Music Tutorials

Mixing in Stere-ereo

Dr Sheldon Cooper
Dr Sheldon Cooper

In my my last post in this series I talked about how mixing bass isn’t always the way you think it should be at first. Tricky stuff physics. BUT never fear because Physics is actually a very logical and predictable fellow so we can fool him into doing our bidding.

In this post we will talk just a bit about Stereoness; or the act of making things seem more wide, broad or deep in a mix. Sounds dull. Well yes in some ways it is but in many ways a song without any stereo will sound dull too so you gotta do some – or Madonna’s latest song will sound better than yours (curses not again).

These days every DAW environment comes with more tools than you can poke a pokin’-stick at, with the offer of more to come. Each one offers to better your mix in some special way that noting before could ever do. Pfffft.

The more and more processing of everything offered in the average DAW can only create confusion in the listener (or mush). Decide what has to take the lead at the moment and process that accordingly.

Let’s take a step back. Mixing music is often contrary to what you initially think because it is all an illusion. There is no band, no room, no near or far, none of the messages that you would get if you were actually in the room with a band and singer out front. Even a 5.1 microphone in that room wouldn’t give as much information as you standing there for 3 seconds.

Let’s illustrate with a history lesson:

Glenn Miller Band
Glenn Miller Band

When Glenn Miller needed his horn section to really cut in a busy ballroom he made ’em stand up and point their horns at the ceiling to bounce the sound forward. Visually it told dancers that the horns were gonna blow and it stopped them from blowing into the backs of the guys in front, wasting their horny energy. When their bit was done they sat back down (maybe to have a cigarette) and someone else stood up.

Even where the guys sat was structured to provide better separation and cohesion based on need. Rhythm section stood together near the middle, melodies and counter melodies left and right and the singer right up front. Back-up singers were in the back. Even a Metal band still copies some of this whether they think on it or not.

I have Roxy Music’s “More Than This” (from Avalon) on right now and that is a mix that was renown for width, depth and overall loveliness. Listen carefully and many of the instruments don’t sound super stereo, it is just some sound that really spread out like the London fog the album mixing was compared to.

Stereotomy – a vivisection

So lets take our imaginary Glenn Miller Band with Ozzy Osbourne out front singing “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”. That’s a cool song. Ok so the The Ozzman has to commeth out the front so initially we aren’t going to do much past popping some reverb on him. That takes the edge off him sounding like he is singing up our nose. Bit too intimate that is, so a modicum of reverb gives a sense of being in a room and some distance away. Too much and Ozzy sounds like he has goeth and that’s not what we wanteth.

Wake Me Up Before You Go Go
Wake Me Up Before You Go Go

Now we might look at the drums and bass. Always keep these together as they are the grounding of our song. They aren’t really the heart of it no matter what you think as that is the singer and melody but they are definitely the backbone and legs. Generally we don’t want to do much to the kick drum and bass in the way of stereo as the backbone is generally better left in the middle of the body or walking gets hard. Being an 80’s song we could go all stereo on the bass but we won’t today.

But we probably want to widen some other elements of the drums and so with the Snare we will add a bit more reverb to make it fill that space. Just like with the vocal we don’t want too much. As you add reverb you may need to add a little volume. But don’t overdo it as drums that are too loud destroy a mix. Heresy I hear you cry. Cry all you like but I bet you will be person crying when your mix don’t work.

We want to add a tiny bit more space into our drums so pan the High Hats just off center. Don’t drag them to the extremes unless you have a special effect in mind, and it better be a good one or the listener will be doing aural tennis-watching for 3.5 minutes and that won’t be fun. What is fun is to hard pan Toms. There is little like a Tom Roll that travels across the mix. Mr Miller approves so pan your toms hard left and hard right.  What this does is create movement as well as letting the toms cut through during busy times. Unless you are mixing Keith Moon (unlikely now) then Toms don’t play all the time so the extreme panning won’t get tiring.

Ozzy Osbourne
Ozzy Osbourne

Now to the rest of the music, We have melodies and counter melodies from guitars and synths, and then we have blarty brass bits and finally some back-up girleens to make Ozzy sound like he can sing. Did I just say that out loud?

Take the guitars one and two and pan them about 50% left and right. If you leave Tipton & Downing standing on top of each other they will fight. Let each of their equally brilliant guitar lines have space to play in. Should they be stereo? We live in a modern world so yes. But we don’t want them to be too stereo so maybe decrease the stereo-width (your DAW has that knob doesn’t it). Now you got action on both sides of the drum-bone.

Glen Tipton & KK Downing
Glen Tipton & KK Downing

Keep the keyboards close to the backbone so everything sounds centered but in this case the string pads can be as wide as you like so they seem to flow around the rest of the music and make a lovely landscape.

The Girleens. Well they can play either the same role as the guitars or the string pads depending on what they are doing. Back-up vocals are important in most mixes as they build a full vocal sound so don’t drown them. Make sure they are tastefully draped across the background with strategically placed reverb to push up their assets (voices of course).

You should now have a mix that sounds simple and clean yet spatially engaging. Please don’t mix every track like this as formulas lead to boredom. Every piece of music will have its differences (needed or why would we ever buy another record) so take each track on its merits and play to them and hide the weaknesses.

But you are still complaining. Turns out KK only brought one cord so his guitar is in ikky ole Mono. No width at all. What to do? Should you widen something? Yes or no as it depends entirely on the situation. Now recall I said right up top that you don’t always do what you think to get the result you want? Course you do, you hang off every word I write and now I’m going to have to write another article.

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