Space and width

Today i’ll be talking about the illusion of space and width in a mix.
By splitting them into various categories that are relevant to the application of the ideas i hope it will perhaps be easier to reference later. In general though, a recording that has height and depth creates for a compelling sound. Alongside this, part of the magic of a song is pulling the listener into a different world — creating the illusion of the space only adds to that effect.

Width:
Creating width in a mix is also about contrast.
If two sounds are exactly the same and play at exactly the same time from each speaker, we perceive it as coming from a center point between the two speakers. This is often called the “ centre image.”

The key to achieving this is similarity. As soon as the sounds become different, or the timing becomes different, they start to spread across the stereo field.
It stands to reason that two sounds that are easily localised, however played at different times will sound very wide.
The greater the contrast between what’s happening in the left speaker versus the right speaker, the wider the image.

While this seems relatively simple, remember that in a dense mix it’s very easy to get a muddy end result; and in practice these things are often harder than first expected. Sounds can and do tend to run together with ease.
A prime example is synthesisers or guitars. In fact, any instrument is prone to this issue.

For example; If you double an instrument four times and pan two doubles to one side and two doubles to the other, the end result is often not as wide as desired, in fact you would have achieved more width with just the initial double track.

The key here is to create as much contrast as possible: use different guitars, amps, and/or mics and mic placement. Create contrasting tones. This will allow the ear to hear more separation when they’re panned apart.

Alongside this is the clever use of effects. By using stereo delays on a single track with a short delay of 25m/s on one channel and 0m/s on the other, you can achieve a lot of width easily. However, the issue with using delays and other effects “in the box” (such as doublers or reverbs), is that it can not only sound unnatural, but it can also lead to phasing issues. It’s easier to have good mic placement than to spend 3 hours tweaking reverb.

Depth.
Depth is somewhat less straight forward. There are three things to remember in terms of defining front-to-back placement.

  1. Louder sounds closer
  2. Brighter sounds closer
  3. Less reverb sounds closer

(The opposite of these things is also true if you desire to move things backwards in a mix)

Start with ensuring that things are evenly levelled. It’s so much easier to mix when you have an idea as to where something needs to live in terms of volume. Keeping in mind your front-to-back image while setting levels will help things fall into place very quickly.

In terms of tone, high frequency sounds loses their energy faster than low frequency sounds over distance. So as a general rule of thumb, you can roll off some highs to help shift things back.

That “in your ear” sound is more characterized by low-mid forwardness than by brightness. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but once you get a feel for it, finding the right tonal balance will make sense.

Then there’s the reverb. Reverb is a whole subject unto itself, but, suffice to say that generally the more reverb a sound has the further back it will fall.
Going further: the shorter the pre-delay, the farther away the element will seem. And, reverb that is higher in late reflections rather than early reflections will also be indicative of a sound that is further away.

Level, pre-delay, and early vs late reflections — these things all work in conjunction to form a realistic spatial sound.

Of course, getting natural space at the recording stage is best. If you know you want your drums to sit back a bit, place the overheads a little further from the kit. And record the room capture from further away too.

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