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Q: Why is one channel always higher in level than the other?

A reader finds himself always with the left meter showing higher levels than the right. Why is this?


I was once in a mastering studio with a very experienced mastering engineer. It wasn't my session and I was just observing. I kept quiet so that the expert could do his job, but I couldn't help noticing that, one track after another, he always kept the left meter a couple of dB higher in level than the right.

At the end of the session I couldn't resist asking him why this was so.

"I just like it that way." was his reply.

I can think of all sorts of reasons why this isn't the right thing to do. But I don't make my living day-in-day-out from mastering, with a stream of high-paying clients coming steadily through the door.

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Equipping Your Home Recording Studio

But suppose you find yourself doing this, automatically and almost without thinking, like the reader who asked the question. Why should this be so?

Well indeed, you might just like it. If you do, and you are sure of what you are doing, there is nothing holding you back other than the needs of your clients and your potential market.

But if it is just happening for no particular reason, it indicates one of two possibilities...

The first is that there could be something wrong with your equipment or monitoring surroundings. These days, it is very unlikely that anything that comes before the monitor outputs of your interface could be causing the problem.

In the 'olden days' of audio, it could be a hundred things, including inaccurate meters. But that wouldn't happen now.

No, the problem is likely to be downstream of your monitor outputs - your power amplifier or your speakers.

And it could be your acoustics. Something about the shape of your room is emphasizing one channel over the other. It is always best that your mixing room is symmetrical about a line projecting out from halfway between your speakers.

The simple way to check your equipment is to swap everything around from left to right. If the problem changes channel, then you can quickly home in on the cause.

But suppose your equipment is perfect? Then it could be your hearing. Probably no-one has perfectly symmetrical hearing and it could indeed be the case that one of your ears is a couple of dB down on the other, and you are setting your faders and pans to compensate.

Once again there is a solution. If you make a switch that can instantly swap the two monitor channels, then if you set your faders and pans so that the relative 'weight' of sound is pretty much the same either way, then you can be confident your stereo balance is fine.

That could be the end of my article, but I have one more point...

A lot of people would simply look at the stereo output meters and assume that if they were balanced, then everything is fine. But the correct way to judge a mix is on what you hear, not on what you see. Meters are useful, but for anything other than clip indications they can never be more than a guide.

By David Mellor Monday October 31, 2011