Engineers rely on their ability to understand and decipher the stereo image of a track, it helps them to provide clarity and balance to otherwise murky and imbalanced recordings. No plug-in provides this information better than the updated Ozone 9 Imager. Ozone Imager is available as a free plug-in (which you can download below) and as an expanded module in Ozone 9.
In this article, we’ll be focusing on the expanded module in Ozone 9, exploring use cases, new features, and helpful tips for using stereo imaging to improve your sound. Even if you already own Ozone 9, the newest Imager update has helpful new features to uncover. Let’s dive in!
No module in Ozone 9 is as seductive as the Imager. With simple sliders, it allows us mere mortals to accomplish a jaw-dropping trick often reserved for only the best mastering engineers—achieving that sumptuously wide, record-ready feel.
Careful though—few modules have the potential for creating as ungodly a mess as the Imager does. Use it badly, and sure, the first few seconds of a mix might impress, but the rest of the song will leave listeners with fatigue—the hollowed out sound of a tune blown far too wide.
By way of example, here’s a loop made quickly in Logic Pro X:
And here’s four seconds of that loop with too-wide settings applied on the mixbus with the Imager.
Sounds good, but here’s the whole thing:
It’s a bit much. It makes your head swim. To me, it would be far better like this:
So a careful hand is in order, and we are here to give you that careful hand; the following are tips for using the Imager in Ozone 9.
But first, what is the Imager actually doing?
Imager is actually two different tools in one module. Leave the Stereoize button off, and it subtlety manipulates the entire side channel up or down, this results in a feeling of apparent width or apparent narrowness, but it is easier and cleaner than using EQ. An important caveat: a mono instrument will remain unaffected by the Imager.
That’s where the Stereoize button comes into play: click on that, and you can lend the illusion of a stereo response to any monaural instrument.
Listen to this electric piano loop:
We’ll Stereoize the instrument with the following settings:
Note how it feels a bit like stereo capture, the lows are spread away from the highs a bit, like they might be on a stereo electric piano recording.
Certainly, mid/side EQ allows you to be more surgical. If you only need to widen one element in a loop, for instance, you could find the bulk of its frequency content and give those frequencies a boost in the sides.
But mid/side EQ is a bit of a misnomer, as I wrote in this article. Because of how mid/side is derived, you may wind up grabbing the frequency of something you don’t want—something relatively centered—and affecting it adversely. The Imager, however, leaves truly centered material alone; this is one benefit of using it.
Another, of course, is the relative ease it affords in its operation. Whereas mid/side EQ requires us to be surgical, the Imager allows us to move both quickly and effectively.
Both processes are tools at your disposal, in other words. Understanding the tools will get you better results.
Now let’s examine some classic uses for the Imager.
As we established in explaining the algorithm, lending stereo width to a mono element is a great use of the Imager. A boring old electric piano, guitar, or synth can be livened up easily. But don’t just slap the Imager on willy-nilly. Think context: what role are you trying to fill by widening a mono instrument?
Perhaps it’s a sparse mix, with few elements. You need the mono instrument to cover more space than it naturally would, all to make the tune feel grander and wider.
Take, for instance, a funk tune with a drum set, a bass, an electric piano, and a singer. Think of how many instruments go up the middle there: kick, snare, bass, and vocals at a minimum. What about the electric piano? Do we swing the whole thing over to the left? It might feel orphaned out there, all alone.
Here you can use the Imager in either of the Stereoize modes, doing so in multiband, sliding up the width of the low-mids and highs to give you the feeling of a keyboard’s inherent linearity.
Another context would be more creative. Let’s take a clean guitar part that needs some sort of stereo modulation, but all the usual suspects are leaving you unimpressed. Flanging is putting you in the sixties; phasing puts you in the seventies; and chorus is leaving you with that mid-nineties verse-of-a-grunge tune malaise. The Imager might be a good bet to give you the manipulation you want without the consequence of any particular genre.
Always make sure there’s a purpose in sterilizing an instrument before you do it, and make sure the Imager is the appropriate tool for the job. Remember: there will be some frequency manipulation. If that’s not what you want, consider panning/reverb effects instead.
Sometimes, toward the end of a mix, we look at our various submixes and realize they need help cohering, or help staying out of the way of the lead vocal. Here the Imager can be of service, as it accomplishes both goals simultaneously. Indeed, one helps accomplish the other.
Consider that our music bus might have any number of stereo instruments—pianos mic'ed in stereo, synthesizers, harps, and whatnot—that take up space in the center by virtue of how they were captured. Maybe the reverb on a guitar is spilling into the center channel, and burying the upper-midrange of a vocal. The Imager used on a bus like this can help us out, and here’s how.
Presumably, from EQing our vocal, we know which frequencies are communicating the most amount of energy. We keep that in mind as we set up our Imager on the music bus: if the vocal is getting buried between 200–500 Hz, and again at 1 kHz and higher, we spread those frequencies out more on the Imager. We can take it wide, to give us a grand feeling, or we can be subtler with it, just changing it enough to stay out of the vocal’s way.
Because we’ve grabbed all these instruments together on a bus level, we’re cohering them together through the same processing. We’ve given them something that binds them together, all while steering them out of the vocalist's way.
This same process, described above, can be applied to a stack of background vocals. The Imager can help the backgrounds feel more sumptuous, all while improving the quality of the lead by staying out of its way.
You can, if you wish, flip the Imager into Stereoize mode—even on stereo vocals; this changes the number of peaks and valleys in a given band, but that might be just the ticket, especially if used subtly. Given what we’ve seen of Stereoize II, we can see how a stack of background vocals might benefit from some subtle Stereoize II widening. We can hear it, too. Here’s a stack of panned background vocals around a center main vocalist, without Imager on the background-vocal bus:
And here it is again, only with the Imager applied (see applied settings below):
Be careful though—the process is seductive, and you will want to use it a lot. If you use the Imager on both your background vocals and music submix, you run the risk of slathering the mix in that weird, glassy, too-wide feeling, a sensation which is the hallmark of amateur mixing.
Do not let yourself go too far. In fact, it’s probably better to use the Imager on either the background vocals or the music bus.
Do be careful in applying the Imager to your stereo bus. There’s a whole host of reasons to exert caution: great width is achieved in the mixing phase itself, not in two-bus processing. Furthermore, if you are using a mastering engineer you trust, you might be kneecapping that person, making it harder for mid/side EQ tricks to work.
Also, you run the risk of obscuring your mix in ear-fatiguing, unfocused ways. Consider the mono elements: yes, they may stay intact in a mix, but what about their relevant reverbs? Those will be stretched out.
How about a real drum kit, or an impeccably sampled drum set? You might not being widening the kick and snare at the source. But consider the overheads, the room mics, the bleed from tom and hat mics. You worked so hard on all of that to get a picture of the drums to feel centered, powerful, cohesive. It would be a shame to ruin that with sloppy stereo widening—and make no mistake, the Imager will pick up things that aren’t exactly in the center; it will change those relationships ever so slightly.
So again, be careful. Consider a four-band approach, doing nothing to the low-end—or narrowing it slightly. Maybe widen the low-mids and highs a smidge, but keep the high-midrange closer to center, so as not to obfuscate the attack of kicks, snares, and vocals. Something like this is a good starting place:
Also, consider the context. Why would you want to add the Imager on the stereo bus in the first place? What are you actually trying to accomplish here? If you’re trying to mimic the feel of a reference track, that’s one thing. But if you’re trying to bring some width to specific elements—guitars, synths, EDM basses, risers—consider going back into the mix and working there.
You can automate the Imager for a variety of reasons. For instance, you can create a feeling of openness and arrival on a chorus. You could keep the Imager bypassed on the verse and then, when the chorus kicks in, you could widen the low mid, mids, and highs ever-so-slightly, to distinguish the verse from the chorus.
You can take this trick even further by automating the sliders of the various bands for different choruses. The first chorus could go slightly wider than the verse, the second a little wider still, and third the widest, for a grand final feeling.
Do be mindful not to go too far with this; perhaps set up your final chorus first, and then ease back for every previous chorus. Little tricks like this keep can keep your mixes quite interesting indeed.
Turning our attention back to Stereoize mono instruments, we can create some interesting effects in automation—feats of sound design within the mix, if you will. Let’s take a mono electric piano again. We can stretch it out over the course over the passage of a mix, and then snap it into place like so:
In the context of a build-up, bridge, or other transitional moment, this can be quite effective:
As you can hear, the effect is quite dramatic.
I’d like to close out this piece with a reminder to be careful. The Imager is a powerful tool, and it can easily make instruments disappear. Always check your mixes in mono if you’re using an Imager. Also, learn to read the meters. The Imager offers a vectorscope with three modes: Polar Sample, Polar Vector, and Lissajous.
With these tips in mind, try out Imager for yourself in Ozone 9.