mixed the recording intended some things to be on the left and some on the right, and if you switch them you'll be hearing everything reversed, like a mirror image. If you took a portrait and mirrored it horizontally, you wouldn't think it looked funny unless you knew the subject of the portrait well and could say "Hey that scar should be on his left cheek, not his right!" But this:

it's all about fidelity to the original recording environment and the way it is meant to be experienced. not adhering to the left right guidelines would negate the stereo 3D sound staging.

is not true. You're certainly still hearing in stereo with the headphones switched. You're just not hearing it exactly as intended. The orchestra example is a good one. The sections wouldn't be where you'd expect if you know orchestras well. Of course if you didn't know how an orchestra is typically laid out you'd never notice.

The other big thing you'd notice, which I'm surprised no one has mentioned, is the drums in a rock recording. There are two basic ways to mix the drums in a stereo recording -- drummer's perspective and audience perspective. If you switched the headphones you'd get the opposite of what was intended. But that's still not a really big deal unless you're a drummer.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:56 PM on March 23, 2008

Generally speaking, left and right are identified so that one can be able to enjoy the sound stage as intended by the recording artist. Yes, it's relatively arbitrary (except, as noted, in the case of direction-specific recordings, like movie soundtracks) but it's there for your enjoyment. It's a great joy to put a recording on where they really took the time to mix a deep, wide soundstage, and then play with it.

That said, after listening, under headphones, to some seriously stereophonic recordings, it can actually be off-putting to listen to them with the channels reversed.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:17 PM on March 23, 2008

So is there a reason the violins are to the left of the conductor, rather than the right?

Yes. The violin is played on the left shoulder of the violinist, and is tilted towards the right. Thus they go on the left of the stage, or else they would all be pointing away from the audience. The cellos are played mostly straight-forward from the performer, so they don't have a "preferred side". Violas just get kind of screwed and end up on the wrong side.

"What's going on? Why is the string section on the right?"

I suspect you just made some cellists unhappy by referring to the violins as the "string section".
posted by kiltedtaco at 5:06 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

It is so you will listen to it as the artist expected you to.

If you went to an art museum, would you consider bringing a hand mirror with you so you could turn away from all of the paintings in reverse with the mirror? Just conform and stop asking questions!
posted by Rafaelloello at 5:49 PM on March 23, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you for all the really interesting answers. And special thanks to those who pointed out that I was not asking about the point of stereo. I know the point of stereo. I was asking about why it matters that the left speaker is on the left and the right speaker is on the right.

It strikes me that my question is a bit like asking whether or not it's important that you view the Mona Lisa as it exists as opposed to a mirror image of it.

I have a really hard time answering that question. It's easy to answer if your main criteria is What The Artist Intended. But that's not very important to me. I'm more concerned with the effect the work has on the viewer.

Now if you put two copies of The Mona Lisa side by side, one normal, on flipped, there WILL be a difference between them. That's about all I can say: there will be a difference. I'm not sure how important that difference is. It depends on the painting and on ones personal associates with right and left.

Even if you asked me, "Would it bother you if rather than seeing one of your plays the way you directed it, the audience saw a flipped version of it?", I don't have a strong feeling other than ... that would be odd. A flipped version wouldn't be What I Intended. On the other hand, all of the visual relationships would be intact. They'd just be ... flipped. I'm not sure I care.
posted by grumblebee at 6:00 PM on March 23, 2008

I think your example of the Mona Lisa is spot on.

When I mix drums, my natural instinct as a drummer is to pan the hi-hats to the left. floor toms to the right. This is how I'm used to relating to the sounds of drums, as a drummer.

When I mix piano, my natural instinct (if I'm mixing a solo piano that calls for wide stereo separation) is to pan the low notes to the left, and the higher keys to the right. Again, this is how I relate to the keys on a piano, as a pianist.

But as a producer, I am assuming a seat in the audience, as opposed to the performer. So the hi-hats and low piano keys now belong on the right, and floor toms belong on the left, with the high piano notes. It sounds a little unnatural to me (a bit like stepping through the looking glass), but this is the traditional way to mix things: from the listener's perspective (in front of the instruments) during a live performance.

So switching the channels gives you the perspective of standing behind the performer(s) in most recordings. A very negligible difference in enjoying the music, I would hope. And as a producer/mixer, one that I feel is entirely up to the listener.
posted by malocchio at 6:29 PM on March 23, 2008

Best answer: Try flipping this image horizontally and see if you notice a change in its emotional impact. I sure did. (The flipped version more closely simulates for Western viewers the effect the original has on Asian viewers.)
posted by kindall at 6:38 PM on March 23, 2008 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Here's the flipped version.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:33 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

If I were listening to a symphony, I'd probably be sitting in the correct orientation to hear the performance as intended, but if I were at an open air rock concert, I might well be facing away from the band. Wouldn't that be the same as wearing the earphones backwards?
posted by happyturtle at 5:38 AM on March 24, 2008

Just to throw something else at you, grumblebee: Zaireeka, by the Flaming Lips: Zaireeka is the eighth studio album by the alternative rock band The Flaming Lips. Released on October 28, 1997, the experimental rock album consists of four compact discs. Each of its eight songs consists of four stereo tracks, one from each CD. The album was designed so that when played simultaneously on four separate audio systems, the four CDs would produce a harmonic or juxtaposed sound. The discs may be included in different combinations, omitting one, two or three discs.
posted by not_on_display at 5:43 AM on March 24, 2008

The only reason is so that the correct track goes to the correct ear, so the recording can be heard the way it was intended to be heard by the recording engineer/producer.

Switching sides to simulate facing backwards or sitting in the horn section is going to be inaccurate at best because of spatial and phase differences. Because the instruments are pointed away from you. A good example is the marching band- if you are in the middle, you can only hear the stuff behind you (and the drums) the stuff going on in front of you might be audible, but it's completely wrong. (In high school, I once had the pleasure of marching next to an all glass building with flat walls. The sound of the band was clearly, accurately reflected back to us. A half step off. It was a flaming trainwreck.)

As far as I know, there are no built-in physiological reasons why one signal should go to one ear, and not the other. Maybe there *is*, but it's corrected for by the producer putting the sounds in the channel that it sounds best to him/her in.
posted by gjc at 8:11 AM on March 24, 2008

This is why I wish the iPods had a built-in "mono" mode. I like to listen with one earphone in so I can be somewhat aware of my surroundings. I bought a mono headphone adapter from Radio Shack but it doesn't quite fit given the case I use. It would be trivial for Apple to implement this, but they haven't seen fit to do so. Steve Jobs, are you reading this?
posted by Brian James at 12:35 PM on March 24, 2008

kindall, damn dirty ape
Holy cow, that's intense. Odd considering that I can read written Chinese but of course deal with written English on a more frequent basis. I wonder if I moved to Asia if my impression of the print vs flipped print would differ over time.
posted by junesix at 12:42 PM on March 24, 2008

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