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Getting stereo imaging right is no easy task. Just when you think you’ve achieved wonderous mix width, you pull up a reference track and find that your music seems narrow in comparison. Worse yet, when you fold your mix into mono it shrinks down even further.
That's why we're offering up six stereo imaging tips, with consideration for genre, song structure, and mono compatibility. Try these tips yourself with our free imaging plug-in—Ozone Imager.
1. Consider why you’re making changes to the stereo image
Before you pan and “stereoize” every track in your mix for the sake of it, think about why you’re making these moves first. Should the doubled vocal surround the listener in the chorus? What about the synth track? Or does it make more sense for the double-tracked guitars to take over? Should the snare stay in the center for punch? Or is it better suited slightly off to the side so the kick drum is the main focus?
There are a number of factors that influence how we approach stereo imaging. Genre is one—by tradition, many styles of rock use LCR panning to bring size and definition to walls of guitars. Instrument type is another—some sounds, like bass, simply do a better job in the center. And sometimes, you just want to create a cool effect that wows listeners.
No matter the reason, when you know why you are doing what you’re doing, it becomes easier to make decisions.
2. Pan on monitors to impact the stereo image
Thanks to an acoustic process called crossfeed, sounds that come out of the left speaker in a stereo setup are heard by our right ear and vice-versa. Put some headphones on and you’ll find that crossfeed no longer exists. The left and right channel are fully separated and hard-panned sounds only occur on one side of the mix.
This makes it a greater challenge to judge panning decisions and identify phase issues with headphones. What sounded wide, but cohesive on monitors an hour ago is now tugging at the back of your ears! In search of relief, you may undo all the great panning work you did and move sounds back toward the center, resulting in a narrow mix.
If you don’t find the lack of crossfeed a nuisance and can achieve impressive mix width on headphones, more power to you. Otherwise, investing in a pair of neutral monitors will serve you well for panning and much more. Get tips for panning in the video below using the free Visual Mixer plug-in:
3. Use a stereo imager like Ozone Imager
One of the more obvious ways to increase mix width is with an imaging plugin, like iZotope’s very own Imager, which comes with Ozone.
You can use Ozone Imager to add space to a narrow vocal track in the center or push already-panned elements (like drum overheads) beyond the apparent edges of monitors. When there is a general frequency area to widen, rather than a specific instrument, some engineers will apply imaging on the master channel. Give this a shot if you're curious, just be sure to keep processing light to maintain a natural sound.
The four EQ bands on the right side of Ozone’s Imager offer flexibility when widening frequency-rich instruments. If you widen the entire signal of a square wave synth, the bass might be phasey and even drop out when summed to mono (more on that later). By keeping the bass frequencies narrow and widening just the top-end, you’ll give the illusion of a wide mix without comprising the song’s ability to translate.
You will quickly discover that most signals (at least, in solo) sound better a little puffed up. But like all things in music production and mixing, stereo imaging can be overdone, which leads us to the next point…
4. Don’t widen all the time, widen with contrast in mind
Just as you need a mix of dry and wet sounds to achieve mix depth and a combination of loud and soft elements for apparent dynamic range, you need a balance of narrow and wide signals for a mix to appear wide. Without any narrow signals, the listener has no point of reference for width.
In fact, if every track is stretched to its limits, your mix will sound pretty weird and hollow. You’re better off widening mix elements based on a principle of contrast. A few ideas include:
To enhance the power of a chorus, keep the verse narrow and widen just one or two elements as the song reaches its emotional peak, repeating this pattern throughout. Your wide element can be a vocal double, modulated guitar, or drums.
Hard pan two rhythmically opposed tracks—like percussion or guitars—to avoid weighing down one side. Executed well, this can create a “call-and-response” interaction between the tracks that makes the stereo field exciting.
In a dense rock mix, introduce contrast between panned guitar doubles and quadruples with distortion, amp emulations, or EQ. This will maintain the larger-than-life feel while creating some difference between the guitars so it's not just a huge wash of sound. If possible, capture some of this variation during recording—use a close room mic for a thick guitar sound first, then a more ambient mic for the double.
Have you ever received a mix with too many wide stereo parts that are muddying the stereo image? If your ears are losing focus and your mix is losing clarity, collapse those huge stereo tracks—pianos and other keyboard parts come to mind—into mono and pan them off to the sides. By reducing the competition for frequency space you can make the mix feel wider, or at least prevent it from becoming too narrow.
5. Automate your pans with auto-panners
One of my favorite “hands-off” mixing techniques is auto-panning, which does what its name implies: automated panning moves. On a static electronic hi-hat pattern, why not add a little stereo movement to keep things interesting—like Post Malone producer, Tank God, did in “Rockstar”?
This same song has a chopped vocal effect—try words “damn” and “get in” in the first verse—which can be emulated with an auto-panner set to 32nd notes. Listen to this effect on repeats of the word “me” below (and excuse the suggestive lyrics):
Vocals Auto Pan
It's a simple, but creative way to add some rhythmic interest to the stereo field. By processing only certain words, it also plays into the strategy of widening for contrast. A bit of this effect now and then is going to get people’s attention but tire them if used for three minutes straight.
6. Can a mix’s stereo image be too wide?
As I touched on earlier, widening and other stereo effects can be overdone. With beyond-the-speakers wide tracks, some stereo information is usually lost to phase issues when the mix is summed to mono. A drop in level, thinning, and even total cancellation are all possible depending on the source material and stereo position.
But in an age where few people listen to music in mono, why would anyone bother with mono compatibility in the first place? There’s the argument that many public spaces, like clubs and retail stores, use mono PA systems, but this can fail to connect with mixers who aren’t doing pop music at a commercial level.
More importantly, I think, is the fact that most smartphones use mono. Even if you listen with newer models that have stereo playback, you’ll find the image is still one-dimension due to the close spacing of the two speakers. This argument makes more sense for up-and-coming artists who share their music on SoundCloud and Spotify. How likely is the virality of a song if it doesn’t slap on iPhones?
Ultimately, a mix that sounds good in mono ensures a solid translation regardless of the playback device and listening environment. At house parties, few people are going to be standing perfectly in the middle of the speaker setup. It's unlikely the speakers are even arranged for optimal listening anyway. I’ve been to many impromptu gatherings where one speaker is on a stand and the other is positioned a foot lower on a coffee table or higher up on a bookshelf. Stereo sound begins to lose its value right there.
I like to think of mono as a quality assurance check for the sounds in my mix. If I’ve relied too much on panning and other width tricks to improve my mix, this becomes clear when I hit the mono switch and the whole song shrinks. Going back to the wimpy sounds and making the changes I need to improves the mix.
Adjusting the width of a sound and finding its ideal position in the stereo field is one of the more fun, but challenging tasks in a mix. Multiple factors—genre, instrument type, mono compatibility, monitoring setup, and more—need to be taken into account.
I hope this article has given you some actionable width tips for your mix, along with some mistakes to watch out for.