A good mix makes use of the whole stereo field and fills the listener’s ears from left to right. Adding depth and width to sound creates virtual space and is vital to enhancing music, although less obvious than other practices.
Therefore, a firm handle on stereo imaging techniques is essential to transform you from being a good producer to a great one. Let’s go over precisely what imaging entails, as well as a couple of key tips to create lush, stand-out, professional mixes.
What is a Stereo Image?
Let’s begin with the basics. A stereo image is the sonic painting an engineer creates for a listener by manipulating parameters such as width, height, depth, clarity, and balance.
These alterations can be broken down into two main subgroups: Space and Separation. By altering space and separation, an engineer can drastically change the overall feel, groove, and emotion of a song.
When mixing music, it’s imperative to consider what type of environment you’d like your sound to be placed in.
Width typically refers to the panning or left/right position of a sound. The more panned a sound is, the larger the sonic landscape appears.
Height is how tall a sound, or where a sound sits in terms of up/down. If panning is East to West, height is North to South in a sonic landscape.
Depth is how narrow or far back a sound reaches. For example, a church hall and a vocal booth have very different sonic depths due to their varying acoustics. In the same way physical rooms can be altered to adjust acoustics, engineers virtually alter the space of sound to evoke different moods.
Clarity is how clear each part or instrumentation stands out in the mix. In order to not overlap frequencies, sounds must be EQued and positioned properly.
Balance is how much of each sound overall amplitude wise exists in the mix. A balanced mix means balanced levels. An engineer can bring a sound forward or backward in the sonic landscape to help achieve level nirvana.
Stereo Imaging Tips
Knowing the order in which you conduct stereo imaging is essential. Before moving to additive methods such as widening, panning, and adding other effects, equalization and cutting down on unnecessary frequencies is vital in order to make the most out of your sonic landscape.
Decide which instrument/frequency group you’d like to bring most forward in the mix, and create space for it by eliminating outlier artifacts that exist at the same level. This can be as simple as creating space for your kick drum.
Without paying equalization proper attention, the mix will be muddy and continue to get messier as more processing and stereo imaging is applied. Moreover, highpass/lowpass filters can produce underwater type effects, which can drastically alter the shape of your sonic landscape.
EQing first makes sense for the same reason that you mix before you master. Make sure before you start thinking of how to amplify the sound within your sound space, you eliminate what doesn’t need to be there.
#2. Mix in Mono
Many famous game-changers such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones mixed in mono out of necessity, but you can as well, primarily for the purpose boosting your stereo imaging skills… as counter intuitive as that sounds.
By mixing in mono first or entirely, you are forced to focus on the much more important subtractive processes of EQing and elimination. Mono signal places everything on one plane, i.e no right/left panning, meaning the sounds processed in mono are quick to overlap if not properly adjusted to one another.
Mixing in mono ensures that blend levels are set correctly, which is the most important part of mixing. If one processes their sound as if mono is their only option, the transition to a stereo signal will have much more of an overall effect on the processed signal.
It’s a good habit to have on hand and teaches you to appreciate the large impact you can make with simple tools.
#3. Find your Focus
Before you start the stereo imaging process, it’s imperative that you find your focus, the same thing goes for mixing. Your focal point in most cases rests in the center of your sonic landscape, so cater your stereo imaging accordingly.
For example, if one is working to highlight a low-frequency synthesizer in a song, he/she may high-pass filter other instruments during the synth’s melodic duration. That way, the sonic landscape changes to fit the appropriate frequencies at the right time. Moreover, since stereo imaging revolves around a 3D sonic plane, it’s helpful to consider which sounds you want to sound more forward or backward in your sound space. By giving every sonic component a position within the sonic landscape, you inadvertently make important decisions and set your priorities for the rest of the mix.
Not only does this allow you to utilize stereo imaging properly, but making these choices early-on will seep into your mixing and final mastering processes. Any critical input is vital so spending a couple of minutes to sit down and really consider what should appear where is definitely worth it.
#4. Stereo Imaging Plugins
If you’re more of a visual person, investing a small amount of money into an imaging plugin can totally be worth it. Many of these plugins are based around a central visualizer which can show you exactly where your sound is going, as well as how adjusting certain parameters alters its sonic position.
If nothing else, these plugins are great learning tools that will definitely add value to the way you mix and perceive your instruments. Many of these plugins are packed with goodies and knobs that allow you to essentially draw your sonic landscape, making your workflow more efficient.
However, if you can’t shell out the money for the appropriate plugin, give these free stereo plugins a try!
#5. Test your mix everywhere
Make sure that you are testing your mix on multiple different stereos and studio monitors. Your sonic landscape is fragile, and how it may sound on your studio monitors is completely different from how it sounds on an old alarm clock radio.
When you feel that your sonic landscape is ready for the world, export the track, play the rough draft on different music players and take notes. The goal is to get your sound to translate directly to as many mediums as possible. Although it is impossible to cater your track to the acoustics of every room, great insight can be found just by experimenting with a couple of options.
#6. Be Dynamic
Although we think of soundscapes as stagnant rooms with set parameters, it’s important to shift and be dynamic while stereo imaging. Physical rooms themselves do not stay the same acoustically, rather, their sound is altered with the addition or subtraction of items, like furniture and other gear.
To make a mix most natural and convincing, dynamic imaging is a must. For example, let’s say you have a thick bassline as the focal point of your song. If you’re looking to add more energy to the chorus, one successful technique is to slowly bring the sound of the bass from the back to the front of the sonic landscape as you move from pre-chorus to chorus in order to build tension and excitement.
Dynamics take a song from good to great and are very powerful in shaping the listener’s perception. Play around with stereo imaging with automation and transitions. Little alterations to the soundscape here make a world of a difference.
After exhausting elimination methods, you can move on to adding effects to quickly widen up your mix. Reverb, phase, delay, and even a simple high/low pass filter can make a huge spatial impact. In addition, panning instruments to the far left/right to create more space for the mid-range/focus of the song is a common way to widen your sound.
However, proceed with caution: Too many effects can cause an imbalance in the levels and produce a muddy mix. After every addition, consider how the effect alters the sonic landscape and its parameters. These fun add-ons should be used as finishing touches, while the EQ/leveling makes up the bulk of stereo imaging.
Many stereo imaging plugins have widening/narrowing knobs built-in to optimize this process. Effects don’t always have to be about widening- If your sonic landscape calls for it, a narrow, thin landscape can be created by placing as many sounds as possible towards the center of the soundscape.
#8. Narrow Your Sound
In order to make sounds stand out in the mix by sounding energetic and wide, other instruments must be somewhat narrow, obviously, this is to counteract this large use of space. For example, a lead guitar part might be hard-panned during the chorus to create emphasis. To preserve this energy, during all other parts of the song the guitar lead should be kept central in the mix – not particularly forward/backward, or to the left/right.
Keeping certain parts narrow ensures that your track will have room to breathe and automatically forces you to think about dynamics, and what you’re working to achieve in your sound space. Moreover, most effects can be automated to filter in and toggle on/off, which makes this method even easier.
Clarity and depth go hand in hand, so if you’re looking to create a polished, professional-sounding mix, learn how to simplify sound.
#9. The Haas Effect and Double Tracking
Take advantage of this clever little trick – also called the precedence effect – to effectively widen your mix. Essentially how this works is by taking one track, duplicating it, and placing a slight delay (Less than 40 milliseconds) on the new track. When played together, the tracks will sound as if they are still the same signal, but wider.
The reason the Haas effect works is because our ears have an echo threshold at 40 milliseconds. When the delay time is less than this threshold, we are unable to perceive that the signal is separate than the original, thus producing a wider sound.
The Haas Effect is commonly used on vocals but can be applied to a myriad of sounds. It’s a great stereo imaging technique that will make any sound stand out in a mix. In the same vein, tracks can be doubled and panned/altered in some way which will also widen the sonic landscape. Double tracking with delay happens to produce a particularly intriguing sound, but feel free to experiment with different effects/combinations.
Similar to double-tracking and the Hass Effect, Microshifting widens the sound and places a heavy emphasis on its focus.
To microshift, first, select what sound you’d like to bring forward in the mix. With the original audio of this sound set to the very center of the sonic landscape, create two identical tracks. On one track, pan the sound all the way to the left. On the remaining track, pan the sound all the way to the right. These two tracks will act as a backing to the main sound and give it depth. With the hard-panned tracks, apply pitch shift up or down for a value right around 5 cents.
The level will automatically appear lower for the panned and pitch-shifted tracks, but be sure to account their volume levels and mix them into your sonic image appropriately. The result is a standout sound focused around the center of the soundscape. Plugins such as Waves Doubler and SoundToys Little Alter Boy operate on this widening principle.
Stereo Imaging can take years to master, even for the most talented engineers. However, it’s a worthwhile skill to cultivate and can make all the difference in taking a track from good to great. If nothing else, it’s a refreshing way to visualize and appreciate sound in the 3D plane that it exists.
Most importantly, training your ears goes hand-in-hand with stereo imaging, so practicing these techniques regularly will objectively make you a more precise and overall better musician. Be sure to test out one of these tips on your next mix, and have fun making your sound come to life.