Image, compression, EQ and Balance. These are the keys to every great mix. Effects like reverb, delay, distortion, and modulation are great and allow for unique characteristics on your music, but no mix can be great without getting some key elements right. There is a lot of talk about how to correctly use a compressor to get drums knocking or to make a smooth vocal performance. We use EQ on audio in many ways that can both correct problems and emphasize elements of a mix. We know how important your levels and track balances are, but we often forget to talk about stereo image, or we refer its role to simply panning. In this Just The Tips post I’d like to share 4 ways I most often use Spread to give my mixes a little added depth.
Spread is a multi-band stereo imaging plugin. This plugin allows users to have control over the width of individual tracks and also can create separation of frequencies by enhancing the stereo image in some frequency bands, while minimizing the stereo image in others. Spread also has a few other great features which enhance the usefulness of the plugin. It has two different imaging algorithms, ST (stereo) and MS (Mid/Side – not available on mono tracks). As previously mentioned, Spread is multi-band, which gives you the the ability to adjust the crossover on each band as well as solo/mute each band to audition, giving you maximum control over the signal at any given moment. There’s also a Side Roll off feature, which help’s take the guess work out of imaging. What this does is filter out the sides up to 200hz, allowing you to maintain a clean mono signal in your low frequencies. Spread also has a Tilt function, which adjusts the balance between left and right signals, and finally an output trim which gives users a gain stage. Simply put, Spread is the best stereo imager on the market, and that’s facts. So how do I use it?
When I am mixing a record and there are two acoustic guitars, I might pan 1 left and 1 right to create a nice wide guitar image. This is great if I have an instrument that’s already stereo. But what if I have only 1 guitar, layered with a number of other elements, and I’m having difficulty creating space for it? Everything in a mix needs to feel balanced. This doesn’t mean left and right need to be 100% equal, but the weight should feel equal or balanced. Working with too many sounds in any given place of the mix often can feel cluttered and push too much of the weight of the mix to one side. Alternatively, if every sound in your mix is already stereo sometimes you’re just looking for creative ways to separate one synth from the next. I’ll often use Spread to make certain stereo tracks a bit more narrow, others I’ll leave alone, and on some I’ll use Spread to create a very wide image. By using Spread this creates a much larger feeling mix by filling up more of the stereo image and creating more room in the center for drums, bass, and lead vocals.
I can’t express enough how many times I receive background vocal harmonies where each note is only sung one time, which more often that not creates a balance issue that isn’t aesthetically pleasing. I love wide background vocals and in my opinion they should generally always feel balanced between the left and right. There will always be the outlier scenarios where I may want one harmony panned left, and the other right, but generally speaking I want the same frequencies shared between the left and right speaker. In these scenarios what I often do is throw an instance of Spread on the vocal harmony I’m looking to double, and push all frequencies as wide as they can go. One of the great things about Spread is being able to take a mono signal and make it stereo. Spread doesn’t add any irregular or weird phasing issues allowing your vocal to fold down to mono with ease and without creating any signal cancellation. This is optimal for creating stereo versions of mono vocals and something I do frequently.
Have you ever added a delay on your lead vocal only to realize that same delay you just added is now fighting with the lead vocal? There’s a simple explanation for that. The mono signal you’re sending to your delay is now bouncing on top of the same vocal, which often creates a cluttered sound. Nearly 100% of the time I apply a delay to a lead vocal I always add an instance of Spread in front of the delay to create stereo separation on the delay return signal. By using this method, each cycle of the delay will now wrap around your vocal keeping it out of the way of your lead, while still keeping the feel of a delay. This is a simple trick that is incredibly useful when you want your vocal to cut though the center of your mix.
Now it’s time to put those finishing touches on your mix before it’s ready for the world to hear. I usually start with bus or multiband compression, a little overall EQ, and I’ll finish it off with a limiter. However my secret weapon in every final mix & master I complete is slight augmentation of the stereo image. Somewhere after the bus compression and before the limiter, I’ll hit my master with an instance of Spread. I fan out frequencies to create separation (and ultimately, size). I usually start with the high frequencies (3kHz and above) by making them the most wide, the mids (500Hz-3kHz), a little less wide, and everything below 500Hz I usually leave alone, or in some cases even narrow the image. You don’t want to go too heavy with this trick, so stick to a maximum of 25-30% of effect on your highest frequencies, and your mids will land around 10-15%. I want to be able to pick out each sound in a mix and give them clear space so by fanning out the frequencies on a master track, you give each frequency band it’s own individual space within the overall mix.
There’s really an endless number of use cases for Spread and stereo imaging in general. Aside from EQ and compression, Spread is the tool I use most often on the records I work on. Spread has become a necessity in all my mixes and is the secret ingredient I like to use to create big & wide sounding mixes.