Before we get into how to make your mix wide, let’s start with a lesson in sonics:
We have two ears for a reason, to hear the direction of sound. Width is what we hear when there is sound coming from all directions. In music production, a sound can either be mono or stereo. A mono sound only has one channel and will sound like it’s coming from the middle, if it’s panned to the center. A stereo sound, on the other hand, has two channels, one for each ear. To get a wide mix, you need to make sure there are differences between the left and the right sides. Common beginner mistakes are to either overlook or overindulge in widening.
But, with a good balance, a wide mix can be both stable and immersive. Here are some useful tips on how to work with width and how to make your mix super wide.
Making everything wide can be tempting, but you shouldn’t discredit the magic of mono.
Centered mono sounds will be clearer and more solid, and they also make the wide stuff sound even wider in comparison. They will also be played back flawlessly on mono speakers, while stereo and panned sounds often get phase issues or dips in volume. You might think that it doesn’t matter, but mono speakers are actually very common in devices like phones and Bluetooth speakers.
A rule of thumb is to leave the kick, snare, bass, and leads narrow in the middle, while instruments like piano, pads and guitars can be wider. That said, there are plenty of successful examples that break this rule, so as always, feel free to experiment!
The easiest way to make your mix wider is to pan the different instruments left and right. Knowing that the difference between the left and right channels is what makes something sound wide, we can maximize the width.
If you take parts that have different rhythms, harmony, and character and pan them to opposite sides, it will create the largest effect. If you pan them 100% to the left and right, you will get the most width possible. However, the further you pan, the quieter it will be when played in mono.
A common recording technique for guitars and background vocals is called double-tracking. This is when you record the exact same part twice and pan them left and right. This works because humans can’t play or sing something exactly the same way twice. There will always be subtle differences in timing, pitch and character that separate the left and right sides.
If you’re working with virtual instruments, you can simply duplicate the channel and switch out the sound for something similar, but different. You could also record the MIDI twice to get digital double-tracking.
Some synths also have unison and spread functions. This is when you double up the synth voices however many times you want and detune them slightly from each other. These voices can then be spread out or panned for width.
The Haas Effect
If you want to widen something that’s in mono and you have nothing to double it with, a solution is to use the Haas Effect. This is when you delay the signal of the left or right channel slightly, by 40 milliseconds or less.
This creates enough of a difference between the left and right channels to make it sound wide. It will still sound like one audio source, because the delay isn’t long enough for the brain to distinguish it as a delay.
You can get this effect by adding a delay and setting it to free. Then, set either the left or right time to 1 millisecond (the shortest possible) and the other side to somewhere between 5 and 40 milliseconds. Adjust the time to where it sounds best. For short and snappy sounds, a shorter delay usually sounds better, while a longer delay suits long and sustained sounds. Also make sure there is no filtering or feedback, and that the wet is all the way up and the dry all the way down, so you only hear the clean delayed signals.
Reverb and Delay
To keep the stability of a mono signal, but surround it with some stereo goodness, you can add reverb and delay. Obviously, this will not only add width, but also atmosphere and a sense of space. If that’s what you want, you can kill two birds with one stone – just make sure the width is turned up on the reverb and that the left and the right time of the delay have different values, to get a stereo spread on the echoes.
With the tremolo effect, you can get automatic panning across the stereo field. The result is that it sounds like it’s spinning around your head. This is something you should use sparingly to add a little more interest and liveliness to the stereo image. Do it too much and it will just be distracting and chaotic.