Taylor
Taylor

The sound of natural stereo music has a quality that is intoxicating. The same way our eyes use two slightly different images to produce a 3-D picture, our ears are built to provide a 3-D image to our brains. We were built for it.

But most modern music doesn't really take advantage of this amazing feature. Pop mixing engineers might use the left and right speakers to make sounds "fly" across from one to the other, and hip hop and R&B, which mostly use synthesizer-based accompaniment, can have splashes of effects fluttering around the stereo field.

But rarely do you hear in modern music outside of classical and jazz genres a strict application of stereo recording. Engineers may use stereo techniques occasionally, but maintaining the realness of natural stereo is difficult when multiple tracks are being recorded. The timing of sound waves is so important to maintaining the believability factor that even in a composition using stereo techniques, the effect can be easily lost if there are more than two microphones involved, or more than one recording session.


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Modern pop and rock does see some stereo techniques in production, particularly when recording drums or piano. Complex, large instruments like that can be recorded with two microphones across the left/right span. But with drums, for example, which usually get two microphones over everything — "overheads," they're called — the microphones aren't positioned for stereo as much as they are for coverage. Individual drums get their own microphones, which are moved by ear to match the locations in the overheads.

The sound you get from that setup is much different than what you hear when you're in the same room as the drummer. It's more of what the drummer hears from his position.

Likewise, a piano is often captured from within the instrument, which is unnatural compared to hearing a piano live in person. Again, it's simulating the sonic experience of the pianist, not the listener. But it's what we're used to hearing in recorded music nowadays, and when you're listening to Yo-Yo Ma's "Songs From the Arc of Life," the natural stereo recording I mentioned last week, you can instantly tell the difference in presentation. On that album, the piano occupies the left side of a stage, not the entire width of your speakers.

And the result is fantastic and immersive, provided you have your speakers set up correctly.

Readers of this column will know that achieving that isn't just a matter of jamming the speakers into the nearest bookshelf. Half of the equation may be recording style and setup, but the other half is speaker setup and how they interact with the room around them.

Headphones are another discussion entirely, because stereo recording uses two mics at a distance, and speakers are usually some distance from the listener. Having the sound come into your head at right angles isn't as realistic, but there are ways to get around that, like with a crossfeed circuit.

Next week, I'll describe how to set up a typical desktop music and gaming station that offers the potential to enjoy the sonic holography I've been talking about.

Read more Taylor: coloradodaily.com/columnists. Stalk him: instagram.com/duncanxmusic.