Do you mix your stereo field effectively? Learn to create space, control stereo width and get more emotional impact from your tracks with these stereo imaging tips.
"You got two speakers, man – spread it!" says mixing legend Chris Lord-Alge. "My stuff is max panned, it's like there's nothing in the middle except the vocal, kick and snare." If you want to hear what Chris is talking about, put on your headphones and listen to his mix here:
Now go on, admit it: You wish your mixes were wider, too. It’s a goal every mixing engineer aspires to. In this article, we’ll take a look at the top 12 tips for improving stereo spread and finding that elusive sweet spot.
1. Try mixing in mono first
Hey, it worked for the Beatles. Doing a mono mix before you tackle the stereo version forces you to use EQ, compression, reverb, delay, and other traditional tricks to get each individual sound to stand on its own. When you’ve got the blend just right, that’s the time to start panning them. You’ll be amazed at the extra clarity you get from each individual component when you start moving elements off to the sides.
2. Be bold with your panning decisions
Sure, a panpot allows you to place a signal anywhere in the stereo soundfield with pinpoint precision. But ask yourself: How many listeners are going to be able to hear and appreciate all the subtlety that went into your carefully crafted stereo image? Will they really be able to distinguish between that acoustic 12-string at 3 o’clock and the harpsichord sample painstakingly positioned at 4 o’clock?
Chances are they won’t – especially if they’re listening on earbuds of dubious quality, or, worse yet, the mono speaker in their smartphone or tablet. So be bold. If you’re panning a sound most of the way, go all the way. It can be especially effective to hard pan rhythmically opposed instruments – for example, a rhythm guitar on one side and horn stabs on the other. The results will be even more dramatic if the two instruments live in predominantly different frequency ranges.
Here’s one classic example of hard-panning rhythmically opposed parts:
3. Avoid just slightly off-center sounds
Moving sounds slightly off-center in hopes of giving certain elements some extra separation is often a fool’s errand. In fact, when the midpoints in the stereo field (the positions just around the center) are left uncluttered, the far left and right edges can sound even more dramatic. So, by all means experiment with slightly off-center sounds if you want – you might happen upon something! – but certainly don’t expect it to be the quick magic solution to stereo separation issues.
4. Use delays
Yes, you can actually pan signals with delays. Try it for yourself: Duplicate a track and assign the original to hard left and the duplicate to hard right. Then start nudging one of them in 1 millisecond increments. As you get to around 8 ms or so, you’ll notice the sound begin shifting to the undelayed side. (This will only work up to around 30 ms—any more than that, and it sounds like a discrete echo.) What you’ve done is to essentially create a simulated reflection that will fool your brain into thinking the sound has moved. (This, by the way, is known as the Haas Effect.) The result can sometimes be much more effective than simply twiddling a panpot!
5. Apply a stereo imager plugin to individual signals or busses
Stereo imager plugins like the S1 Stereo Imager allow you to narrow or widen a stereo signal. Narrowing is pretty straightforward – the signal becomes less “spread” towards the edges and more centered. (More about this in #8 below.)
Widening can actually get a signal to appear to be located beyond the loudspeakers. Used carefully, this can be an awesome effect! However, like other types of processing, it can easily be overdone. Widen a signal too much and you risk mono incompatibility issues (see #11 below), plus the sound may turn unnaturally hollow and smeary. For that reason, you’ll want to apply it sparingly, and primarily on individual stereo signals or stereo busses, as opposed to an overall mix. (That said, as a last resort, you can use it in mastering, too, as explained in #12 below.)
Many mixing engineers use stereo imaging plugins on drum overhead tracks, or on guitar, synth, or strings busses, even on reverb returns (a great way to make the overall mix sound bigger). Feeling adventurous? Try widening all of your panned elements (that is, any signal that’s not centered) by sending them to a buss with a stereo imager inserted. The results may astonish you.
6. Apply a stereo imager to selected frequencies only
A unique feature of the S1 plugin is its “Shuffle” function. This increases the stereo width of selected low frequencies only. Along with a separate Bass Trim control, this makes the S1 especially effective when applied to a drum buss, since you can adjust the width of the kick drum alone without affecting the rest of the kit.
Here, you can hear the S1 Stereo Imager on a drum bus, complete with examples of the Shuffle function:
7. Spread the wealth around that lead vocal or solo
When something isn’t standing out in a mix, your first tendency is, naturally, to raise its level. But doing this repeatedly as you mix only pushes the overall signal further into the red, with the commensurate risk of distortion or, worse yet, clipping.
So if you’ve got a problem sound that just won’t ‘sit’ right in the mix despite everything you throw at it – EQ, compression, limiting, etc. – try giving it room to breathe by instead altering the signals around it.
For example, let’s say you’ve got a lead vocal or guitar solo panned dead center that isn’t popping through. Chances are there are other elements – a synth pad, a loop, a rhythm guitar – competing for the same sonic space. Try bussing them out separately and insert a stereo imager, then widen gently. Voila! Suddenly the vocal or solo has all the space it needs to shine.
In this song, notice the supporting guitars and backing vocals panned away from center as Freddie Mercury takes the focus:
Auto-panners like the Brauer Motion plugin can be as just effective in moving parts away from the lead while stimulating the track with anything from subtle to more drastic stereo motion. For example, having a rhythmic part bouncing back and forth behind a vocalist, or, having a textural pad ‘swirling’ around the focused sound in the center. Pan moves in Brauer Motion can also be set to react to any element in the mix, controlled via sidechain, to make for a unique effect.
In this video mixing engineer Michael Brauer (Coldplay) shows how to use Brauer Motion to achieve such effects:
8. Narrow stereo signals, or even convert them to mono
This may seem counterintuitive, but just because a mix is comprised of a bunch of wide-sounding individual instruments (such as stereo keyboards with built-in stereo reverb or chorusing) doesn’t mean that you’ll end up with a wide-sounding mix. In fact, often all you end up with is a muddy mess, with stacked stereo keyboards all taking up huge amounts of space.
Now, mono keyboards, on the other hand – you can stack them forever. So, wherever possible, take one side of that big stereo keyboard and throw it away, then pan the remaining side creatively. If too much of the sound is lost by discarding one side, insert a stereo imager across the keyboard buss and narrow the signal considerably before reaching for the panpots. You’ll be surprised how “mono-ing” stereo signals helps get multiple elements to sit together just right.
9. Widen the image at just the crucial moments
As any experienced mix engineer will tell you, it’s not about finding one static setting that works for the whole song, and then leaving everything alone. Mixing is about continual change as the music unfolds, using textural contrast to keep things interesting from start to finish.
Looking to get that chorus to pop out? One of the best ways is to slightly widen the mix the moment it kicks in, then go back to a narrower soundstage during the verses. You can do this with a stereo imager plugin, adding some movement with Brauer Motion, or simply by moving some elements out to the edges – drum overheads, supporting percussion tracks, guitar lines or backing vocals, for example – during the choruses only. Done tastefully, this can really add to the emotional impact of a song.
10. Try parallel imaging
Parallel processing is a great way to add subtle amounts of compression—simply duplicate a track, then squeeze the hell out of the duplicate and mix it in (in small doses) with the original. This is a technique that works equally well for widening. Instead of using a stereo imager/widener like the S1 on a guitar buss, for example, try duplicating the buss, insert the S1 plugin on the duplicate, and then run the two in parallel. As a bonus, this will allow you to tweak the EQ on the widened tracks while retaining the sonic signature of the original guitars.
11. Always check for mono compatibility
Who listens in mono these days? Well, pretty much everybody – or at least everybody who listens to music on their smartphone or tablet without plugging in earbuds first. Even if your device has two speakers, they’re positioned together so closely (or, worse yet, one is on the front and the other is on the back) that you’ll never hear anything even close to a stereo soundfield.
So it’s critical that you always check any widened stereo signal for mono compatibility. It may sound great in stereo but may thin out, drop significantly in level, or even disappear altogether when you fold the two signals down into one. This is actually less of an issue when you use the Waves S1 since special care has been taken in this plugin’s design to avoid unpleasant and fatiguing ‘phasiness’ effects and to retain the basic tonal character of the original sound, with a high level of mono compatibility.
12. As a last resort, alter the stereo image during mastering
Ideally, stereo imaging should be done during mixing, not mastering. Plus, as stated earlier, widening is best applied to individual stereo signals or busses, as opposed to the overall mix. Nonetheless, there are times when you simply can’t fix it in the mix, or perhaps you no longer have access to the original tracks. So can you still alter the stereo image of a mix in the mastering stage?
To some degree, yes. If you receive a mix that was created on a system that wasn’t correctly calibrated – if, for example, the left speaker was louder or closer to the mix position, resulting in a balance that is skewed toward the right – you can use the Rotation control in the Waves S1 to re-balance things.
Another common problem occurs when the mixing engineer did not pan things effectively or failed to put any elements on the outside edges. One approach to fixing this is to widen the overall mix (or, using the Shuffle function in the S1 Stereo Imager, just the low frequencies) to open things up a bit. However, as mentioned previously, the downside is that this has to be done very sparingly in order to avoid possible signal degradation.
A better approach, therefore, is to apply parallel processing. Begin by inserting a plugin like the Waves Center before the stereo imager in order to separate center content (signal that is assigned to the L/R channels equally and therefore appears as a ‘phantom’ center image) from sides content (signal that is panned unequally to the L/R channels and so appears to the left or right of center). Simply remove the center content and feed the sides content only to the stereo imager for widening, then carefully mix the resultant signal in with the original, unprocessed mix until you obtain the desired result.
The Waves Center plugin has many other mastering applications, too. It can be used to bring out (or turn down) vocals without affecting everything else, or to filter subby lows out of the sides in order to improve clarity. It also allows you to add high-end sparkle to cymbals without affecting the snare drum, or enhance the room ambience on stereo percussion tracks. Center also provides High, Low and Punch controls to balance frequency content and adjust the spread of transients between the center and sides signals.
We hope these tips will help you achieve that sense of spaciousness you are seeking in your mixes. For more on creative and corrective mixing, see our reverb mixing tips and vocal pitch correction tips.