Stereo Widening – What, Why, How?

The concept of Stereo Widening isn't – at first – too hard to grasp. Making things sound wider, right? But the devil is in the detail and while it might sound appealing to have a huge wide soundscape, there are plenty of different ways to go about it. Not all of them will be right for every situation. So let us guide you through this oft-overlooked but important area of production....

Why would you want to do it? Well, it's all about making things sound bigger, or fuller. And this can help a mix sound more polished, professional, and exciting for the listener. Not to mention helping you achieve the artistic statement you're trying to put out – for instance if you're hoping to make a large soundscape, an all-encompassing reverb, or a swirling synth, you'll want it to sound wide and full, otherwise your tune might not convey what you want it to.

The most simple and effective way of making something sound wide is – and this might sound obvious – to make it wide in the first place. That means making sure there is plenty of stereo information present: for example if you're recording a vocal, record three takes, pan one version central, then one left and one right. It will sound big and full, and, importantly, natural. If you're using a synth, try doubling the channel – keep the main synth as it is, but add some stereo processing to the other (chorus, phase, etc) to the backup version and mix it in quietly.

The Haas Effect

As we said, there are plenty of ways to go about it. That's partly because our ears use lots of different ways to localise a sound source – which is great, because it gives us plenty of methods to try out. For example, our ears use timing; if a sound arrives at your left ear before the right ear, then the sound is probably to your left. This is the basis of 'the Haas Effect' and you can emulate this by doubling your channel, panning one left and one right, and inserting a very short delay on one channel; from 1 to 30 miliseconds (use a plugin or just the 'nudge' function). It will make the sound move towards the other channel. This can be very effective, but you could be setting yourself up for phase issues if you sum things to mono. Which is something you should always be checking!

One technique that will avoid phase issues is using a frequency based stereo spreader – like the one that comes with Logic. These use a very simple concept; pick frequency bands, and pan one left, the next one right. So, for example, anything between 100 and 200 Hz goes left, 200 to 300 goes to the right, and so on. It's not a complicated system, so it's very CPU-friendly. It's also perfectly mono-compatible, but the main problem is that it just doesn't sound very natural – so it's best for use in background sounds such as reverb and delay tails, phasers and so on.

You can also experiment with Mid/Side processing, too. This is a technique that splits a signal into two components; the stuff that is central and the stuff that is not. That way, you can process them differently. The easiest way of using this to make something sound wider is to just turn up the 'side' channels, leaving the middle untouched. This should keep any phase issues to a minimum. You can also use it for background noises to do the opposite – turn down the 'mid' channel – so that a spacious reverb won't interfere too much with your lead sounds.

Even simple EQ can be used; by splitting a source and EQ'ing each side differently, you can subtly enhance the width of the sound. Try a gentle treble boost on one side, and cut on the other side. The perception of the stereo picture will shift noticeably, and some EQ's will even let you tweak different sides of a stereo channel independently.

We mentioned it recently, but it still bears repeating – try not to have too much stereo action going on in the lower frequencies (below about 300Hz), as this will not translate well to vinyl, and indeed the mastering engineer may even mono the bottom end of your mix anyway!

So, now you've seen some of the tricks of the trade, how about some shortcuts? All of these tips can be done in almost any current DAW, but to experiment with each one and get proficient in each method takes time, effort, and lots of attention to detail. So why not splash out on a plugin that specialises in stereo widening, and can pull in any one of these techniques with the press of a preset? We've picked out a few of the choice options below:

Nugen Audio Stereoizer

 

One of the more powerful stereo plugs out there, Stereoizer is an award-winning plug that covers the whole range of stereo enhancement, from boosting a mono signal to mastering level precision tweaking - but with a minimum of phase or mono issues.

PSP StereoPack

From the legendary PSP stable comes this pack of four stereo tools to enhance, control and analyse the stereo image of your mix – at an absolute bargain of a price point.

Tone2 Akustix Enhancer

They might not know how to spell, but they can certainly code a decent stereo enhancement plug. This takes six different tools and puts them into an extremely user-friendly interface that makes detailed tweaks as simple as you could ever need. It's also superb value for money.



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