Stereo Imaging: How to Make Your Mix Sound Wide

Stereo imaging is what creates the sense of width and depth in music mixing. Good stereo image is an essential quality of a good mix— and a good listening chain.

But getting a wide, enveloping mix that feels 3D and draws people in is difficult.

In this article I’ll go through everything you need to know about stereo imaging and how to get a wide, three dimensional sound in your mix.

What is stereo imaging?

Stereo imaging is the quality and realism of the soundstage created by the left and right speakers in a listening system.

Stereo imaging is the quality and realism of the soundstage created by the left and right speakers in a listening system.

It’s the sensation of an imaginary plane where your sounds are situated in space.

A mix or listening system has good stereo imaging if distinct instruments in the texture can be easily traced to a distinct “spot” in the stereo field.

The width, depth and 3D aspect of the overall stereo spread also contribute to a strong sense of stereo imaging.

How to get a wide stereo image in your mix

Mixing a track with great stereo imaging is hard, but you’ll have much more control over your stereo information if you understand basic ways to create width.

Here are the main ways to give your mix a wide stereo image

  • Record stereo signals correctly at the source
  • Use mono and stereo tracks appropriately
  • Don’t be afraid to pan mono sources wide
  • Avoid stereo widening effects on your master bus, but use ambience effects on mono tracks where needed to add depth and realism.

I’ll go through each approach and explain how it works.

Get it right at the source

An important factor for good stereo imaging is to capture your stereo sources correctly.

If you’re trying to recreate an accurate stereo image of an acoustic sound, you’ll have to get it right at the source.

It’s very difficult to change the stereo characteristics of a recording after the fact.

It’s very difficult to change the stereo characteristics of a recording after the fact.

With most stereo techniques, you’re limited to the stereo image that you record in the moment.

Focus on getting a compelling stereo image as you lay your tracks down.

Hot tip: Mid/side micing is one of the few techniques where it’s possible to change the recording’s stereo image even after you’ve captured the material.

By adjusting the blend of the side mic relative to the mid mic, you can adjust the “width” (or the proportion of indirect sound) to taste.

Know when to use stereo and mono tracks

It may seem like using more stereo tracks would give you a wider mix.

In fact, it’s almost the opposite.

Too many stereo tracks can cause your individual instruments to sound ambiguous in the stereo field.

It can also lead to collapse in situations where your mix is summed completely or partially to mono.

A wide-sounding mix is composed of a variety of stereo tracks and mono sources panned in different positions—including the extreme ends of the spectrum.

Sources with natural stereo spread like drum overheads, piano or room mics are good candidates for stereo tracks.

Think twice about recording sources in stereo if they don’t contain naturally occurring stereo information.

Pan wide

Beginning and intermediate engineers are often conservative with their panning.

This can cause their mixes to sound narrow and too focused around the center of the stereo field.

The solution is extremely easy—pan your sources wide!

Don’t be afraid to push tracks out to the extremes. A wide mix always has at least a few sounds out at the edges.

Don’t be afraid to push tracks out to the extremes. A wide mix always has at least a few sounds out at the edges.

At first it may seem a little jarring to leave a mono track out in a remote region of the stereo field, but take a moment to do some critical mix referencing.

You might find that mono sources in professional mixes are placed wider than you think.

Stereo widening plugins

Many plugins promise to magically make your mix sound wider and more 3D.

The reality is they may be doing more harm than good.

These types of plugins typically work by introducing short delays or other types of time-domain trickery.

They may create the illusion of extra width, but the trade-offs are simply not worth it.

Delays and time-domain shifts create differences in phase between the left and right channels. That means that if your mix gets summed to mono, those out of phase components will cancel each other out.

When will my mix ever be summed to mono you ask? It happens more than you might think.

Any situation where your music is heard on playback systems with minimal stereo separation increases the possibility of these negative effects.

I’m talking about systems like phones, bluetooth speakers and laptop speakers—there’s a lot of people who use them as their main playback system for audio

It can result in a hollow, scooped out sound with much less punch and definition.

Avoid using plugins with purported stereo widening effects on your entire mix.

Mono to stereo

With that out of the way, not all artificial stereo is bad.

Creating stereo signals from mono sources using methods like chorus, delay or reverb is a good strategy for situating them better in your mix.

Experiment with the pan position of your effects sends as well as the L-R balance of their returns.

Matching the pan position of your reverb send with the source’s dry signal will establish its position concretely in the stereo field.

Matching the pan position of your reverb send with the source’s dry signal will establish its position concretely in the stereo field

Placing the send and dry signal in opposite directions can create interesting mismatched spaces.

Stereo imagining

Stereo imaging is a key aspect of a great mix. Getting it right is easy if you know the factors that contribute to mixing well in stereo.

Use these tips to get a wide, 3D stereo image in your mixes.

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