When you listen back to old records you can often be amazed by the spaciousness of the final mix. Part of this is probably due to the random, stereophonic anomalies that are present in vinyl pressings – hiss, crackle, dust etc which affect the left and right channels of audio to varying degrees and create a sense of warmth and width. Most of the effect, however, can be attributed to brilliant recording, mixing and mastering engineers.
Here are a few tips that can help you create a sense of space in your mixes:
1. Record in stereo.
This is particularly important for live instrumentation (but can be crucial when using synthesisers, too). For live instruments it is extremely good practice to use two or three microphones when recording each instrument (provided you have access to enough mics and channels on your mixer). The rule is to experiment a bit but there are some tried and tested methods for recording naturally wide sounds.
a. X/Y Micing – In this method, two microphones are placed one above the other to form a cross at the point of ‘nicest sound’ in front of an acoustic instrument or electric instruments amplifier.
b. Mid/Side – In this method, an omidirectional mic and a figure of 8 mic are arranged so that the omni mic picks up direct sound from the source while the Figure of 8 mic picks up sound from the sides.
c. Broken paired mics – This is a common method for recording drum overheads (cymbals etc). Two mics are placed separately on either side and above the sound source (or in front of the sound source) at an equal distance to create a left side recording and a right side recording.
d. Resonant and fret Micing – This is frequently used for recording plucked string acoustic instruments such as guitar. One mic is placed 4 to 10 inches infront of the resonator hole (where the guitarist strums) and a second mic is placed about 4 inches in front of the 4th fret. You are then recording the resonant sound as well as the sound of the guitarists fretting but each separate mic picks up a little of the other mics sound source.
e. Room micing – In this method, you use any of the above approaches but also place a third microphone in a nice sounding area of the room at least a few metres away from the player or players. This works best with figure of 8, omnidirectional or pressure zone microphones.
For more information on stereo micing, check out this website: http://www.deltamedia.com/resource/stereo_microphone_techniques.html
2. Make friends with delays.
Delays are a very useful studio effect but can be very easily overused. Subtlety is the key. Try a few of these techniques.
a. For vocals – Send a mono vocal to two separate mono busses on your mixer. Apply an echo style delay to each buss and make the repeat interval very quick (1/16th notes or even 1/16 dotted). Turn the feedback (amount of “echoes”) down until you can barely hear it… and then turn it down a little more. Turn up the cut-off so that each successive repetition has less and less high frequency content. Now for the “stereo-izing” trick. Make the settings for the echo on each buss slightly different. Allow one to to feedback a little more, set one to 1/16 and the other 1/16 dotted, put different cut-off settings on each. Soon the mono vocal will begin to sound a little wider but should still sit fairly well in the mix.
b. For instruments – Use a similar approach as above (or a stereo delay plugin) but make the repeat interval longer 1/8 or 1/4. Also, if you have the ability with your plugin to adjust the swing of the delay – then try winding the left channel down fully and the right channel up fully so that one is effecting delaying in triplets whilst the other is delaying in dotted.
c. Using subtle pitch-shifting – Some delays allow you to adjust the pitch of delayed elements (Logic 9’s ‘Delay Designer’ for example). If you pitch shift some left and right delays very, very slightly (so they don’t actually sound out of tune – we’re talking 1 or 2 cents maximum here) the psychoacoustic effect will be a greater sense of width.
3. Understand you stereo widener.
I’m sure there are various technologies for creating artificial stereo width but the one I am familiar with works as follows:
Logarithmically determined bands of frequencies from a single sound source are pushed to the left or right to varying degrees. Because the effect makes smooth transitions from left to right over a fairly wide frequency spectrum, the artificial nature of the separation isn’t obvious but the outcome is that root frequencies of a note may be 40% to the left whilst their harmonic elements may move from 10% left to 60% right.
The stereo widener (Stereo Spread) plugin in Logic 9 gives you a nice visual representation of what is happening, but it also has some really good features packed into it. Namely, you can determine how many frequency bands are being affected (from 2 to 12) – experiment to find the number that works for your sound. You can also adjust the frequency range that is affected. This is great because placing stereo affects on bass sounds can cause significant phase issues. Lastly, you can adjust the amount to which frequencies bands are panned from hard left/right to the most subtle shift.
Probably the most overused effect in music. Mixes these days are fairly dry but, in the pursuit of space, mixers can be tempted to crank the stereo reverb into near-Phil-Collins proportions. So there is just one tip for this wonderful effect – be gentle.
Other than that, I would suggest combining the above methods in whatever manner takes you fancy. And keep making music, of course.