Hifiology - It's All About Stereo

by The Listening Suite

Early Recording Process

Prior to the process of 2 track tape recording and multi track tape recording, using 2, 3, 4, 8, 16, and 24 Track tape machines, sound recording artists had to perform and record all at the same time.

A Brief History Lesson:

1878 - Thomas Edison’s invents the Tin Foil Phonograph and records the very first sound recording, a rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” recorded June 22nd 1878. 


1894 - Emile Berliner invents the Gramophone and the Gramophone record.

1898 - 78 rpm discs are introduced

1899 - Thomas Edison introduces the Wax Cylinder Phonograph

1901 - 10” 78 rpm Shellac records are introduced.

1903 - 12” 78 rpm Shellac records are introduced.

1910 - World's first Public Radio broadcast is made in New York City on January 13, 1910.

1914 - 1918 World War I

1925 - Microphones replace the use of horns, greatly improving the process of recording sound.

Early recordings used horns to capture sound which was recorded onto lacquer discs via a stylus cutter, but the process was still limited to the use of lacquer discs via a stylus cutter.

The lacquer discs had a limited use as they could only be used once, any mistakes during the recording and the recording process begins all over again.

1925 - Irish radio station 2RN begins broadcasting test transmissions, heralding the beginning of radio broadcasting in Ireland.

1929 - Thomas Edison ceases production of wax cylinders as 78 rpm gramophone discs gain in popularity.

1933 - Alan Blumlein invents Stereo

1939 - 1945 World War 2

1943 - 2 Track 1/4 inch Tape Machines & 2 Track Tape Recording Process

High quality 2 Track Stereo tape recording began in Germany 1943, and following the end of World War II, the US based Ampex corporation developed the commercial use of 2 Track Stereo tape recording in the USA.                   

The company's first tape recorder, the Ampex Model 200, was first shipped in April 1948. During the 1950s 2-track tape recording became the norm for either mono or stereo recordings.                                                                

Binaural Stereo recordings using 2 microphones or recordings using multiple microphones mixed together for 2 channel using a mixing console where mainly used to record classical music in Stereo, whereas popular and jazz recordings where recorded in mono until the late 1960s. With the introduction of tape machines the use of lacquer discs and a stylus cutter ceased, but still sound recording artists had to perform and record all at the same time, due to the fact that tape machines only had 2 channels and these channels could not be individually placed into record, very similar to a cassette tape recorder.                                                                                                            

Recordings could only be recorded in mono and later in 2 channel stereo.                                                                 

This recording method relied on recording multiple takes of the same live performance, take 1, take 2 etc.             

Once all takes had been recorded, each take was then played back and judged for its overall performance in relation to all the other takes that had been recorded. Sometimes the 1st take became the master take or the master take was compiled via editing or splicing together various sections taken from the other recorded takes.

1947 - First Vocal Overdub - Pattie Page and the song ‘Confess’.

The artist Pattie Page was the first singer to overdub or multitrack her vocals on a song called, ‘Confess’. The song was recorded and engineered by Bill Putnam at Mercury Records and features the swing jazz guitarist George Warren Barnes who played the first electric guitar in 1931, he is said to have made the first commercial recording of an electric guitar on March 1, 1938.

Note: As this recording is in Mono and played back using two speakers, when the listener is positioned centrally between the Left and Right speakers, the recorded performance appears to be placed centrally between the Left & Right speakers.

Multitrack Recording & Les Paul

The first recording artists to use a custom-built eight-track recorder from Ampex nicknamed the “Octopus" was the guitarist, composer and technician Les Paul and his singing wife, Iris Colleen Summers who’s stage name was Mary Ford. The name “Octopus" was inspired by comedian W.C. Fields who after listening to Les Pauls recordings said “My boy, you sound like an octopus”. Multitrack recording enabled recording engineers to record each musical instrument and vocals separately. Engineers could now adjust the level and tone of each recorded instrument or vocal. Reverb and other effects could now be applied to individual tracks. Lead vocals could be recorded separately and harmony vocals overdubbed later.

1950s - 3 Track 1/2 inch Tape Machines

Also introduced in the early 1950s where 3 track tape machines.

These machines enabled the sound engineer to record the backing tracks onto two tracks either as separate backing tracks 1 and 2 or a Stereo Left and Right mix with the additional third track being used to record the lead instrument or lead vocal. Three-track recorders remained in widespread commercial use until the mid-1960s.

1950 - 33⅓ rpm LP (Long Play) records featuring ‘micro’ grooves are introduced

1951 - 45 rpm records are introduced

1952 - Dansette Portable Record Players introduced, Production period 1952 - 1969

1954 - Elvis Presley records “That’s All Right”, July 1954 at Sun Studios using a Mono 1/4” Ampex 350 Tape machine. The song was written and originally recorded by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in Chicago on September 6, 1946.

1958 - Buddy Holly ‘True Love Ways’ from the Album, Buddy Holly Lives

Buddy Holly along with the Dick Jacobs Orchestra recorded the song ‘True Love Ways’ at the Pythian Temple in New York City on October 21st, 1958. In the first ten seconds of the extended version of the song featured on the album, ‘Buddy Holly Lives’ the following can be heard:

"Yeah, we're rolling." (Centre)

The piano player plays a B-flat note, (Right Channel) Buddy Holly says “Okay" (Centre) followed by tinkering on the Guitar (Right Channel) and Harp (Left Channel)

The producer shouts, "Quiet, boys" (Left Channel)

Buddy Holly clears his throat. (Centre)

The producer says "Pitch, Ernie", (Left Channel) to signal the piano player to give Holly his starting note, a B-flat. (Right Channel)

Drums, Clifford Leman (Right Channel)

Bass, Sanford Bloch (Right Channel)

Guitar, Al Caiola (Right Channel)

Piano, Ernest Hayes (Right Channel)

Vocal, Buddy Holly (Centre)

Saxaphone, Abraham Richman (Left Channel) 0.37 0.53

Conductor, Dick Jacobs


8 Violins, (Left Channel)

2 Violas, (Left Channel)

2 Cellos, (Left Channel)

1 Harp, Doris Johnson (Left Channel) 0.59


The same recording features on the album ‘The Rough Guide to Buddy Holly and The Crickets’

but the Left and Right channels are reversed. (Note to Mastering Engineer)

1958 - First 12” Stereo Vinyl Record - Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang

The first mass-produced commercially available 12” Stereophonic long-playing record was released in March 1958

by the artist, Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang on the New York based, Audio Fidelity Record Label (AFSD 5830).

1959 - Miles Davis - Kind of Blue - Released August 15, 1959

Kind of Blue was recorded on a three-track tape machine and released in both Mono & Stereo

1959 - The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out - Released December 14th, 1959

1963 - The album ‘Conversation with Myself’, by Bill Evans.

Example of early overdubbing or multitracking technique using a 3 Track 1/2 inch Tape Machine.

This recording demonstrates the early adaptation of the overdubbing or multitracking technique.

The listener can hear 3 piano performances positioned as follows,

Left Speaker - Phantom Centre (Sound appears centrally between the L&R Speakers) and the Right Speaker.

1963 - ‘Please Please Me’ by the Beatles from the album titled ‘Please Please Me’

This recording features the Drums, Bass Guitar and Lead Guitar panned to the Left Speaker

and the Lead Vocals and Harmony Vocals panned to the Right speaker.

1965 - 4 Track / 1 inch Tape Machines

In 1965, Abbey Road Recording Studios purchased four Studer J37 - 4 track / 1 inch tape machines,

prior to the Studer J37, Abbey Road used Telefunken 4 track tape machines.

The Studer J37s were used on almost every recording until 8-track machines were introduced to Abbey Road Studios in 1969.

The Beatles @ Abbey Road Studios

All of the Beatles mid-1960s recordings, including the most famous album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

where recorded using Studer J37 4 track / 1 inch tape machines.

1950 - 1970 - The Listener At Home

Prior to the 1950s the general public had mainly been listening to recordings in Mono using one speaker.

Following the introduction of the 33 1/3 Stereo LP record in 1956, two speakers where now required.

Popular at the time plus an item of household furniture where large wooden cabinets called Radiograms or Stereograms which combined a radio and gramophone / vinyl record player. These units featured valve electronics plus an internally housed large Mono speaker or pair of speakers for stereo reproduction. With the introduction of the transistor these units started to be slowly replaced with separate hifi components and separate left and right speakers. As the speakers in the Stereogram where positioned at a fixed distance apart within the Stereogram, the stereo soundstage was greatly reduced with very little separation of the left and right channels. I believe this is why certain recordings at the time such as the Beatles ‘Please Please Me’ was mixed featuring the Drums, Bass Guitar and Lead Guitar coming from the Left Speaker and the Lead Vocals and Harmony Vocals coming from the Right speaker. Remember it’s 1963 and Stereo playback is still in its infancy, so hearing the drums on the left and the vocals on the right would have been very new and exciting for the listener at the time. With the introduction of separate Left and Right speakers in the late 1960s early 70s, Hifi enthusiasts began to experiment with the positioning of their speakers in their homes. Terms like Soundstage, Depth, Width, Height, Toeing in,Toeing out and the infamous positioning triangle are born.

Stereo would never be the same again.


Stereo was invented and patented by Alan Blumlein in 1931.

Stereo provides the listener, the illusion or sense of listening to sound sources positioned to our Left, directly in front of us, to our Right and anywhere between Left and Right. The first mass-produced commercially available 12” Stereophonic long-playing record was released in March 1958 by the artist, Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang on the New York based, Audio Fidelity Record Label (AFSD 5830).

Understanding The Stereo Soundstage Left - Centre - Right

Imagine yourself seated centrally in the front row seats of a theatre looking at the stage.

There are 3 musicians on stage in front of you, the first musician is positioned to the extreme left of the stage playing acoustic guitar, the second musician is the singer positioned in the centre of the stage directly in front of you with the third musician playing electric guitar positioned to your extreme right. Now close your eyes and imagine the 1st musician playing to your left, the 2nd musician singing directly in front of you and lastly the 3rd musician playing to your right. The positioning of the musicians on this imaginary stage have created what can be described as a Left, Centre, Right sound stage. Your hifi replicates this imaginary sound stage as an electronic sound stage, the Left speaker representing the position of the 1st musician and what’s known as a Phantom Centre channel representing the position of the 2nd musician and the Right speaker representing the position of the 3rd musician.

The Phantom Centre Channel & The Pan Control

The Phantom Centre or Central position is created electronically during the recording and mixing process. One of the features available to the studio sound engineer when using a recording mixing console is the Pan Control. The Pan Control allows the mix engineer to position a recorded sound at various positions between the Left and Right speakers. For example to our Left, directly in front of us (Centre), to our Right or anywhere between the Left, Centre, Right sound stage.

The Panning positions can be as follows: (See the images below)

LEFT 100%  87.5%  75%  62.5%  50%  37.5%  25%  12.5%  CENTRE  12.5%  25%  37.5%  50%  62.5%  75%  87.5% 100% RIGHT

The Pan control also allows the engineer to separate the recorded sounds so that they don’t mask each other, improving definition and separation within the stereo sound stage. When the Pan Control is centrally positioned, an equal amount of electrical signal is sent to both the Left and Right channels and as a result, the recorded vocal for example, appears to the listener to be centrally positioned between the Left and Right speakers, when the listeners listening position is centred between the two speakers.

Note: The distance between your Left and Right speakers plus the amount of toe in, effect the amount of division or spacing between the panning positions 0% to 100%, the wider the distance between the speakers, the wider the panning positions and soundstage.

2008 - Shelby Lynne & The Song ‘Willie and Laura Mae Jones’

This recording demonstrates the modern form of Stereo Sound Stage extremely well. It is a recording by the artist Shelby Lynne and her cover of the song ‘Willie and Laura Mae Jones’ written and composed by Tony Joe White. Taken from the Album ‘Just A Little Lovin’ recorded at Capitol Studios, Hollywood, California, USA, in January 2007. Produced by Phil Ramone and recorded and mixed by the Grammy Award winning Recording Engineer and Mixer, Al Schmitt. The reason for choosing this recording is to help the listener understand more about the Stereo Left, Centre, Right, Sound Stage and how it is created using the Pan control.

Musician Credits:

Lead Vocal and Acoustic Guitar: Shelby Lynne

Drums: Curt Bisquera

Percussion: Gregg Field

Bass: Kevin Axt

Doboro Slide Guitar plus Electric Guitar: Dean Parks

Recording Credits:

Producer: Phil Ramone

Recording Engineer and Mixer: Al Schmitt

Assistant Recording Engineer and Assistant Mixer: Steve Genewick

Mastered by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley at The Mastering Lab.

‘Willie and Laura Mae Jones’ - Tempo BPM 83

Intro -

0:00 - 1 2 Go Count In

1 2 3 4

0:03 - 4 - Bars

0:14 - 4 - Bars

0:26 - 4 - Bars

Verse 1 -

0:38 - Verse 1 - 8 Bars

Willie and Laura Mae Jones

Were our neighbours a long time a back

They lived right down the road from us

In a shack just like our shack


They worked the land together

And we learned to count on each other

When you live off the land

You don't have time to think about another man's colour

1:00 - 4 - Bars - Doboro

1:12 - 2 - Bars

1:18 - 2 - Bars - Percussion Break

Listen to: the Bass Guitar Lick at 1:20

Verse 2 -

1:22 - Verse 2 - 8 Bars

Oh we’d sit out on the front porch

In the evening when the sun go down

Willie would play and Laura would sing

And the children would dance around


I'd bring over my guitar

And we'd play all thru the night

Every now and then

Old Willie would grin an say

“Hey, you play all right now”


And lord it made me feel so good

Chorus -

1:51 - Chorus

The cotton was high

And the corn was growing fine

Oh but that was another place another time

2.01 - 1 - Bar Break “Whist, Get over here junior”

2:04 - 4 - Bars Break (Acoustic Guitar Panned Centre)

2:15 - 4 - Bars Break “Yeah Dean”

Listen to: Dean Parks Solo picking style on the Doboro Slide guitar panned Left leading into the percussive break at 2:28

2:27 - 8 - Bars Break - Percussion Break

2.33 - Listen to: Dean Parks solo picking style on the Doboro Slide Guitar panned Left plus his Electric Guitar panned Right at 2.33 and 2:43

Also the accomanying Bass Guitar

2:50 - 6 - Bars Break Listen to: Dean Parks Dobro Slide guitar playing panned left plus Shelby Lynnes playing on Acoustic guitar panned to the centre

2:56 - (Shelby Lynne Acoustic Guitar Panned Centre)

3:07 - 4 - Bars Break (Shelby Lynne Acoustic Guitar Panned Centre)

Verse 3 -

3:18 - Verse 3

The years rolled past our land

An they took back what they'd given

And we all knew we'd have to move

If we was gonna make a living


So we all took off

And went our separate ways,

It sure was hard to say goodbye

To Willie and Laura Mae

Link -

3.41 - Link

Verse 4 -

3:46 - Verse 4 Fade Out

The years rolled by our door

And we heard from them no more

Till I saw Willie the other day

I said, “yawl stop by now

And maybe we can sit down and eat a bite

We'd sure would love to see the children’s and Laura Mae"

2002 - Cornelius - Tone Twilight Zone

This instrumental track was recorded and mixed by Japanese musician, Keigo Oyamada, ‘Cornelius’ in 2002.

It is an amazing 3 mins 57 secs demonstration of Stereo panning and positioning.

The track starts with a stereo background of bird song followed by

0.22 sec - Guitar panned hard Right.

0.30 sec - Guitar panned hard Left

0.33 sec - Guitar panned hard Right.

0.42 sec - Guitar panned hard Left

0.44 sec - Percussion panning Right to Left

0.46 sec - Kick Drum panned Centre

0.50 sec - Guitar panned Centre

Listen to the end to experience more of this detailed Stereo mix.

Note: All Images remain the copyright property of their respective owners