Fig. 1. MOTU Digital Performer 8’s Precision Delay plug-in shifts one channel of a stereo acoustic guitar track forward in time roughly 3 ms, creating a huge stereo image. A HUGE-SOUNDING recording has many crucial qualities, one of which is a wide stereo image. How do the best-sounding mixes paint such a broad expanse? Stereo-imaging plug-ins can help immensely, but use them recklessly and you’ll get a ghosty, unfocused sound. Another strategy is to hard-pan tracks, but a careless approach here will make the mix sound lopsided.
In this article, I’ll show you how to create a mammoth soundscape using smart techniques and powerful plug-ins. The nub is to understand how frequency and time affect our perception of width.
Take Direction Bass frequencies are omnidirectional: The lower a tone’s frequency, the more difficult it is to tell from which direction it’s emanating. Therefore, hardpanning a bass-heavy instrument—while possibly an interesting choice for other creative reasons—won’t greatly change its perceived directionality and make your mix sound significantly wider when listening on external speakers. But because bass frequencies pack a lot more energy than highs, shunting them to one side of the mix could make your production sound off-kilter.
High frequencies, on the other hand, are highly directional. When you hard-pan a cymbal or shaker, you can readily discern from which speaker it’s issuing forth. Add high frequencies to hard-panned tracks—and cut their bass frequencies—to increase their directionality and make your mix sound wider. Just be careful not to apply too much equalization, or your production will sound strident.
You can use the foregoing principles with the Brainworx bx_digital V2 mid-side equalizer to create über-wide mixes. Place the plug-in on a stereo mix. Raise the Mono Maker control to strip bass frequencies from the side channel and steer them into the mid channel, thereby panning the bottom end of your recording dead center. Doing so prevents low frequencies in the kick, bass, guitar, and keyboard tracks from masking high frequencies in tracks that are panned hard-left and -right, increasing the perceived directionality of the panned tracks. Increase the mix’s stereo width further by equalizing the side channel to slightly enhance its high frequencies. Bump up the plug-in’s stereo width control to raise the side channel’s level, making the mix sound wider still. Don’t overdo it, though, or center-panned kick, bass and vocals will sound too quiet and the mix will become too reverberant.
iZotope Alloy 2 includes an Exciter module you can use to somewhat similar effect. Set the bass band’s width control to -1.0 to make the bottom end mono. Leave the midrange band’s width set to 0.0 (unchanged), and boost the high-frequency band’s width above 0.0 to make the mix sound wider. The company’s Ozone 5 plug-in includes a Stereo Imaging module—outfitted with a separate width control for each frequency band— which you can use in similar fashion to widen your mix.
Rather than widening a stereo mix as a whole, it often sounds better to apply stereo widening to just one or two discrete tracks. The Stereo Imaging module in the flagship Ozone 5 Advanced plug-in includes a Stereoizer function that widens even mono tracks. It sounds terrific on acoustic guitar and keys.
Put It Off Until Later You can make a stereo track for an instrument sound wider simply by adding a short delay—no more than several milliseconds—to one channel. Because sound travels roughly 1 foot per millisecond, every millisecond of delay in the right channel fools the brain into thinking the source is producing the sound a foot farther off to the right compared to where it is radiating from on the left. The longer the delay, the wider the composite sound seems to be. And if the delay causes a misalignment of phase between the two channels, the resulting attenuation of bass frequencies will make the left and right signals sound even more directional and discrete, adding to the perception that they are wide apart.
MOTU Digital Performer 8 (DP) includes a terrific new plug-in, Precision Delay, which you can use to add delay to one side of a stereo track (or shift it forward in time; see Fig. 1). Precision Delay’s raison d’être is aligning two or three mic channels to prevent phase cancellations, but you can misuse the plug-in to intentionally misalign a stereo track in order to widen the composite sound. My favorite application is using Precision Delay on a stereo acoustic guitar track. I instantiate the plug-in on the right channel, bus the left channel into the plug-in’s side chain (while also keeping it routed to the mix bus) and hard-pan both channels in DP’s mixer. While the track is playing back, I click Precision Delay’s Align button repeatedly; the plug-in will perform a different alignment with each click. Usually within several clicks, serendipity causes a wonderful misalignment—totally mono compatible— that makes the track sound wider than the Titanic.
Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Oregon (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording), and a contributing editor for Mix magazine.