Mixing in Stere-ereo – conclusion


In part one we started to look at stereo in a mix and the idea of width and panning to create the illusion of space and depth in our imaginary song space. We finished just as the band had all pissed off to the pub to get blotto (and the girls pregnant). At this point we found that the dang guitarist had only brought his mono guitar cable and all his parts weren’t in stereo at all (that’s why KK had to be kicked out –  just not Rocka Rolla enough). What to do?

First thing The Rules: stereo only exists in the mix. It is tempting to have every instrument in your mix stereo-d out to the edges of infinity (and beyond) but that is not the way the world works. Forget making stereo decisions in Solo and only adjust stereo issues in the mix.

Making Stereo where there was none

Now let’s say that panning the guitars left and right wasn’t enough to stereate our mix and we wanted one of those mono guitar takes to spread out like a Pink Floyd riff in an arena full of stoned private school kids. There are lots of things you can do – each with it’s strengths and weaknesses:

  • Phase invert – copy the sound and invert the phase of the right channel to create immediate wide sound but is a danger to people”s sense of balance, especially if you swap it tin the middle of the song – take the transition effect in “Big Bang Theory” as proof.
  • Haas effect – this is the old saw of the lot. Pan the original signal to the left and add a delayed copy of the signal to the right channel. If you use only a few milliseconds then sudden pseudo-stereo. Problem is that you are constantly having the listener play ping pong with the constant left-right bounce as the right channel is always late.
  • Ping Pong Delay – like Haas above but bounces the delayed signal left right or right left. Not for every situation but can work nicely without overdoing things.
  • EQ – make a copy of the signal, pan the pair and EQ each differently so that some frequencies are dominant on the left and some on the right. If I do this I tend to cut and boost the same frequencies by the same amounts on opposite channels but in inverse so if I boost 2kHz by 2db on the left I cut 2kHz by 2db on the right to avoid making unwanted lumps and bumps in the sound. You generally want to be subtle with this.
  • Modulated Effects – Chorus, Phaser, Flanger etc are all contenders for making a pseudo-stereo field. Generally they all do it with the same method of running two LFOs and adjusting the phase of one so as one side goes up the other goes down. Super wide but best to take care with overusing. I prefer units that allow the user to control the phase offset of the LFOs and therefore sense of stereo.
  • Pitch shifting – make a copy, pan and adjust the tuning of one or both for instant wideness, but it will chorus too.
  • Unison – unisons tend to be made from a combination of several of the above. I have made several that rely on 4 Delay lines with 4 LFOs with a locked rate and 4 phase offsets so that as Delay 1 is up, Delay 2 is down and Delays 3 & 4 are the same but half way through the cycle of the fist two (0, 180, 90, 270 degrees). This means that there is very little of the swish of a chorus as effectively you hear three versions of the sound: original, high & low )plus the other pitches as the delay LFOs/pitches rise and fall). If panned out then you get a really big sound.
  • Stereo Widener – these units generally only work on pre-existing stereo and make it seem wider. I won’t say don’t use em but take care as anything that you don’t understand may in fact turn out to be evil. Rest assured the under the marketing hype (and pretty graphics) it is using at least one of the methods above.
  • Reverb – most reverb units spit out stereo based on one or more of the above methods so seeing as you are using reverb already then you have a sense of room stereo anyway.
  • Play it again – this one most people forget in their rush to find a trick solution. If you get the performer to take another run through or twelve and have recorded them all (as you should have) then you have all you need to create a human host. Just be sure to put the best one up front in the mix.

Mono compatibility: whichever method you use just be sure to check mono comparability as when you collapse pseudo-stereo back to mono you can easily find there are some embarrassing cancellations and half your line evaporates.

Why Stereo can be your enemy

Mr T says
Mr T says

Now in the rules above I said build stereo in the mix and not whilst Soloed. Great, but interestingly just about every preset and Chorus device defaults to a big wide stereo sound. Sounds great when that is the only sound but the mix muddies up really fast with everything happening out in the fringes with millions of complex swirly patterns. You you got it: Mush.

Thankfully most decent consoles with have a de-stereo knob called width, either turn it down or pull out the right wire so you can start with mono and only add width where your mix needs it. Note I didn’t say where you need it as I know you think you need stereo on everything and then a stereo widener effect to gum up the masters too.

K.I.S.S. – it’s up to you who you serve

I used to mix with one effect unit (an Alesis Quadraverb) for everything (EQ>Chorus>Delay>Reverb) and three Sub-Mixes from my Emu Emax II;

  1. Drums & Bass:  just a smidge
  2. Semi-Effected – half signal
  3. Full Mix – the full and proper effect mix

I had to decide if an instrument was one or the other. It was brutally simple but it worked. When I listen back to those mixes there is no sense of the music being inferior, matter of fact I think they sound “comfortable”. What I think this did was put almost all my chorusing and pseudo-stereoification into the one unit so that while most sounds in the mix were effected, they were effected in the same way.

Recently I have found myself doing something similar without realizing it. I have made some 70’s style reverb and delay units with delay lines and LFOs (using techniques from above yet not pushing the stereo thing). With just a pair of them on a couple of Send Busses my mixes seem nice, clear and open whilst being warm and comfortable.

Maybe I wouldn’t record a symphony this way (but not likely to need to try as von Karajan doesn’t take my calls, seems being dead has made him less than sociable these days). But hey, an orchestra does exactly this already as there is just one effect unit adding stereoness and that is the room.

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