In audio you need to know your left from your right. And here they are…
Obviously, ‘left’ should come from your left speaker, or left side of your headphones, and ‘right’ from the right.
On headphones this is straightforward, but for speakers it’s a little more complicated.
The question is, who is your listener?
Are you the listener? Perhaps you’re a producer creating music in your studio. Then ‘left’ means your left. The same side as your left hand.
The same applies to someone who’s streaming your track on their hi-fi (‘hi-fi’ implying that they are listening in a concentrated manner, not just playing music in the background). Their left as a listener is the same as your left as the producer.
But then there is live sound…
Left and right are different depending whether you’re in the audience or on stage.
For the audience, left and right are the same sides as their left and right hands respectively. I’ll call this audience-left and audience-right.
But for performers and on-stage workers, left and right are reversed. We call this stage-left and stage-right.
But does it matter?
For some types of audio, it doesn’t matter all that much. There isn’t really any fixed left and right in electronic dance music for instance. The producer might prefer a certain synthesiser whoosh to come from the left, but it doesn’t matter to the listener whether he or she hears it from the right.
The same could apply to rock music with guitars and drums. Yes, a drum set has handedness with the hihat normally placed on audience-right (stage-left), but the drummer might play left-handed so the drums are set up the opposite way round.
A grand piano is a puzzle
Imagine sitting at a piano keyboard. The low note keys are on the left and the high note keys are on the right. But because the strings cross over inside the piano, left and right are somewhat blurred. Even so, for the performer, low notes are generally heard more from the left and high notes are heard more from the right.
But if you attend a piano recital as a member of the audience, then because the low strings are longer and extend further to the right (the keyboard end of the piano is always on the left due to the orientation of the lid that reflects sound outwards) then the low notes can be perceived more towards the right, and the high notes to the left.
Let’s think of an orchestra
There is a common conventional layout where the violins are on the left and the cellos and basses are on the right. Clearly any recording of the orchestra should have left and right the correct way round.
Now let’s look at a scenario where left and right are extremely important…
TV and film drama
You go to see a movie. Actually you wouldn’t mind if all of the dialogue came from the centre speaker behind the screen. That was the normal way in years and decades gone by.
But now there is more stereo placement of the dialogue. So if a character is seen on the left side of the screen, then their dialogue must most definitely come from the left, and vice versa.
So there you have it. Left and right, audience-left and audience-right, stage-left and stage-right, and why it’s important.