Stereo imaging refers to the width of a track, bus, or your entire mix. There are a number of plugins which work to affect the width of these elements to narrow or expand upon how much two dimensional stereo space it takes up in the field. Let’s cover how we can use stereo imaging to create a fuller sounding mix.
Let’s begin by identifying more about what stereo imaging even is. As the name suggests, stereo imaging involves manipulating tracks within the stereo image, that is the stereo field.
What is Stereo Imaging
The stereo field refers to the full width of the left to the center to the right sides of your mix. As I covered in my audio panning guide, we can use panning to create separation in the mix. By panning the various tracks and instruments which make up our mix in different locations relative to one another in the stereo field, this creates a more open and consequently cleaner mix.
As I mentioned in opening, stereo imaging plugins are about the width of a track, bus, or the entire mix. They can be used to widen or thin out one of these elements at will.
While most DAWs come with a stock stereo imaging plugin, I like the free Imager plugin from Izotope:
By moving a slider or sliders up or down in Imager, you can to add or remove width from whatever track you drop it on. For instance, push the slider up to add width to a track and you’ll hear more of it in the left and right channels while still hearing it in the center.
Conversely, pulling a slider down below 0 will focus that track entirely in the center/wherever it’s panned with nothing to the left or right.
A couple of things set Imager apart from most stock imaging plugins. Most notably, Imager has four adjustable frequency bands.
Just like a multiband compressor allows you to compress different frequency bands at different rates, Imager allows you to affect the width of different frequency bands at different rates.
This allows you to constrict some frequencies of your track while simultaneously widening others or leaving some untouched altogether.
It also has a feature “Stereoize” which can turn a mono track into a stereo one by duplicating and delaying it and splitting the two for instant stereo width.
If you constrict one or more of the bands, you can use the “Recover Sides” feature to take whatever inherent stereo information was lost and force that back into the center of that track.
Again, it’s a free plugin and is extremely useful on a track, bus, or mixing or mastering level, so check it out.
Stereo Imaging Techniques
Let’s cover 5 stereo imaging techniques now which you can use in your mix to get the most out of this tool.
Let’s begin with the obvious – sometimes tracks in your mix feel too narrow, or you just want to add a little size.
Pushing up the dial in Imager is an easy way to do just that. It doesn’t have to be a lot, in fact less is oftentimes more with stereo imaging because if you get carried away making EVERYTHING in your mix too wide then you’ll find things begin to feel crowded very quickly.
Still, when you’ve got a one off track which feels too thin, this is an easy fix with stereo imaging. I talked about this as one of my tricks for how to make synths sound full in a recent tutorial.
I mentioned using reverb for adding some width in my tips on mixing snare drum, but stereo imaging plugins can actually work better because they add width without adding the artifacts that come with reverb.
Emphasize a Track
Sometimes a track sounds okay on its own, but we’d like some width for particular moments.
Anytime something is taking the lead in your mix, say a guitar lead, and it doesn’t quite have the real estate in your mix at that it feels like it should but you’ve done everything else, you might try adding some width via Imager.
This further emphasizes a track during key moments of your mix when you want to really push a track over the top like the aforementioned guitar lead, or even the lead vocal at an important point in the song. Sometimes I drop a stereo imaging plugin on a return/aux track and blend in that width as a send on the chorus vocal in particular for this very reason.
That slight boost in width on the lead vocal can be just what that vocal needs to give it a little extra “oomph” on a chorus.
Mono Your Low End
One of the many keys to low end mixing is to keep the bass and kick centered in the mix.
Sometimes by virtue of how tracks were recorded or the samples used, these elements can have some or a lot of stereo information which might not benefit your mix.
Simply pulling the Imager’s slider all the way down will cut off anything and everything which isn’t in the center. You can experiment with the “Recover Sides” to decide if you want any of that layered on top of that track in the center.
This keeps the low end of the bass and kick, the two anchors of your mix, right in the center so that the levels will be constant regardless of where someone is listening with regards to the center of the stereo field.
Create a Fuller Mix
There’s a reason stereo imaging is one of the most commonly used tools in the audio mastering process.
I like to add a little extra width at an increasing rate on the higher frequencies in the mix.
The higher frequency information in the mix is less likely to clog things up when you spread it out.
Using Imager, I can ensure that the low frequencies and even the low mids are untouched while adding a little extra clarity by way of some added size on the high end of the mix.
I always talk the importance of creating a dynamic or changing mix. Using mixing automation with regards to the width is a great way to accomplish just that.
Dropping Imager on the mix bus, we can add width to the entire mix during key sections like on a chorus, adding in a bit more each time. It’s a subtle thing which the listener can feel rather than hear, but its impact is there.
You don’t even need to add width if you like the state of your stereo field as it is.
In this case you can subtract a bit of width during the lower energy moments like the verses only to open it back up to the standard full width when that chorus hits.
That feeling of openness is huge when it hits at just the right times.
There you have five stereo imaging techniques you can use with Imager or your stereo imaging plugin of choice.
Just make sure you hold off on using an imaging plugin until you’ve made all of your panning decisions to get the full benefits from it!