Why Can't I Hear The Vocals When Playing Music On My Phone?

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We have a fun one in this week’s Ask Lifehacker column. It’s such a weird issue at first glance, that I won’t even tee it up with a lofty introduction. I’ll let Lifehacker reader Natalie explain — and, yes, she called the subject line of her email “YouTube Audio Witchcraft.” That’s how quirky this one is.

She writes:

I don’t know if you’re still answering tech questions, but here’s mine that’s driving me crazy. I’ve googled it and can’t find anything! Google has failed me!

On a mobile device, this video only plays the background music not the audio. Until you put in headphones... then BAM there’s the Beatles singing along with the background music. My teenage brother says it’s to fool YouTube’s copyright infringement software, but I thought YouTube’s software was near omnipotent and UNFOOLABLE. YouTube has failed too! What is this world coming too?

Can you tell me what’s happening? Some sort of audio balance voodoo?

P.S. (I already checked, the singing comes out of both the left and right side of the headphones.)

First, here’s the video in question, so you can all have a listen and see for ourselves.

My initial thought is that the video sounds strange—as if the vocals have almost been pushed out of the mix entirely, in favour of those classic 1960s guitar rhythms. I think the video’s creator is to blame, and it’s certainly possible they made some audio modifications before uploading this to YouTube in an effort to escape the latter’s flagging mechanisms.

As for why you only hear your song’s backing tracks when you’re listening via your device’s speaker, but a more complete song when you pop your headphones in, it’s possible that your device only has a single, mono speaker. You should still be able to hear the vocals, though—at least, I could when I tested this out using a single speaker on my PC (which is, admittedly, a lot different than what you’ll hear from your smartphone).

Here’s where it gets even crazier. In the video you sent me in your email—the video I’ve linked above—I hear (subdued) vocals whether I’m panning to the left or right channel. However, consider this other “Please Mr. Postman” video on YouTube, which sounds a lot better than your video at first glance:

When I listen to only the left track of the stereo mix, I get nothing but band—barely any vocals whatsoever. When I listen to the right track, I get nothing but vocals, with barely any instruments.

Since you linked me a video that’s only received roughly 190K views or so in your email, but the above one is one of the top videos that appears when you search for the song (with 2.4M views), I suspect you’re actually talking about this one. And for whatever reason, your smartphone is only giving you the left channel whenever you’re playing this song out of its speaker.

As to why your device is doing this, I’m not entirely sure. Your smartphone should be, er, smart enough to combine a stereo source into a single mono output if that’s all it has to work with. (It’s also possible that one speaker isn’t working correctly if your smartphone has a stereo setup, so I’d listen to some other videos to test if that’s the case).

You might want to check your device’s accessibility settings, and see if the “Mono audio” feature helps you out at all (or if your device’s audio balance needs adjustment). Of course, the easiest solution is to pick a different video to watch—or just look up the song on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, or whatever.

This last step won’t help you very much if this is how the song was mixed, however. If your smartphone is only blasting the left channel of stereo songs you listen to, you’re going to have to create your own stereo-to-mono mix (which is probably more than you want to deal with).


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