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Using a PC to make a stereo master of a mono recording can be fun, but is it right? Tracks hed: Channel surfing dek: using a PC to make a stereo master of a mono recording can be fun, but is it right?

When stereo took over as the preferred mode of sound reproduction in the 1960s, record companies scrambled to make sure all their products were available in the new dual-channel medium. In the process, many mono recordings were crudely remastered to simulate stereo, usually by isolating high frequencies on one channel and lows 6the other, or by using a split-second delay to simulate reverb. The result was invariably abominable, as pristine early rock recordings were sapped of their strength by being shoehorned into stereo.

Forty years later, a similar movement is under way, albeit with a high-tech sheen. Thanks to programs like Syntrillium’s Cool Edit Pro and Sonic Foundry’s SoundForge, computer users can now create stereo masters from mono recordings. The amazing part is, many of them sound remarkably authentic: When it’s done right, elements such as the vocal track are isolated on one channel, and a binaural ambience can be created that can trick even sophisticated ears into thinking they’re hearing a real stereo recording.

Many such homemade remasters can be found in such MP3 vaults as Napster (try searching under stereo mix), and there you’ll find the expected fluctuations in quality. A computerized stereo master of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” is atrocious, using a repeated loop of a Mick Avory drum fill that becomes an irritating itch in the eardrum before you’re done listening. But a remaster of Manfred Mann’s “The Mighty Quinn” is so convincing that I had to double-check that it wasn’t an authentic stereo master (it wasn’t).

Cool Edit Pro is based on Syntrillium’s popular Cool Edit 96 shareware program, which was designed to make the PC emulate a recording studio. It can work with any audio file, allowing the user to modify, splice, or isolate virtually any part of the file. SoundForge takes the same process of two-track editing to a more sophisticated level, supplying a set of audio processes, tools, and effects for manipulating audio. Many users say Cool Edit’s effects and SoundForge’s mixing capabilities make the two programs effective for the job when used in tandem.

“It’s a labor of love,” concedes a SoundForge user who makes simulated-stereo mixes under the moniker Mixerog. “It takes a lot of time to get a good one. The process of isolating the frequencies you’re after and synching the information on the two channels can take up to 10 hours for a three-minute song. Sometimes you have to work note by note.”

So it’s hard work; it seems to be worth it for a lot of users. That these applications can produce reasonable facsimiles of a stereo mix from a mono source is phenomenal. The bigger question, though, might involve the appropriateness of such trickery. At the risk of being labeled a purist, I can’t help but think there’s something wrong with the whole idea. In the days before stereo, most recording sessions were conducted live and mixed on the fly. Those restrictions forced musicians and producers to be creative about how that sound was captured and reproduced, much in the same way that working in black-and-white forced old-school directors to work so brilliantly with shadows and light. In fact, comparing a computerized stereo mix of “Don’t Be Cruel” to a colorized edition of “The Maltese Falcon” wouldn’t be out of line at all.

Many early rock titans–Phil Spector being the most noted–all but refused to work in stereo once it became the standard. Sacrificing the punch of a good mono recording for the sake of imposing a fake stereo soundscape on it seems like a waste of energy. What do you think? If you want to stick up for this process, write me ([email protected]).

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