Square One: Stereo Creativity

LEARN ABOUT UNCONVENTIONAL BUT USERFUL STEREO MIXING TECHNIQUESBONUS MATERIALWeb Clips: Click for audio clips and videos that accompany the March 2008 issue of EM.
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LEARN ABOUT UNCONVENTIONAL BUT USERFUL STEREO MIXING TECHNIQUESBONUS MATERIALWeb Clips: Click for audio clips and videos that accompany the March 2008 issue of EM.
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FIG. 1: Using a stereo-miking technique on a setup as simple as a single acoustic guitar can produce interesting results.
Credit: Dave Simons

One of the secrets to recording success is to avoid doing the usual thing, and rethinking your approach to stereo placement is a great place to start. Common sense (and most audio textbooks) tells us to put drums, bass, and lead vocals down the middle, and guitars and keyboards to the side. But is it really necessary to mix that way all the time? Of course not — and with a little ingenuity and a willingness to experiment, you can easily break out of the same old stereo mold.

First of all, it helps to think of your mix in visual terms. Good engineers treat the mix as though it's a painting. Not only do they instinctively know where to place each part on the stereo landscape, but they also use processing and equalization to add definition to the individual components once those are in the desired location. Creating a pan portrait that has as much distinction and coloration as some of your all-time favorite mixes should be your objective from the outset.

One thing to keep in mind before you start messing with the knobs is that you want to maintain a proper balance — that is, no matter where you decide to place the various parts, the L level should be consistent with the R level. (You'll know right away if your balance is out of whack by glancing at the master output LEDs during mixdown.)

In this column, I'll look at some of the usual suspects in a typical mix and discuss ways to arrange them across the stereo field.

Drums

Though the digital domain has made it possible to devote an endless number of tracks to the percussion parts alone, many studio pros still believe that nothing sounds hotter than drums in mono. “Quite often, the drums don't sound as big if they're placed across the stereo field,” insists veteran engineer Roy Halee, who has mixed tracks for the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and the Lovin' Spoonful. “I find that kind of arrangement very distracting, which is why I never believed in isolating every single drum or putting gates on — things like that. If anything, I've just done left center and right center. And with room sound around it, using an ambient mic. And in a lot of cases, straight mono.”

“I really prefer mono drums,” says Jon Brion, producer for Kanye West, Aimee Mann, and others. “For years I was the butt of many jokes — you know, ‘What are you trying to do, some retro thing?’ But I actually thought it sounded better. Especially when using tube mics, which can make it sound larger than life.”

As an experiment the next time out, try assembling all of your drum parts in a single track, taking care to keep the kick and snare good and prominent. Don't be surprised if you find that your mono drums have considerably more punch than the stereo version. What's more, having drums in mono allows you to experiment even further by moving the track around in the stereo field, including radical placement such as hard left or hard right. This has the added benefit of making the path that much wider for the main instrumentation (see Web Clips 1 and 2). If you decide on doing a conventional stereo mix, try to stay faithful to the layout of the kit (snare, slightly right of center; high toms, slightly right; floor tom, left; and so on).

Stereo Guitars

A simple recording involving acoustic guitar and voice certainly narrows the available stereo-placement options, but with a little extra effort you can create something interesting nonetheless. For instance, if the song has just one acoustic guitar, consider recording the instrument using a pair of directional mics — that is, one aimed at the top of the neck near the 12th fret and the other just below the sound hole. Then pan each signal at about 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock, respectively (see Fig. 1). You can use this same approach for miking an acoustic piano. Place the mics under the lid — anywhere from a few inches to a foot or more away from the hammers, pointed downward and slightly toward the back — then pan the two tracks evenly, and, if necessary, rebalance the levels to achieve uniform volume.

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FIG. 2: If you place the mics properly, you can create an effective stereo mix of a mono electric guitar.
Credit: Dave Simons

Better yet, lay down a second guitar part, because any differentiation in sound, feel, and performance will provide the best stereo contrast. One common approach involves using a capo: if your basic track has a G progression, for example, you could try a second pass in D (capo 5), E (capo 3), C (capo 7), or any other key-equivalent position that uses open-string chords. You could also try tuning the second guitar down a whole step, so that a song in the key of D is played using an E-based progression.

Acoustic guitars with an above-average bottom end (such as Martins or other large-bodied dreadnoughts) are often problematic when placed in the same position as the bass. However, you can easily alleviate such frequency clashes by hard-panning the acoustic, which will widen the path for the bass track. Dropping some of the low end will add definition, too.

The 2-mic method works nicely for stereo-mixing a mono electric guitar as well. When recording, place one mic (such as a Shure SM57) a few inches from the amp's grille cloth, then suspend a second mic (ideally a condenser, but anything will do) on a boom stand at least 6 feet back from the amp (see Fig. 2). When mixing, pan each track to taste; the farther apart in the stereo field, the more live the sound will seem.

As an alternate approach, you could try panning an electric-guitar part to one side, and then adding a splash of stereo reverb with the return slightly delayed, so the wet signal “jumps” to the opposite channel. This also works great on electric keyboard (see Web Clips 3 and 4).

Vocals

Rather than putting both lead- and background-vocal parts right down the middle, pan the backgrounds just slightly left of center (around the 11 o'clock position), then set the lead-vocal track to the opposing position. Having just that much space between the parts will allow the vocals to breathe and add definition as well. If you have layered the background vocals, consider spreading the separate tracks across the stereo field. Start hard left and hard right, then gradually move each part toward the center until you achieve the right balance (of course, there is nothing wrong with stacked backgrounds in mono, either).

Double-tracking the lead vocal is a time-honored technique, but for something a little different, take your first vocal and pan it completely to one side. Then, using your track-copy tool, make a duplicate on a separate track that's panned to the opposite side, setting the copied part a few milliseconds apart from the first. The result will give the impression of two slightly different vocals coming out of each speaker.

I Wanna Be Separated

Though the masters of audio regularly tell us to keep the bass centered and avoid putting vocals on the edge, some of the best-sounding records have ignored conventional wisdom, and so can you. Take the Ramones' self-titled debut album, for instance, in which everything save the drums is panned one way or the other. Dee Dee Ramone's bass is panned hard left (!), Johnny's guitar hard right, and Joey's double-tracked vocals are evenly split — one per channel.

When tracking, try not to clutter. Instead, focus on the main ingredients (rhythm guitar, bass, and percussion), adding more instrumentation only as needed. It'll make the job of arranging the parts across the stereo field that much easier.

Though your mix might sound great when you're sitting in the sweet spot between a nice set of monitors, be sure to preview it through several different sources. For example, listen through a conventional stereo system and a boombox and in the car.

Use your effects-send controls to add different levels and types of effects to the individual passages — a short delay on the lead vocal, some thick echo on the backing vocals, a delayed stereo reverb on the panned mono drum track. The same goes for EQ — carefully adjust the tone controls for each track to ensure that your parts are well defined and don't sonically clash with one another in the final mix. Finally, always mix at a nominal volume level to make sure that you hear the parts clearly and get the right perspective for stereo placement.

Of course, some of your experiments in stereo will turn out better than others. Still, I don't know how many times I've gone back and reworked what was initially a useless piece of recorded garbage and wound up with a halfway-decent new master. The point is that you should never be afraid to revisit your old mixes with a new attitude. Doing so can work wonders.

Dave Simons is a faculty adviser with BMI's online resource centerSongwriter101.com. He is the author of Studio Stories: How the Great New York Records Were Made (Backbeat Books, 2004) and Analog Recording: Using Analog Gear in Today's Home Studio (Backbeat Books, 2006).

Additional Resources

Sound on Sound article on how to improve your stereo mixing

The Complete Mixing Guide from Musician University

Mixing techniques

BONUS MATERIAL
Web Clips: Click for audio clips and videos that accompany the March 2008 issue of EM.