- How can we use stereo width to improve the depth of our mixes?
- What techniques are available beyond standard plugins and effects?
- We look at 4 killer approaches for enhancing stereo imaging and width.
When it comes to mixing, the stereo image of a track often takes a backseat to EQ, compression, and volume. This makes sense for club tracks that might be heard over a mono system, though this is becoming less common, and the stereo image of your track still affects the mono mixdown – usually for the worse.
Simply put, most people have two ears, so why not take advantage of this with stereo effects?
For many, a simple ‘one size fits all’ stereo enhancer plugin is enough. While these can be very handy, they don’t give you precise control over the stereo image.
The issue with most stereo imager/enhancement plug-ins is that they are not tuned for your track. Any plugin with a ‘one-knob’ solution for controlling width will be a broad strokes approach that works until it doesn’t.
In this article, we’re going to look at four tried-and-true approaches to enhancing and controlling the stereo width of your tracks. With these techniques, you’ll learn about how our brain perceives width, and how we can play with this information to create more luscious and spacious mixes.
1. Copy + Pan
Panning, in my honest opinion, is still probably one of the best ways to make things wider.
Don’t underestimate the importance of simple panning decisions. Little touches like putting your snare slightly to the left, or automating the pan on a buildup can have a subtle but important impact on the perceived width of your track.
Panning a single mono recording isn’t going to sound that wide. So you duplicate the recording and hard pan each one, but even then, you’re just sending the exact same signal to both speakers. What should you do then?
The answer is simple – make the copied track different. Similar enough that it’s still clearly the same instrument, but different enough to disrupt the ‘mono’ effect of having the exact same sound in both ears. It’s easy to do this with effects, but don’t underrate the power of multitracking your instruments here.
Multitracking in this context refers to multitrack recording. Simply put, this means recording multiple takes of the same part (or harmonies) then layering them together. If you don’t pan your different takes, then you’re really missing out on some very lush stereo effects.
You want to pan evenly according to the number of tracks you have in each group, and avoid having two tracks panned in exactly the same spot unless it’s absolutely necessary.
The most basic approach with vocals would be double-tracking then panning each recording hard left and hard right, or just evenly apart. Even though you’re still singing the same part, there will always be enough natural variation to give you the right amount of width.
(You’ll discover more about the power of multitracking in A Short History Of Multitrack Recording (Everything You Need To Know))
Some digital audio workstations (DAWs), like Logic Pro X, even have a binaural panning feature that allows you to more accurately place instruments in the stereo field.
Binaural processing utilizes complex Head Related Transfer Functions (or HRTFs) to simulate the way sound is perceived by the human ear in a real space. More specifically, HRTFs model the way the human head attenuates and enhances certain frequencies as sound waves pass through. This tells us much more about the placement of a sound, and this technique is used a lot in ASMR recordings and virtual reality.
In order to really get the most out of binaural processing though, you need something like a 7.1 system, where you’re surrounded by 7 speakers and a sub. Most of us don’t have that but you can still make do with headphones!
2. Adjust The Phase
Phasing has a few different meanings in the context of music and production. Here, it refers to how the peaks and troughs of a waveform differ in the left and right channels. For a full rundown of this phenomena, make sure you read Understanding Phase Reverse – A Music Producer’s Guide.
Our ears are extremely sensitive to even the slightest change in sound pressure in both ears. Thinking back to the example in section 1, we can take a simple sine wave, duplicate it, then pan hard left and right, but it will sound exactly like a ‘mono’ sine wave with no stereo width. As stated, the two signals need to be at least slightly different if we want to create stereo effects.
In this case, with phasing, the change we make is as simple as shifting one sound just milliseconds ahead of the other. This slight change in timing means we hear the waveform peaks in one ear moments before those same peaks are heard in the other ear. It’s really quite amazing how such a small difference can have such a dramatic effect!
This is an example of the ‘Haas Effect’. No, this has nothing to do with avocados and house prices.
In this context, the ‘Haas Effect‘ can be simplified as ‘a small delay applied to one channel’. More accurately, it describes how two sounds heard within 40ms of each other are perceived as one cohesive sound source. But it is frequently (mis)used to describe this delay technique that plays on phasing.
(We have a full article on this too! Check out What Is The Haas Effect In Audio Production? (+Tips & Tricks))
Another approach here is to keep the timing of the two signals the same, but invert the phase of one channel with an audio effect (Ableton Live’s Utility plugin can do this).
This means all the peaks in a waveform are now troughs and vice versa. Now, if we invert both channels, we hear no difference. Peaks don’t sound any different to troughs. But if we only invert one channel, our ears and brain instantly notice that the air pressure in one ear is ‘pulling’ while the other is ‘pushing’.
You can hear this trick being done in the Squarepusher and AFX collab track Freeman Hardy & Willis Acid. Listen to how the drum break changes from 5:04 onward…
All of a sudden, the drum break has this weird ‘water in the ears’ effect that is difficult to describe but undeniably noticeable. If you have headphones, listen in just one ear, then the other. Everything sounds normal, but when you put both headphones back on, the effect becomes apparent.
3. Use Effects! (Reverb, Delay, Modulation)
I know, it seems to make way too much sense. Time-based effects to give your mix more dimension… Really? Yes.
In every sense of the term, time is a dimension.
Reverb and delay work by introducing reflections, and these two effects are closely related. In fact, there are some engineers/producers that forego working with reverb altogether – instead opting for multiple delay lines for better control over reflections.
Whereas panning is more focused on the immediate stereo position of a sound at any given moment, reverb and delay expand on this by changing the stereo width and position of a sound over time.
Modulation effects like flange and chorus are also time-based. Both effects use delay lines in order to produce pitch modulation – subtle detuning that makes it sound like two or more copies of the instrument are playing at once. Phasers generally don’t use delay lines, but are still used similarly for creating and enhancing width.
Let’s look at how reverb, delay, and modulation effects can add width to any sound source.
This is perhaps the easiest technique for adding width and depth to your stereo image. Everyone loves reverb and its ability to transform any sound into something deeper and more powerful. Reverb can take the cheesiest, driest mono sounds and turn them into something incredibly lush, instantly placing the sound source in a realistic space, complete with complex stereo reflections.
When it comes to reverb, a little goes a long way. It’s very easy – and tempting – to max out the size on your reverb plugin for the biggest sound possible. But if you’re just after stereo width, a small amount will do. If you’re just after a splash of space, dial back the decay time and wet level. You’ll know it’s right when it doesn’t really sound like much is happening, but when you turn off the effect everything sounds ‘one-dimensional’ again. This will help you avoid clogging up your mix with noisy reverb tails.
Of course, if your mix has room for a spacious reverb patch, go for it. But if you’re applying different reverb settings to multiple sound sources, you need to consider how this adds up in your mix. At the very least, remember to use a high-pass filter post ‘verb to mitigate any rumble that can build up in the reflections.
(We’ve put together the ultimate guide to reverb with everything you need to know about this much-loved effect. Bookmark our Reverb Cheat Sheet and master the art of ambience!)
With delay, you will not notice many big changes in the stereo field, and its largely dependent on how much stereo information is already in the sound. However, delays with a ping-pong mode will create a massive amount of width!
Ping-pong delay is a very exciting effect, but it’s really all-or-nothing in terms in terms of creating width. In this mode, the feedback is bounced from hard-left to hard-right with each successive echo. Not all ping-pong delays hard pan like this – some just swap the stereo channels in the feedback path so that the left feeds back into the right and vice versa. This gives you a little bit more control over the width.
Thinking back to the Haas Effect, delay is of course the easiest tool to use here. Just apply a delay to one channel and keep the time under 40ms.
Of course, all these examples only use one delay line, and delay as an effect can get much more complicated. Multi-tap delays generate more complex reflections and give you greater control over the panning of each echo.
So for better control over the width, try using multiple delay lines with no feedback, then individually pan each delay effect. This can give you a great “wide” slapback effect with no troublesome repeats. This is also an easy way of giving mono recordings stereo characteristics without cluttering up your mix!
Flangers, Phasers, and Chorus
These are sometimes just referred to as ‘modulation effects’ as they all rely on LFOs to ‘modulate’ some parameter to create movement in the sound.
Almost all modulation plugins will have a control for stereo width. This control might be labeled ‘width’, ‘phase’, or ‘stereo’. In most cases, this varies the phase of the LFO across the left and right channels, so that when it’s ‘pulling’ on one side, it’s ‘pushing’ on the other. So, with a flanger plugin at maximum width, you will hear one side reach the ‘top’ as the other reaches the ‘bottom’.
This is a quick and easy way to add width to any mono sound source. However, this is generally a ‘one size fits all’ solution that gives you less control compared to other techniques.
These effects are best used early on to add width and thickness to a sound. If you’ve already applied other techniques to enhance the stereo width, slapping a modulation effect on the end can ruin your hard work.
Having said this, a slow moving phaser or flanger can really add life to a sound, and the difference can be night at day when applied to a mono sound source. Just don’t expect the results to be all that noticeable or impressive if the sound already has plenty of width.
(For more tips and tricks with modulation effects, make sure you read Chorus vs Flanger vs Phaser: Breaking It Down)
Yes, the humble equalizer is more than capable of creating and enhancing stereo width in your tracks! You might even be surprised at just how versatile EQ can be here.
Again, turning to Ableton Live, we can see a two modes in the EQ8 plugin for this. If you don’t have Ableton, your DAW will no doubt have some way of letting you apply the same techniques we’re looking at here.
‘Stereo’ mode is the standard EQ8 configuration, one EQ curve applied equally to both left and right channels. This won’t create any extra width, and mono sounds will still be mono after processing.
Instead, let’s look at L/R and M/S modes.
L/R mode lets you apply different EQ curves to each channel. This means you can, for example, boost the treble in just the left channel. It’s a bit like panning, but with frequencies instead of volume.
M/S stands for ‘mid-side’. An easy way to think of mid-side processing is to think of mid as the ‘mono’ signal (what both channels have in common) and side as the stereo information (what’s different, or the ‘width’). Let’s say you have a bass synth that is luscious and roomy, but there’s too much ‘width’ in the low end, creating a muddy and confusing sound. You can simply remove all the bass from the side channel, restoring the stereo balance in the low end.
It’s important to note that M/S EQ won’t create any extra width if the incoming audio is mono. You’ll just have dead silence in the side channel, and nothing you do inside EQ8 will change this.
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But, if you use one of the other techniques covered in this article to create width first, you can then reach for M/S EQ to better shape the stereo image.
One easy technique that always works wonders here is to sweeten up the high frequencies of the side signal just a touch, then cutting the same range of the middle signal. This will keep the tonal balance even while enhancing the width of the frequencies we are most sensitive to.
Wrapping It Up
Everything in mixing is a balancing act. We’re so used to changing the tone and volume of each track that we sometimes forget about the stereo image.
Paying attention to stereo width may just be the thing you need to get your mixes sounding fresh and lively. I’m sure that after playing around with the techniques listed here, you’ll discover even more unique ways to shape the width of your tracks.
Finally, for more practical sound design tips, head on over to 5 Creative Sound Design Tips To Make You Rethink Effects.