Stereo widening is a somewhat mystical subject. The term “wide” is widely used (pun intended) by mixing engineers all over the world. Though when listening to a wide-sounding mix, it’s not entirely clear how the mixer achieved such a sound to impress the listener. Here are 5 stereo widening techniques to help you take your productions and mixes closer to the pro level.
The Basics of Stereo Widening
1. The Pan KnobThe easiest route to stereo widening is the pan knob in a DAW’s mixer. Simply, pan mono tracks around the stereo field to place them in different spots or “pockets” in the sound stage.
Panning is an artform, so there are no hard rules on how to do it. I like to pan things hard left and right (100%) and midway (50%). Sometimes, I will insert instruments at three quarters (75%) and a quarter (25%). Most of the time, I just set my pan values to these positions, and leave them there.
Of course, certain instruments should be left at the center (0%) for most impact. One of these is definitely the kick drum as well as sub bass. The snare usually lies in the center as well.
2. Automatic Panner or Tremolo
Automatic panners or stereo tremolos work similarly to the pan knob. The only difference is that the motion is automated, creating a sense of movement for a certain instrument. The movement is done by modulating the pan with an LFO (low frequency oscillator). A classic, but effective trick.
The great thing is, the stereo action can be adjusted in detail, controlling the width, the rate of the movement and even different kinds of waveforms for the LFO to characterize the sound of the movement.You could make an instrument move only subtly around the center, to remove some staticness from it, or make a super-wide stereo tremolo effect to create interesting motion for an acoustic guitar for example.
Advanced Stereo Tricks
3. The Haas Effect
Ah, the Haas effect.
This is my absolute favorite when it comes to creating ultra-wide drum hits or doubling instruments. The way it works is, a signal is panned to either side of the stereo field, and a duplicate or similar version (such as another vocal take of the same vocal) is panned to the opposite side. Note that they are hard panned (100%) left and right.
To achieve the Haas effect, you need to delay one side in relation to the other by an amount between 7-21 milliseconds. This is done easily on the DAW’s grid by simply moving the other waveform forward by a small amount, and listening to the effect while doing it. Alternatively, you could use a stereo delay.
What you should hear, is a very small delay between the two channels (left and right), but short enough so it’s not really noticed as a delay, but instead as a “Wow! That thing sounds WIDE!”
4. The Microshift EffectThe classic Microshift effect is somewhat similar to the Haas effect. It also has two (same or similar) signals panned hard left and hard right. But instead of delaying them apart from each other, they are pitch-shifted to opposite directions by a small amount.
For example, the left channel could be pitch shifted downwards -3 cents and the right channel could be pitch shifted upwards 4 cents. This is a very small amount of pitch shifting, hence the name microshifting, but it is enough to provide an impressive chorus-like sound.
This trick is very effective on creating huge stereo vocals and guitars.
Let’s Phase It
5. Flip The Polarity
Sometimes it might be nice to create something truly “pop out”, sounding like something was coming from “beyond” the speakers. For this, we need to use the polarity-flipping trick to enhance a stereo sound even more.
What you need is a piece of audio that is in stereo. You then need to duplicate this stereo track and pull its fader down so only the original track is audible.
Then, you need to flip the polarity of the duplicate track by using a plug-in, or by using the mixer’s polarity flip switch (it looks like a circle with a line going through it).
In Pro Tools, a plugin called Invert will do this. Alternatively, you could use a plug-in such as an EQ which usually have a polarity flip (also called “phase, phase flip or flip”) button.When the polarity is taken care of, the last thing you need to do is invert the stereo image of the duplicate track. Simply, you need to pan the left channel right and the right channel left.
Pro Tools has dual pan knobs in the mixer which can be easily inverted. Alternatively, you could use a plug-in, such as the Utility plug-in in Ableton Live which as a “stereo swap” function, or Stereo Tool by Flux::, with which you can do all the steps listed above.
After all the hard work is done, you can start bringing the fader up on the duplicate track and hear the effect. Bring the fader up midway, and what you should hear is your sound being expanded into the stereo field in a very wide way. Adjust the fader to taste to find the sweet spot.
For best effect, have only certain instrument(s) processed like this in a mix, otherwise there could be phase problems and too much “washiness” caused by the effect. Use it with great taste!
By using these five stereo widening techniques, you should have most of your stereo needs covered, and your mixes will start to shine by using them. As always, experiment and give time and thought to what you are learning to master them.
Go wild with your stereo effects, today we have two speakers to hear music from!
Did you learn something new or were all these tricks already up your sleeve? Share some of your favorite stereo techniques below, and let’s discuss!