You may be wondering what is the most important thing to keep in mind when working on the mix. Learning to increase the perception of a stereo image from two to three dimensions is a fantastic way to improve our audio mixes.
Before we begin, there is one thing we need to clear up first. Although height and depth are very precise quantities when it comes to music production, it’s all very subjective and sometimes even abstract. When we manipulate sound, we always rely on how we perceive it first, and only then can we check if the numbers are correct. And the problem is that you will have to develop a very powerful intuition before you can determine how much is too much and how many changes might be insignificant.
There are several ways to add width and depth to your mix, and they are all pretty much interchangeable or can all be used at the same time. When we talk about width in music production, what we really mean is how far apart relative elements of the mix are in the stereo field. For example, if you have a dual-track acoustic guitar and pan one channel all the way to the left and the other channel all the way to the right, you will get a recording with maximum width. So, as you can see, the most reliable and accurate way to achieve width in the mix is stereo panning.
Panning is the most important step in achieving a wide stereo image. Panning allows us to place individual instruments, or even certain instrument frequencies, in a certain place within the stereo image and expand it as needed. Panning decisions should always be made on the vision of the entire mix. We generally expect the mix to grow in its stereo image in the chorus or drop sections of songs, reserving a more laterally open position for instruments that appear exclusively in these sections.
As a general rule, here are some quick tips and rules for getting a good panning that gives width to the mix:
- Keep the bass level proportionate
- Don’t boost the lower frequencies more than necessary
- Maintain a balance between the left and right channels
Our brain naturally tries to center the stereo image, in order to keep the L and R channels balanced to avoid confusion in the phantom center (the sound we perceive as playing between the two speakers).
On many occasions, the key to a perception with a sensation of a stereo image is simply based on the fact that in the previous moments we were listening to the mix practically or totally in mono. DO NOT be afraid to leave some sections such as verses or bridges in mono, in order to increase the sensation when the section (drop or chorus) appears with stereo.
Pay close attention to the “presence zone” frequencies discussed earlier. Put the lead vocal in the center Keep the lead vocal or instrument in the center, unless you have a good reason not to.
When it comes to electric guitars or other instruments with a wide frequency spectrum, we can switch the EQ to a “side mode” and cut the bass drastically. Given a high shelf boost in the same mode will make the instrument sound much wider. And a slight low-end boost in “mid mode” will balance out the track. You can easily apply the same technique to the entire mix, either in conjunction with stereo panning or separately.
Interestingly, you can use the exact same techniques to achieve height in the mix. Although of the three dimensions, height in music production is the most abstract and sometimes quite confusing, it is nonetheless the easiest to achieve. There are two factors that you must take into account.
First of all, higher frequencies are much faster than lower frequencies due to their nature. Second, if you look closely at the speakers, you can see that the tweeter is at the top, and since it reproduces only the high frequencies, they will always be at the top relative to your listening position. So doing a very slight boost on the high shelf will make the mix seem a bit louder, and you can give it even more height with the addition of a relatively small low-end boost.
There are numerous ways on how to achieve depth in the mix, but we will focus on those that are the most used and therefore the most achievable. Of course, nothing can stop you from booking a professional recording studio with a huge arsenal of microphones and using three different microphone perspectives on each instrument. But since most of the time, we all have a tight budget and time constraints, this doesn’t seem like a plausible solution. Instead, you can record the instruments as dry as possible and apply some reverb.
Use reverb to give depth
There are a few approaches you can take that involve reverb. First of all, you can put a reverb on the separate aux track and route each instrument through it depending on how far away you want them to sound. The more reverb you apply, the farther away the instrument will sound. And obviously, the less reverb you apply, the closer it will seem.
Secondly, you can apply reverbs with different reflections to different instruments depending of course on how far you want them to be in the mix. Use a reverb with early reflections for the instruments that you think are necessary to be closer. And use a back-reflective reverb for instruments that need to be further away.
Using the same reverb type for this technique could make your mix more cohesive and healthier, but feel free to experiment with different reverb types. To save yourself some CPU power, you can combine those two techniques and put two reverbs with different reflections on two different aux tracks, then it’s just a matter of routing the tracks according to your vision of the mix.
Using delay to create the Haas effect
The Haas effect is a technique you use to create wider stereo delay images. It is excellent for creating stereo width, without changing the tonal qualities of the audio signal. To create it we just have to: Take a track and create a copy that we will delay (no more than 50 ms) from the original. A pan of the original track to the left and the delayed copy to the right.
This creates the perception of a single, wide, stereo track. Short delay times produce a perceived amplitude effect, without actually hearing the repeated signal. Be very careful with listening in mono and the loss of the phantom center that this technique naturally has.
Microshifting is a technique that combines a slight detuning of the voice or instrument, together with a small delay, which favors the stereo image, since these adjustments are different for each L&R channel. You have plugins like SoundToys MicroShift that can make it easy for you to experiment with this technique.
Here’s how it’s done: We take a hint. We duplicate that track twice (we will have three versions) the original in the center without pitch and in both copies, a different detune for each one, only a few hundredths of a pitch, while we separate them, one to the left speaker and the another to the right. Listening in stereo we will have a much larger image, but we must always be alert to possible phase cancellations that may exist when listening in mono.
Balance the mix
Of all the ways to add depth to the mix, balancing it is the simplest, but the most effective. We generally balance the mix according to the energy of each individual instrument and the role it plays in the arrangement.
But you can also adjust the volume of each instrument according to its position in space. The further away you want your instrument to be, the quieter you need to make it. And of course, the stronger you make it, the more closet it will look like.
Unfortunately, it couldn’t be that easy, and there are some nuances. Because different frequencies decay over distance differently, simply adjusting the volume of instruments is not enough. You’ll also have to do some tweaking with an equalizer here and there. If something is close to you, the less low-end it will have.
I hope this article has helped you understand how to create width, height, and depth in a blend. Simply put, to achieve width in the mix, you need to pan high-frequency tracks left and right, and place lower-frequency tracks in the middle. Using an equalizer with M/S capabilities could be useful as it could boost the high frequencies on the left and right channels and make the middle frequencies MONO.
To achieve height, do a slight high shelf boost, and to add depth, use reverbs, possibly with different types of reflections. Balancing the mix in a certain way and using transient shapers also helps a lot.
Stereo widening is key to elevating the mix to a higher quality and it’s also vital in ensuring that each track sits well in your mix and maximizes its potential to shine. We will find the greatest perception of stereo, after an instant of listening in mono, since the contrast will be greater.
The opportunity we have today to record a song with excellent quality with a tiny budget has never existed as in these days so TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT!