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Learn to create width with clever arranging.
Know when to use reverb for width.
Use EQ to separate stereo elements.
In this article, I’m going to share some techniques I apply to all my mixes and recording sessions to create a larger stereo image. It serves as a general guide to stereo imaging, covering the basics (how to approach stereo width in the composition stage), as well as more advanced stereo imaging tips and tricks you can use in your music.
Why Is Stereo Width Important In Music Production?
Back in the day, mixes were done in mono, meaning everything was dead center in the mix. There was no left and right, no stereo image, and no real way to position instruments with panning or any other spatial effect.
But then something magical happened…
Stereo recording became possible, which opened up LOADS of doors. Famous bands like Queen realized they could use stereo recording techniques to greatly enhance the impact of their songs.
Taking advantage of the stereo field is crucial. The attention span of the listener is shorter than ever before because we have access to everything at any time. Things better be interesting, or the listener will skip to the next song.
Tips and Tricks For More Impactful Stereo Width
1. Compose With Stereo Image In Mind
One mistake that I used to make when mixing was that I was too busy creating width in the mixing stage instead of creating width during the composition stage itself.
If you have a song that continuously has the same parts playing throughout the song it is tough to get things to sound wide. That’s because if parts on opposing sides sound almost the same, the human brain will perceive it as mono. This is sometimes referred to as “big mono” in the audio world. This issue can easily be solved by something we like to call song arranging.
Let’s say I’m doing a guitar recording session for a song. The producer specifically asks me to make the song sound ‘big’ with a wide stereo spread, but simply copying the part and panning it will achieve nothing. Really what is needed here is multiple parts that are similar but different. Experiment with different guitar tones and EQ settings here to find what works best for your track.
2. Create Different Parts For Each Side
Following on from this idea, one of the best things you can do in the arrangement stage to create stereo width is to have the musicians play different parts on each side.
So I might play a very rhythmic single-note funk line on the left side, and on the right side, I will play simple chords. These two parts sound very different from each other, which will make sure that the stereo image is as wide as it can be. This applies not only for guitars but for any instrument, including vocals!
3. Use Call And Response
Call and response is everything in modern music.
This is primarily evident in vocals. Consider the popularity of rap adlibs, for example. The rapper will say a line followed by another vocal track “responding” to what was said. But how can you use this principle to increase the width of the stereo field?
It is quite simple. Instead of having both calls and responses in the center, you can pan the responses to create width. This will also cause the listener to pay closer attention to your song, adding to interest and longevity.
A timeless example of this arranging technique is March of the Black Queen by the band Queen. In my opinion, this song is the best example of the importance of arranging with width in mind.
4. Pan Your Vocal Harmonies
One of the coolest things to do in a track is creating a wall of vocal harmonies. Of course, this is a great opportunity for you to run wild with panning, creating an incredibly lush stereo image.
Be careful though. This trick really highlights each part, so make sure the backing vocals are as in tune as possible. While a small amount of pitch variation is to be expected, anything that is too far out of tune will stick out like a sore thumb and distract the listener.
5. Know When To Remove Stuff
When talking stereo image, we tend to forget that contrast can play a big role here as well. This means if you have a section of your song that is very dry and narrow, the impact is greatly enhanced when you introduce more width.
A song that does this perfectly is Attention by Charlie Puth. The song starts with a rhythm guitar part that has just a tiny bit of reverb, alongside a pretty dry sounding lead vocal. But in the pre-chorus a stereo synthesizer joins in on the fun, along with more reverb and some vocal doubling with pans.
Really it is this big contrast between the two parts makes the song feel really wide.
So perhaps you can try to remove a part in the second verse to create a contrast in your performance. If there’s something you can do without, ask yourself if it’s really needed in your song. Ultimately, it might make for a better song to remove this element and make room for greater contrast in your mix width.
6. Use EQ To Enhance Width
Let’s say there are two tracks panned hard left, and hard right. The parts are the same, which usually results in the “big mono” effect we discussed earlier. A very easy trick here is to EQ the parts differently. This will make the two tracks sound different, making the stereo field wider. Here’s how you do it…
Find two frequency areas in the track you really like the sound of. Let’s say 1.6 kHz and 5.2 kHz on both tracks. Next, simply boost 1.6 kHz on one track and attenuate that same frequency on the track on the opposite side. Then do the same with 5.2 kHz, but switch it so that you boost on the same track with the 1.6 kHz cut and cut 5.2 kHz on the track with the 1.6 kHz boost.
The goal here is balance. It sounds weird if one track has two cuts and the other has two boosts, but by keeping things even nothing will sound out of place.
Another thing to try here is mid / sideEQ. This is an equalizer that has separate EQ settings for the mid (or mono) elements of a track, as well as the side elements (stereo). This means you can boost the treble on the side channel and instantly get more width in the higher frequencies.
7. Reverb Is Your Friend
I love the sound of records that were recorded live in the tracking room. A group of musicians playing in the same room just sounds magical to me. I always try to emulate a “live” feel because it makes the mix sound wider and more dynamic.
In order to create a “space” I create a reverb send. Usually, I will go for a room reverb, such as the Waves Abbey Road Chambers reverb, or a reverb generated by a room impulse response.
I send every track to that reverb, and subtly mix the reverb level until it sounds right. This will approximate the sound of a live band recording.
Warren Huart of Produce Like A Pro made a very detailed video about this mixing technique, which you can check out below.
8. Automate Your Delays & Reverbs
You’ve probably heard this in a song already. When a singer sings a line a delay will repeat that phrase, or the amount of reverb increases when the singer goes for a high note. This is a great trick to enhance the emotional impact of a phrase or to make a part stand out.
In order to achieve this, you’ll have to use automation. Automation basically allows you to control and change parameters on your effects during the song.
For example, you can automate your vocal reverb to be louder during the chorus, and quieter during the verses. Or you can apply delay to specific words and notes in your vocal track with automation.
In order to create a delay throw, set up a return channel with a delay effect, and only send to this track when you need the effect applied.
Quick Tip 1:
Don’t automate the volume of the effect track itself. Instead, automate the volume of the send. Simply put, automate what is going into the effect, not the output of the effect itself. This creates cleaner reverb and delay tails.
Quick Tip 2:
Treat your mix like an instrument. This means you should use automation to make the mix breathe and feel lively. A mix without automation risks sounding stale or rigid.
With this in mind, try using reverb and delay throws on more than just the vocals. For example, you can increase the amount of reverb on a snare hit to add depth when a loud section of the song is about to start/end. Or increase the amount of delay on the guitar solo just right as it reaches the highest note.
9. Avoid Stereo Bass
This last one you are probably already familiar with. Simply put, stereo effects can make the low-end sound confusing or unnatural.
In terms of how we hear sound, low frequencies are perceived as being ubiquitous or lacking a specific direction. It’s much harder for us to track a low rumble with our ears compared to a fly or mosquito. This is also why 5.1 surround setups don’t need two subwoofers – it’s pointless and excessive for any home theater setup.
It’s still fine to add thick modulation to bass parts if you want to, the trick here is to use a high-pass filter before you apply effects. Keep your bass as a mono sound on a separate dry chain – this is a basic form of parallel processing. You may even want to use another high-pass filter after the modulation to remove any excess low-frequency energy that could conflict with your dry bass layer.
Myth: “So, if I want my mix to sound wider I just add effects, right?”
Adding effects does not necessarily result in a wider mix. It might cause the mix to sound over-processed which means the listener just hears a meaningless wall of clutter. To create depth the listener needs to be given a contrast between closeness and distance.
This means that I don’t use the same amount of effects on every track.
If I make the vocal sit as far back as the other instruments, one could argue that since there is no difference in space between the two elements there is no depth, because they are in the same “location”. If I place the vocal up front by making it drier and move the piano further back in the mix with reverb, I am creating a sense of distance between the two.
This creates a much greater sense of depth for the listener. So yes, adding a stereo effect like delay or reverb generally helps with creating depth, but don’t use effects because you think it’ll magically solve your problems. Only use effects if you know what purpose they serve in the grand scheme of the song.
You might want a tight sounding metal band to sound really wide, but that’s not going to happen by placing them in the Taj Mahal. So for that kind of mix you might be better off using EQ to enhance stereo width.
By now you should have a whole range of strategies to help you approach stereo imaging in your mixes. I maintain that the most important thing to keep in mind is arranging with width in mind.
Like with anything creative, it’s hard to force in an idea once you’ve spent hours arranging and mixing everything to be a certain way. You will save time and energy if you’re keeping the stereo field in mind from the start.
Once you’re familiar enough with the techniques covered here, you’ll know intuitively when to apply them and how to adjust for different instruments. Before long, you’ll be discovering your own favorite tricks for creating an engaging stereo mix.