Stereo Placement in Music Production

A. Why Balance Is Important?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s the ear, not the gear?” The truth is, the most important element in any mix is the balance between each element. Using simple level and panning manipulation, you can quickly dial in a balanced mix. Doing this first leads to less significant changes when processing your mix with plugins, meaning you can get greater results with even the simplest tools.

Most modern productions have a lot going on. In order to hear everything clearly, the mix must be well balanced. If one instrument is too loud, it can make it difficult to hear one or more of the other instruments in the mix. Loudness has a big impact on how people perceive sound. The ISO published a set of standards in 2003 called the equal-loudness contours that show how sound pressure level, or volume, can affect how we perceive sound.

When a track is played at low volumes, humans are still able to make out frequencies from 1-5 kHz pretty clearly, but we have trouble hearing frequencies under 500 Hz. That’s why it’s almost impossible to hear the bass when listening at low levels, but you can still hear the vocals.

As playback volume increases, our hearing becomes more balanced, making it easier to hear the high and low frequencies evenly. The ideal listening range for most home studios is around 73-76dB SPL. But mixers have no control over how loud people listen to music. Only how loud each element is in the track.

That’s why it’s crucial to make sure that your mix is balanced and each instrument is at the proper level relative to the other channels. As you increase the volume of an instrument in a mix, it sounds closer to the listener, with more fullness in the low-end and clarity in the high-end.

This is why reaching for plugins right out the gate might actually mean you spend more time trying to improve your sound. Setting the loudness of a channel first helps you get 80% of the way there. The plugins can then help you sculpt your sound to 100% of what you’re shooting for.

Creating a basic balance between each of the tracks at the beginning of a mix gives you a solid foundation to work from and makes it easier to make critical mixing decisions down the road, like which frequencies to cut or how much compression to apply.

Only one instrument can be the loudest track in the mix at a time. So the loudest instrument should be whatever is the focal point of the song at that moment.

B. Common Way Of Stereo Placement In A Psy-Trance Mix

In a good stereo mix, each instrument needs clarity, balance, separation, and its own space in the stereo field.

The main components heard throughout the mix (Bass, Drums, and Vocals) are very central.

The elements that jump in and out of the mix (backing vocals, lead guitar, synths) are super wide.

If you listen to this mix in Mono you’ll hear that the fundamental sonics are almost identical.

The wider elements that we see (Synth 1, Synth 2 and Lead Guitar) are never playing at the same time. It could be a problem if they played simultaneously in the mix as they occupy similar frequencies and have similar timbres. This can cause masking and can be confusing for the listener.

C. Verse vs Chorus Width

Verse v Chorus width

This is something I’ve seen in almost every track I’ve analyzed. The chorus is mixed wider than the verse. This makes the chorus feel larger and more encapsulating than the verse. This can only be achieved if the verse is mixed fairly centrally to create the contrast.

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