We all want our mixes to have a wide, three-dimensional stereo image.
But it can be HARD to achieve this effect.
Sometimes our mixes feel small and narrow, like everything’s sitting right in the middle of the speakers. And regardless of how skilled we are at mixing, we often still struggle to fix this problem.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. But don’t worry, because this article will help. Below, you’ll discover 7 simple tips you can immediately apply to achieve a wider, more expansive stereo image in any mix. And with a wider stereo image, your mixes will instantly sound more professional.
But before we dive in, one of the fastest ways to improve your mixes is to avoid the biggest mixing mistakes. These mistakes routinely hold even my best students back from crafting mixes that sound radio-ready.
That’s why I put together a free eBook packed with 35 of the biggest mixing mistakes. Once you know what they are, you can easily avoid them and improve your mixes today.
Click the link below to download this free eBook now:
Okay…let’s dive in!
Tip #1: Use Hard Panning
I often see producers adding stereo widening plugins on their mix bus and individual tracks. But when I look at the pan knobs in their session, I notice that all of them are tucked in. None of the tracks are panned beyond 60 or 70% to the left or right.
This doesn’t make any sense. Why not maximize your stereo image by using the pan knobs first, before you reach for stereo widening plugins?
This means using hard left and right panning on at least a few of the tracks in your mix. This simple shift will help you achieve the widest stereo image possible without any fancy plugins.
Some mixers prefer a panning technique called LCR, where the only panning positions they’ll use are 100% left, center, and 100% right. LCR panning can lead to a wider stereo image, and it’s worth trying if you’re looking for wider mixes. This approach is used by many famous mixers, including Chris Lord-Alge, who’s worked on some fantastic rock records.
Tip #2: Double-Track Parts
If you record an electric guitar track only once, chances are you’ll only have a single mono track to work with in your mix. This doesn’t give you many options when it comes to creating a wide stereo image.
Often times, a better choice is to double-track the part. This is when you record two separate versions of the same performance on different tracks. You can use the same instrument and mic for each performance, or switch things up to create more tonal contrast (see tip #3 below).
In the mixing process, you can pan one of these tracks to the left and the other to the right. The subtle differences between the left and right performances will make your mix sound wider.
Double-tracking is a very common practice. It’s often used on guitars and background vocals, and it can be an easy way to add some serious width to your stereo image.
Tip #3: Create Tonal Contrast
For a mix to sound wide, there must be a difference between the sound that’s coming out of the left and right speakers. If the sound coming out of the left and right speakers is identical, there will be no stereo width.
This means that to make our stereo image wider, we need to create differences between the left and right sides of our mix.
One way to do this is by creating tonal contrast. If we can create a different balance of frequencies on the left and right sides of our mix, our mix will feel wider.
For example, if you have two electric guitar tracks that were both recorded with the same guitar and amp, they probably sound pretty similar. If you pan them hard left and hard right, you’ll still feel like the mix is wide because the performances are slightly different. But if you create a difference in tone between these two tracks, the mix will feel even wider.
To do this, you might EQ the guitar on the right to sound a little brighter, and the one on the left to sound darker. Or you could add a slight boost in the upper midrange on the left guitar, but cut that same area on the right guitar.
By creating subtle tonal differences between the left and right sides of your mix, you can easily add width to your stereo image.
Tip #4: Alter Stereo Width From Section To Section
One of the things that makes music impactful is contrast. For a section to sound loud, another section has to sound quiet. Without this contrast, the loud section won’t sound loud. Music works on the basis of this contrast, and it’s an essential part of what makes music effective.
The same can be said when it comes to your stereo image.
If you want your mix to sound wide, it’s important that there are parts of your track that sound narrow. The narrow parts will create the contrast your mix needs to sound wide when the stereo width kicks in.
You can create this contrast by varying your panning from section to section. You might want to tuck the pan knobs in during the verses, for example, to keep things narrow. When the chorus hits, you can have tracks kick in that are panned hard left and hard right. This sudden shift in contrast will create a feeling of stereo width.
I use this effect quite often in my mixing process. You can listen to an example on my mix of Madilyn Bailey’s track “Wiser” below.
Notice how in the first bar of the intro, all of the tracks are panned to center. When the verse kicks in, the mix expands to stereo and the track feels much wider by comparison. It’s the moment of smallness in the intro that makes the moment of bigness in the verse so much more impactful.
Tip #5: Use Stereo Effects
Proper use of stereo effects can add an impressive but natural sense of width to your stereo image.
One of my favorite effects for this purpose is a stereo delay set with different delay times on the left and right channels. For example, you can use a quarter-note delay on the left side, and a dotted-eighth-note delay on the right.
This effect will create contrast between the left and right sides of your mix, and the result will be a feeling of width and dimension. This often works well on vocals.
You can also use reverb to create a wider stereo image. Experiment with several different reverb plugins and presets to find ones that sound the widest to you. There will often be key differences in width from plugin to plugin.
Some reverb plugins provide you with a stereo width control. Bump this up to add more spread to the stereo image. Just make sure the effect doesn’t completely fall apart when you listen to your mix in mono.
Tip #6: Take Advantage Of The Haas Effect
The Haas effect says that when a sound is followed shortly afterwards by a delayed version of that same sound, our ear will fuse the two copies of the sound together and hear them as a single unit. However, the delayed sound will add a sense of depth or spaciousness to the original sound.
You can use this effect to easily add more width to your stereo image. Here’s how to pull it off:
- If you have a single track in your mix that you want to sound wider, pan the original track over to one side of your mix.
- Duplicate the track and pan the duplicate over to the other side of your mix.
- Add a delay plugin on the duplicate track.
- Set the delay to a time less than 40 milliseconds.
Notice how the two tracks suddenly sound wider. You can take a listen to this effect below (audio taken from Leah Capelle’s song “Joshua”)
You have to be careful with this effect, as it can often sound pretty crummy when summed down to mono. I always prefer double-tracking over the Haas effect, as it usually sounds more natural. But if you’re in a pinch and can’t record an additional take, or just want to try something different, the Haas effect can be a powerful tool to create a wider stereo image.
Tip #7: Use Stereo Imaging Plugins Sparingly
I saved this for last because it’s usually what people reach for first.
I prefer NOT to use stereo imaging plugins if I don’t have to. And by applying the tips above, I rarely need them.
When I do use them, I find stereo imaging plugins most useful on individual tracks, rather than across the mix bus. You have to be careful, as these tools can create phase problems that mess up your mix and make things sound terrible in mono.
If you still find you’re looking for more width after applying the tips above, try adding a stereo imaging plugin to one or two tracks in your mix. Synths and pads often benefit from these types of effects.
My favorite stereo imaging plugin is Waves’ PS22. It works by creating tonal differences between the left and right channels, which won’t create any phase issues.
If you decide to use a stereo imaging plugin on your mix bus, be careful. If you’re using a plugin that offers separate control over widening in different areas of the frequency spectrum, consider turning it off in the low end, as you usually don’t need it there. And make sure to check your mix in mono so you can avoid messing things up.
Wrapping Things Up
You should now be well-equipped to achieve a wide, three-dimensional stereo image in your next mix. But if you’re ready to take your mixes further, one of the fastest ways to do so is to avoid the biggest mixing mistakes. This will immediately improve the quality of your tracks.
I put together a free eBook that covers 35 of the biggest mixing mistakes. Once you learn what they are, you’ll be able to easily avoid them and level up your mixes today.
You can download this free eBook here:
Before you go, which of these 7 stereo imaging tips was most useful to you? Leave a comment below and let me know.