5 Stereo Widening Mistakes You Might Be Doing Without Knowing
Among the many things that set modern, professional mixes apart from amateur ones is a wide stereo field. Stereo enhancement plugins can make vocals sound huge when the chorus hits, push synth pads to the edges of headphones, and add interest to rhythmic elements.
But widening without intent can lead to a disorienting mix that’s lost its character and detail. To avoid the traps many mix engineers fall into when manipulating stereo field, here are five widening mistakes:
1. Relying Only On Stereo Enhancement Plugins
Placing a stereo enhancement plugin on an individual track or submix is a quick and easy way to widen a narrow signal. So quick and easy, in fact, that one may rely on these plugins even when there are better tools for the job.
Is your mix too dense? Try panning some instruments to the sides to open things up. If you want to widen a mono vocal, take advantage of the Haas Effect and use a stereo delay with different times on the left and right channel. Changing the pitch of one channel by just a few cents will enhance the stereo illusion.
Stereo enhancers are great, but they aren’t always the answer, so be sure to explore other options before reaching for an imaging plugin.
2. Widening every instrument
If every instrument in your mix is stretched as far as it can go with stereo plugins and effects, you won’t necessarily get mix width. Too much widening smears the stereo image and creates an unnatural, hollow sound.
Sometimes the best mixes come from panning just a few instruments and leaving the rest narrow or in mono. If you need to create some space around the narrower signals, use EQ and proper gain matching instead.
Stereo widening decisions also dictated by genre. To improve danceability, EDM drums are often panned very wide. Pop and rap are all about the vocal, so drums are reigned in to make room for ad-libs and backgrounds. In rock, lead vocals, kicks, and snares tend to stay in the center, while guitars, keys, and backgrounds are pushed off to the sides.
3. Widening all the time
Whether you widen with panning, doubles, or stereo enhancement plug-ins, it’s not enough to leave the settings you choose in one place for the entire mix. To really impart a sense of emotion and power to listeners, width needs to change along with the arc of the song.
If the verse begins wide, how will you get the chorus to sound bigger? Adding too many new instruments will eat up headroom and perhaps overly surprise listeners. Some songs, like Zedd’s “The Middle” use less instruments for the chorus, but this is a harder move to pull off with sophistication.
If you want a chorus to explode, keep the first verse narrow then use panning or a stereo imager to widen the mix only when the chorus swings into action. Return back to “normal” settings once the second verse begins.
You can use this same concept at the instrument level too. Why keep a percussive element static for the whole song when you can pan it between the speakers at strategic moments for interest?
4. Stereo widening on headphones
Our perception of the stereo field is different with speakers and headphones. With speakers, what comes out of the left side is still picked up by our right ear (and vice-versa) but headphones eliminate this acoustic process making it hard to judge panning and other widening decisions.
If you produce or mix using speakers then switch to headphones, hard-panned sounds become distracting because there is total separation between the left and right channel. To compensate, you might undo bold panning or move sounds toward the center because the mix sounds more balanced this way. The end result: a narrow mix.
If don’t have monitors or can’t use monitors because your neighbors get upset when you do, you may find some relief with Waves’ Nx plugin, which recreates the acoustics of a studio in headphones. This way you can evaluate stereo width accurately.
Not checking mono compatibility
Now that even smartphones are designed with stereo speakers, mono compatibility can feel like a requirement of a bygone era. While it’s true that few people listen to music in mono, many public venues (clubs, retail stores, stadiums etc.) use mono sound to ensure a balanced image across multiple speakers. Plus, since the speakers on smartphones, tablets, and bluetooth devices are designed so close together, the stereo field they offer is closer to mono than anything else.
Even if a club uses a stereo system, a synth hard-panned to the left might be overwhelming for listeners on the left side of the dancefloor but hidden to those on the right. Mono compatibility ensures a good music experience no matter where the listener is located.
Does that mean you should avoid panoramic synths and widened guitars? Not at all! Just be sure to check them in mono and address phase issues before printing the mix.
Total phase cancellation between two tracks is usually fixed by inverting the phase of one copy with a utility plugin. For drops in level and comb-filtering caused by out-of-phase multi-track recordings, try nudging channels manually or use delay compensation to get them back in time. There are many phase alignment plugins, like MAutoAlign by Melda Production that do the trick too.
In pursuit of mix width, avoiding these mistakes (early on if, possible) pays off. While there are certainly more gaffes one can make when widening stereo image, the five mentioned here cover the most common scenarios, along with tips to improve the conditions. Keep the listener, genre, and mono compatibility in mind and you will greatly improve the stereo field of your mix.