We’ve been talking about stereo vs. surround mixing and the relative merits of aggressive vs. mild 5.1 music mixes lately. But maybe we haven’t even figured out what works best in traditional stereo. I’m back from the Midwest after yet another 4 hour plus plane ride yesterday evening. Because I didn’t need to haul my usual 100 pounds of equipment and DVDs/BDs to a trade show, I booked my wife and I on Delta to Detroit. As much as I enjoy the simplicity and free checked bags at Southwest, Delta is a notch up in terms of entertainment systems and food service.
During the flight home last night, I opted for music instead of another action or romantic comedy movie. I hadn’t intended to do anything but listen and enjoy some familiar artists during the flight. But as often happens, what should have been a casual listen turned into a research project. Why was it that the new Brad Paisley record sounded so narrow…it seemed practically monophonic compared to others that I listened to. At first, I thought it was something with the airplane system or my headphones so I decided to survey some other tracks.
I returned to the main menu and selected the jazz category and steered my way to the classic “Out of Time” album by the Dave Brubeck Quartet…the one that has the very familiar and famous “Take Five” tune. The recording was made back in the late 50s and sounded really fabulous. The drums were panned to the left, Dave’s famous rhythmic piano riff was coming from the right channel, the bass was right up the middle along with Paul Desmond’s soprano saxophone. Now here was a recording with some space…both in the mix and the sound of the instruments. I loved it. Would I have mixed it the same way? Probably not. It was a little too isolated in terms of left and right information but it did work very well.
So I cleared any suspicion regarding the technology of the Boeing 767 aircraft. If the track contained a wide mix, that mix was being delivered to the headphones as intended. Somehow the mixing engineer that put together the Brad Paisley mix was told to put everything in the center or that was his or her pattern. But why would somebody consciously do that? In spite of the fact that The Beatles are going to sell millions of dollars worth of vinyl LPs reissued in mono, the creative possibilities of 2-channel stereo far outweigh mono just as a good 5.1 surround mix eclipses the best stereo rig.
I rounded out my survey by listening to some pop mixes by Adele and a couple of artists whose names I can’t remember. They were all very narrow and flat sounding too. Even the incredibly popular Adele record was actually not that great in terms of sheer recording quality. The piano was thin sounding and lacking in heft like a real 9-foot Steinway can sound. Wouldn’t you want a great piano sound on a record by Adele? The fact is that most recording studios have 7-foot Yamaha or Kawai pianos. They sound fine…but fine doesn’t really cut it when the piano is a foreground instrument.
Is everybody gravitating to the center of the left and right stereo spectrum? Nearly every mix I auditioned had the snare right down the middle with the lead vocal and kick drum. In fact, all of the instruments were present to some degree or another in the center channel. Boring.
I finished the trip listening to the rest of the Dave Brubeck album and thought back to the time Dave called me out of the blue in the middle of my workday back at CSUN. I think mixing engineers need to listen to a few of the tracks of yesteryear to get back to stereo mixes that work for me.