I have only ever recorded the guitar in mono and used stereo for live applications. Many guitar players have asked me what the difference is just in terms of mono and stereo guitar and then how they would apply to a recording scenario. Here is the answer:
Effects units, pedalboards, and rack mounts allow you to record stereo guitar; however, you should only ever record stereo guitar when you have the exact sound you want to record and will not be manipulating it during production. Mono guitar is preferred because you have more options to manipulate the sound on a mono signal.
In this article, I cover the basics of guitar design and how they are built for recording purposes. I then dive into how they are set up to be recorded, and then finally, I dive into the crux of stereo and mono guitar and how those options are applicable for live and studio recording.
How is the guitar designed?
We are going to look at the two main guitar design types, namely electric and then acoustic. After we understand a bit about the two different design types and how we record them, we can get a clear picture of how we could record them. There are pros and cons to the design of both, which can also affect how you can record them.
Acoustic guitar designs
For the most part, acoustic guitars don’t come with pickups, or rather they were originally designed without pickups in mind. In the past twenty years or so, manufacturers have been implementing more pickups in their acoustic guitar designs so that you can record them with an output jack.
Acoustic guitars are hollow and depending on the shape and size, the sound you will get when you play, one will be somewhat different from another. Due to them being hollow and them being able to resonate, the sound they produce can carry.
Electric guitar designs
Electric guitars are usually built from solid wood and are not hollowed out. What then happens is that a section of the body made from wood is carved out so that electric pickups can be inserted into this carved out section.
When you play the strings, they generate an electric current through the magnetic pickups. The signal then passes through the circuitry and goes out via the output jack. This concept in design also applies to acoustic guitars with pickups.
Are guitars mono or stereo in their design?
No matter what guitar you buy, which brand it is, from what country, or how old it is, guitars since their inception have been designed to be a mono instrument. That is, they only send out one signal, not two. Why are they built with a mono design?
Guitar jack output (TS connection)
Guitars are built with a TS connection (a 1/4inch jack connection). These connections are designed to carry one signal and are prone to high noise and interference, which can occur due to many factors, including cable length, quality of materials, wear and tear, and so on.
Because all guitars come with this type of connector, they can only send a mono signal.
If you want to know more about jack cables and connectors, check out some of my other articles to go over them in a bit more detail.
So we now know that guitars are designed to be played and recorded in mono. However, you can record them in a stereo way with modern-day pedals, effects, and routing techniques, which we will get into in a little.
How do you record the guitar?
Well, there are two different ways to record an electric and acoustic guitar. They are both different and then similar in ways. Now don’t get confused, I will explain the different and similar ways of them both to you, and then you will understand.
How to record acoustic guitar
If you have an acoustic guitar built and designed without a pickup, you will have to do it the old-fashioned way. You will set up a microphone and then sit in front of it with your acoustic guitar, play, and record.
Remember that microphones are also built to be mono audio devices. So, if you record with a microphone that signal will be a mono signal.
If you have an acoustic guitar with a built-in pickup, then you can either route it through an amplifier and use the same method of micing up the amplifier or depending on how good your pickups and guitar are, you can just have a direct connection to your audio interface.
How to record electric guitar
With electric guitar, the same principle will apply to that of recording an acoustic guitar with a built-in pickup. You can either route the guitar through pedals and then into an amplifier and mic up the amplifier, or you can plug the electric guitar directly into your audio interface.
Those are the fundamental principles of recording electric and acoustic guitars. Now let’s look at the mono and stereo aspects of recording.
Why record in either mono or stereo?
There are actually few instruments that record in stereo. However, there are ways to do this. If you record an instrument in stereo, you have two recorded signals panned left and right. This is great because instead of needing to pan a single signal to one side and then use effects to create depth, width, and spread, you already have that.
Despite being able to record instruments in stereo most of the time, producers and engineers always opt to record in mono for various reasons. The most important reason being; having more control over the recorded signal,
With a mono signal, you can (if I am dare able to say it) and have more options than if you record in stereo. You can pan signals to anywhere in the 180 degrees virtual sound field. You can make them wider, fatter, with more spread, you can give the appearance of stereo, and much more.
These are some factors that you should take into consideration when recording your instruments in either mono or stereo.
Should guitar be recorded in mono or stereo?
Well, because the guitar is built with a mono design, I always record it in mono and then work in my DAW with plugins to achieve the sound I want. I have never recorded the guitar in stereo, even though my pedalboard and effects units do have that option. I have, however, used stereo for live applications.
When recording in guitar in stereo, the only thing that happens is a duplicate signal is sent along with the original, and the signals are panned to either side. The second signal is usually the “wet” signal. This means that the wet signal has effects on it, and then the two signals are sent down the same routing channel.
Watch Goodwood Audio explain the difference between mono, dual mono, and stereo so you can get a better understanding.
I would only ever suggest recording in stereo if you have your effects units, pedalboards, and such setup to have the exact sound you want, and that is the sound you want to record. For example, Boss delay pedals (DD 8) have a stereo and mono out.
Check out the boss DD-8 on Amazon.
How you would use this is to send the original signal to the left or right and then send the wet delayed signal to the other side. creating a nice wide delay that will make your guitar sound massive and beautiful. If this is the sound you would want to record instead of trying to recreate it with your DAW then go ahead and do so.
You just have to remember if you would record this way, it would be tough to change and manipulate the guitar signal once it has been recorded, whereas, with a single mono signal, you could pretty much do what you want, especially if you have a producer and engineer that know their craft well.
Hence, I always record in mono and then manipulate the recorded signal in my DAW with plugins because I have more options to play with when the recorded guitar is a mono and dry signal.
These are some of the effects units I use when recording and playing guitar live:
We found out how guitars are designed and how they are set up to be recorded, and then we looked at the aspects of recording them in mono and stereo.
I stand by the rule I use where guitars because of their design and what you can do with the recorded signal; they should, for the most part, always be recorded in mono.
There are instances where your effects pedals and boards give you the option for stereo outputs, and I would only ever suggest using this when you have the exact sound you want, and you will not need to manipulate it at all once recorded.
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