Are your mixes too wide?

It’s easy to go overboard these days.

Powerful computers and free plugins of every variety make for a very real embarrassment of riches. Nowadays most home studios are limited more by experience and skill than any lack of technical capabilities. And so, we have a tendency for people to overuse their tools. Many tools (especially compressors, exciters, saturators, etc) effectively have a single controls – ‘more’. Turning it up gives you more of the effect. The really diabolical aspect is that adding a little bit often makes things sound ‘better’ (at first, anyway). So if a bit is good, then more must be better, right? Of course you know it isn’t, but once you start playing with the controls, your mind recalibrates itself to what sounds normal. Even if you’re deliberately trying to be moderate, you’ll find it’s all too easy to lose your bearings.

How many times have you wasted time trying to find the ‘sweet spot’, only to realise later that the unprocessed sound was better after all?

Stereo widening effects are a common example of this. A little bit often makes a track sound more impressive – wider and more expansive. After hearing the stereo widener, bypassing it can make your mix sound suddenly smaller and (more) lifeless. But how much is enough? How do you know when you’ve applied too much?

As usual, there’s no single answer that’s right for everyone. You need to consider where your music will be played. Different targets and/or media will require different approaches.

For example, if you’re expecting your music to be played in uncontrolled stereo spaces (such as radio, shopping centres, or television) you’d best take a conservative approach to the stereo space. You don’t know if people are going to be seated evenly between the two speakers, or if there even will be two speakers. I’ve had situations where my music was played back in mono – by taking only one side (not even by summing the two sides!).

On the other hand, if you intend your music to be enjoyed exclusively on headphones, or in cinemas, installations, or other environments with a controlled stereo space you can afford to use as little or as much stereo widening as you wish.

The difficulty comes when you’re targeting a range of playback environments. You might have your music available for download – it might be the kind of music best enjoyed on headphones, but you’d also be happy for it to be played in cars, on computer speakers, or even iPod earbuds shared with a friend. In cases like this, you need to find a middle ground – where the amount of widening doesn’t compromise the audio quality in adverse environments, but is still sufficient to express the creative intent of the song. You’ll have to regularly check our mix in mono – not just both sides summed, but each side individually. Check your mix on headphones, on large speakers, small speakers and earbuds.

It’s a compromise.

-Kim.

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