Spatial wideners are becoming widely used in digital audio production, but not just on the stereo sources they were originally intended for. As technology has developed, engineers and producers started using these stereo enhancement plugins on more than just their stereo tracks – they started using them on mono sources as well.
It became a bit of a plague for a while there everyone wanted wider and wider stereo audio to make room in the center for more instruments. These plugins could make your source audio sound huge, but at a high cost: phase cancellation and imaging problems.
With the development of newer spatial wideners intended for mono source audio, phase issues and stereo fold down to mono have largely been mitigated. A new set of problems have taken the place of these issues though, predominantly, the question of when a spatial widener is the right tool for the job.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest situations I’d recommend using a tool like Sidewidener in your mix.
Just like time-based effects, spatial widening can add to the complexity and depth of an instrument. Modifying the stereo field around the instrument can create it’s own space, and a spatial widener can help you fill it.
If you find yourself working with a thin-sounding acoustic or background vocals that don’t seem to create a full width texture, spatial widening can help fill them out. In the case of the thin acoustic, you might first try to boost some low end with an EQ, but sometimes you just can’t boost what isn’t there. Instead, a plugin like Sidewidener will fill space in the mix without the need for additional low end.
Similarly, background vocals can suffer from a lack of width. Often, they’ll sound like they’re stacked one on top of the other. Or maybe you’re dealing with a situation where there are gaps between your background vocals when they’re panned. In both situations, “smearing” the vocals across the stereo field can solve your vocal mix problems. Your backgrounds should sound like a full, wide texture, much like a synth pad. With the right approach, you can turn a couple of well-performed vocal tracks into a choir.
Presence is one of the most difficult things to dial in on a guitar amp. Too much, and your electrics sound piercing and overbearing. Too little and you’re left with something lacking depth and enough bite to cut through the mix. The dilemma? You’re not really going to know if you have enough until after everything is recorded.
If you’re using a virtual guitar rig, you might be able to go back in during the mix and add a bit more presence. Problem solved. But what if you’re working with a live-amped or printed guitar track?
Once again, a mono-focused spatial widener is going to be the perfect tool for the job. Imagine for a second that you’re working with a guitarist that’s absolutely nailed a guitar solo, but there wasn’t enough presence to really cut through the mix.
Your first instinct will likely be to reach for an EQ to try and dial in something that can cut through. Then you might add some reverb and delay to add some size to the performance. Even with all of that it might not be enough. It’s not for lack of trying, the track just isn’t dense enough to hold its own against the mix.
Check out how Nick was able to solve this exact problem using the default stock settings with Sidewidener:
Hear what a difference a mono-compatible spatial widener can make with the presence of a track?
How Are You Using Wideners In Your Mix?
While depth and presence are obviously two very general problems engineers face, they’re two of the biggest places I find myself reaching for spatial wideners time and time again.
There are plenty of other great uses for spatial wideners though; all it takes is a bit of practice and experimentation.