You might have noticed that a guitar amp has multiple speakers, or includes inbuilt effects that traditionally work with stereo systems. So, are guitar amplifiers mono or stereo? We answer this question, along with more about recording your guitar amp and why it matters if your sound is mono or stereo anyway.
The majority of amps are monophonic, meaning that there aren’t left and right channels. It is simply one audio source. Some amps have multiple speaker cones within, but are still a single audio source, meaning the end result is monophonic. There would be no advantage to using a stereo microphone to record the amplifier as left and right channels are redundant.
There are stereo amps on the market. These give a left and right channel and can provide some really interesting effects. However, there’s some debate over what a stereo amp is used for and whether a lot of the features are actually superfluous. If you love your stereo amplifier, that’s not a criticism, but there are a few things to remember about stereo vs mono amps.
The Guitar is a Single Audio Source
Even if you are using a stereo amplifier, the original sound is a single audio source.
This means that any stereo benefits come from added effects. For example, your stereo amp might use a ping pong delay. This means that when you play, the audio will ring out via a delay which switches from the left channel to right. This sounds good, especially when you are playing on your own, but in a band setting, it can quickly get drowned out.
Left and Right Channels Are Close Together
It helps to think about the audio signal chain and what happens to the audio as it leaves the amp. In order to hear the stereo effects, you need to be central to the amplifier, and stood facing it. If not, left and right will potentially blur into one, even if you do hear a little bit more depth to reverb effects or delays.
When you set up monitors in your home studio, they have a left channel and a right channel. These are positioned on either side of your computer or at least in a position where the left and right channels actually come from the left and right. The further away you get, the less of an effect the stereo field has.
This is the same for a guitar amp. If you stand 10 meters away, the chances are that the two speakers aren’t far enough from each other to create much of a feeling of left and right.
Stereo Into a Mono Microphone – A Pointless Endeavour
If you are using a stereo amplifier in a recording studio or on stage, the instrument will most likely be recorded or amplified by using a microphone. In the majority of cases, especially in a live environment, the mic itself is mono, meaning a single audio channel, with no left and right data.
This means that even if you have an amazing effect on your amplifier that swirls from left and right, it won’t be fully recorded through a mono microphone. It may record changes in the dynamics of the sound, such as getting quieter or louder, but whether the effect is panning left or right is irrelevant.
Some microphones are stereo, but these are specialist pieces of equipment. They can make the job of mixing guitar more complicated, too. A lot of audio engineers would rather work with a single source of audio.
There are workaround solutions, and engineers love to get creative. You could have separate microphones for the left and right channels of a stereo amplifier, but in a live environment, mic channels might be at a premium.
Creating a Stereo Effect From a Mono Amp
A common method of creating a stereo field for guitars, at least in recordings, is to double track.
This means either recording the same audio with two separate microphones, or recording the same thing twice using overdubbing.
This effectively gives the engineer two monophonic guitar tracks to work with. If you want the thickness that goes with a stereo field recording, you can pan one recording to the left and one to the right during mixing. The end result is the same, or even better than a stereo amplifier, as the engineer has more control.
An engineer might even be able to take one audio source and duplicate it, creating a stereo effect on a recording. This can create issues with phase on the soundwave, but many DAWs and other audio software can now account for this accordingly.
Why Are Stereo Guitar Amps More Expensive?
As a rule, stereo guitar amps cost more than mono. There are more electronics, and always at least two speaker cones to be able to create a stereo field. Each of these cones needs a power amplifier, too.
Stereo guitar amps also usually have a number of effects inbuilt, otherwise, you would not be able to take advantage of things like chorus and delay effects that can benefit from two channels. These effects don’t always come cheaply.
With this in mind, and the fact that it is not the only way to create a stereo effect for recordings or in a live environment, it might make sense to spend the extra money on a mono amp with more features and a better, crisper sound.
Are Stereo Guitar Amps Worth It?
We don’t want to be too disparaging about stereo amplifiers. They can provide you with a fantastic sound, especially if they are used to create thick and rich effects.
Most stereo amps that are popular, including the Roland Jazz Chorus, have a rich sounding chorus effect. They can modulate the pitch as well as the left and right panning for a thick sound. To properly hear this, you need to combine your stereo amp with a stereo mic.
One of the problems is that outside of your own home studio or rehearsal space, it is hard to translate this sound to a recording or a live performance with a band. Ask a venue’s live engineer if they can provide a stereo setup for your guitar amp, and there is every chance you will get a stern look at least.
There’s nothing wrong with a stereo amp, and if you twin it with a stereo microphone you might get some nice results, but without a very good engineer working with the audio source, it doesn’t provide any advantage other than sounding good while you rehearse and play on your own.
Summary – Are Guitar Amps Mono or Stereo?
It isn’t true to say that all guitar amps are monophonic, but it is true that the vast majority are. Stereo amps are quite a specialist piece of kit, and though they can create some beautiful tones if used correctly, they can also sometimes provide engineers with a headache. Without a very specific setup, it is hard to get the most out of a stereo amp anyway.
For most beginners, starting with a mono amp makes sense. They’re more affordable, easier to use, and don’t have any disadvantages when it comes to live use or recordings. This is why there are so few stereo amplifiers on the market.