Stereo Width: How Wide Is Too Wide?
Engineers are always aiming for a wide mix with lots of depth. There are many ways to go about achieving a wide mix; however, it's definitely possible for a mix to be too wide.
Overly wide mixes are easy to spot; they tend to sound hollow, lack low-end punch, and completely fall apart if you fold them down to mono.
In this post, we'll explore how to achieve a wide-sounding mix without falling prey to the issues we noted above.
Before We Get Started:
What's Stereo Width?
Stereo width refers to the size of the acoustic image (also known as the stereo field) created by stereo speakers. It's within this stereo field that we position sounds from left to right between the speakers.
If we position too many tracks in the center of the stereo field, our mix will sound narrow. If we pan the tracks out to the left and right, our mix will sound wider.
Another way to look at it, is that stereo width is created by sonic differences between left and right channels. A difference in the left channel is perceived to our left; a difference in the right channel is perceived to our right.
And in cases where both channels are identical, the sound is perceived as being in the center of the stereo field.
Level Up Your Monitoring
You can't make appropriate judgements about your mix's stereo image if you can't hear it — accurate monitoring is vital. Not only do you need a high-quality set of speakers that you trust, but you also need to ensure that they're positioned correctly.
If you're mixing in a rectangular room, place your studio monitors along a short wall to maximize the distance acoustic reflections must travel to get back to your ears. This lowers the volume of the reflections, thereby increasing the accuracy of your monitoring setup.
Avoid placing studio monitors close to the wall to safeguard against boundary proximity issues. You should also make sure that reflections aren't bouncing off your desk, console, or any other hard surfaces.
You won't want anything to affect what happens between the speakers and your ears.
Next, position your speakers in the shape of an equilateral triangle, where the length of each side is the same. The speakers form two corners of the triangle; your head forms the third.
The distance between the two speakers should be the same as the distance between each speaker and your head.
Beyond that, position your studio monitors so that their high-frequency drivers are at ear level. This is important, as high frequencies are highly directional, and you want to be sure that you're perceiving your mix's stereo width accurately.
A Word About Headphones
While it's entirely possible to craft a high-quality mix on headphones, doing so makes it very difficult to get an accurate picture of your mix's stereo width. This is because headphones create an unnatural stereo field — your mix seems to be emitting from inside your head rather than around you.
When you listen to studio monitors, the sound from the left speaker reaches not only your left ear, but your right as well (and vice versa). With headphones, however, the left and right channels are 100% isolated, leading to an exaggerated stereo image.
In other words, a mix that sounds wide and spacious on headphones may sound narrow and puny on speakers.
How to Achieve a Wide Mix (Without Going Too Far)
1 — If Everything is Wide, Then Nothing is Wide
Wide-sounding tracks are eminently ear-grabbing — they're practically addictive. That said, every instrument in your mix can't be stretched to the max.
Inexperienced engineers sometimes fail to grasp this; they slap stereoizer-style plug-ins on every track in an attempt to nail a "big" sound. Unfortunately, they end up with an unnatural, hollow-sounding mix with a smeared stereo image.
Most mixes translate best with a few stereo tracks panned wide and the rest of the tracks panned narrowly or left mono and placed smack-dab in the center.
Honestly, some sources actually sound better in mono. This is especially true of bass-heavy tracks, as well as solo instruments, lead vocals, and other focal elements, as spreading these tracks robs them of their focus and power.
Thus, it's common practice to place low-frequency tracks in mono, with zero stereo spread or depth. You can then spread higher-frequency elements around the stereo field, using the mono low-frequency tracks as a foundation.
2 — Widen Your High Frequencies
Widening your mix doesn't have to be limited to panning full tracks. You can also create a sense of width by spreading out specific frequencies, most notably in the upper-frequency range.
When you widen your mix's high end, it adds loads of spaciousness to your stereo field. But, unlike low-frequency content, it doesn't diminish focus or power.
This isn't limited to high-frequency elements like cymbals and high-hats either. You can also widen the higher frequencies of your bass-heavy tracks without affecting the effectiveness of their low end.
There are numerous multiband stereo imaging tools that will allow you to process specific frequencies. This means you can widen a track's high frequencies, while leaving the rest of its frequency content untouched.
The GROW module in our ANIMATE plug-in operates in a manner similar to this. By dialing in a fast Attack setting, you'll catch only transients (which generally contain a lot of high-frequency material), enabling you to widen a track's higher frequencies without affecting the rest of the track.
Mid-side processing is another variation of this concept, enabling you to process the sides (left and right) of a track, while leaving the mid (center) unprocessed.
Our MIXROOM equalizer plug-in is a great tool for applying mid-side processing to your tracks, as each frequency band includes full M-S capabilities. This lets you adjust the gain of a particular frequency in a specific stereo position.
In this case, you'd instantiate MIXROOM on a track or bus, hover your mouse over a high-frequency band's control panel, and click the "S" button. Then increase the gain of the frequency to increase the high end of just the sides of the track, while leaving the mid untouched.
3 — Manipulate the Haas Effect
Worried that your mono tracks will sound too narrow? If so, try enhancing them with a subtle stereo ping-pong delay or a stereo reverb.
You can also leverage the Haas effect by deploying stereo delays set to zero feedback and the mix control set to full-on wet. Set the delay on the left to 1ms and the delay on the right to 25ms.
Finally, balance the levels between your dry track and your delays until you achieve the sound you're aiming for.
You can also nudge the pitch of one or both of the delays up or down a few cents to enhance the stereo illusion (this is essentially what an Eventide Dual Harmonizer does).
4 — Check Your Mix in Mono
One of the biggest problems with stereoizers and widely panned tracks is that they can completely wreck your mix. And sometimes you'll be completely unaware of it.
That's why you should check the stereo compatibility of your mix by listening to it in mono. You'll reveal a whole host of issues.
For starters, panned stereo elements will sound quieter than elements positioned in the center — about 3–6dB quieter — when your mix is folded down to mono. That's why we recommend that you keep the focal elements of your mix at or near the center of your stereo field.
Mono also reveals the phase-cancellation issues caused by improper microphone technique and the overzealous use of stereoizers. If you notice tracks disappearing or taking on a hollow sound, then you'll know there's something wrong.
5 — Use Proper Metering
It's important that you mix with your ears, rather than your eyes. That said, you'll still want to take advantage of a high-quality metering tool, such as our LEVELS plug-in.
LEVELS provides you with the full gamut of metering options, but for the purposes of this post, we'll be focusing on the "Stereo Field" section.
This section is built around a vectorscope, which displays your audio’s placement in the stereo field. If you have a wide stereo mix, the image is spread out across the circle; if the image is a single thin line down the middle, your mix is mono.
The L-R [Left Right] meter at the bottom of the central display area shows you how even your left and right channels are.
If the pointer is central, then your music is evenly balanced between the left and right channels. If the pointer hovers too far left or right and glows red, your mix is unbalanced and lopsided.
The "Stereo Field" section of LEVELS also includes a correlation meter on the left side of the circle. This meter displays the degree of similarity between the left and right channels.
A reading near +1 indicates that all is well. But if the pointer hovers near -1 it indicates that your mix has phase issues, which, as we noted earlier, can cause your mix to fall apart if it's folded down to mono.
Wide mixes sound great. But, like most things in life, you can have too much of a good thing.
If you follow the guidelines laid out in this post, you'll find yourself well on the way to achieving wide-sounding mixes with rock-solid stereo imaging and plenty of punch that sound great on any playback system.
Keep reading for more helpful mixing tips and techniques!