Stereo Sound-Images

Written by Makke

Introduction

The first stereophonic-record was released in 1957. In the 60's producers seemed to think that stereophonic-sound was just placing the different instruments in either hard left or hard right. Most music was made for radio, and as radio still broadcasted in mono it "wasn't worth the effort". Very few really saw the sound-image as a thing to bother much with. A very bold way of thinking. Later on, in the 70's, this changed, much thanks to better technology and a wider audience. It was not until now that the producers started to make great importance to the recordings. Up until now many producers had just been sound-engineers with very little feeling for the stereo-era. I say many, because it certainly wasn't all, and the ones who saw the power of stereo is the ones that nowadays can be called legends, and trendsetters.

Nowadays stereo is one of the most important features of a recording, as both the movie and the music-industry are slowly turning to "surround" sound systems such as Dolby and THX. And no one can deny the power of stereo and surround when you for instance sit in your favourite armchair and listen to a classical piece of music, and it feels like you're in the middle of a forest of violins.

Why stereo?

Quite frankly this question should be answered by itself. Why stereo? Why higher quality recordings? Why bigger sound experiences? Stereo has almost no cons. With a stereo-sound you can bring forward the lead-instrument, intense the feeling in solos, hits, breaks, etc. Add psychedelic-effects, calm things down... do wonders. But, you can't just throw it all in a bucket, shake it and hope to get a balanced stereo-image.

What's all this talk about "IMAGES"? Sound-images are only a figure of speak, but it can be explained.

By listening to a recording and concentrating on the different instruments and their position you should be able to "paint a picture" in your mind of where the instruments are.

Getting started

Let's say we're going to produce a rock-song (an ordinary rock song with two guitars, bass, drums and vocals with back-ups). I use the rock-song because it's the most basic song, and there's not that much you can toy around with. There are certain "rules" for how the sound-image is built. I'll try to illustrate the ordinary "rock-image".

The drums are quite a good example to start with, because the drums spread out wide in the sound-image.

This is what my drums-image usually looks like when I'm in the studio:

                                    b-drum
                        tom.3       s-drum

                              tom.2          tom.1
                ride-cymbal                                 hi-hat
                     crash.2                      crash.1


   컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-|컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-
   *L*                                                                    *R*

The *L* means hard-left, *R* hard-right, and the | is the middle of the image.

As you can see it looks pretty much like a "real" drum-kit from above. I have also touched a little on how the "depth" in the drum-image should look, but more about stereo-depth later.

I have the snare-drum and bass-drum in the middle. You do not change the panning on them. That's because they build up the base of the drums, and the base of the song together with bass-guitar, which is why you also have the bass-guitar in the middle of the image.

Something like this:

                                    b-drum
                        tom.3       s-drum

                              tom.2          tom.1
                ride-cymbal                             hi-hat
                     crash.2                      crash.1

                                   bass-gtr

   컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-|컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-
   *L*                                                                    *R*

These things are basic structures that almost never change. The only thing that could be done differently is the position of the crashes and toms, depending on what the drum-kit looks like. But this is the basic structure of the sound-image.

Adding guitars

The guitars should be the "walls" of the image. When the guitars are placed, everything else should be kept inside these "walls". That's because the guitar is such a dominant instrument and if anything is placed outside the guitars it'll sound strange and unbalanced.

                                    b-drum
                        tom.3       s-drum

                              tom.2          tom.1
                ride-cymbal                             hi-hat
                     crash.2                      crash.1

                                    bass-gtr

        guitar.1                                             guitar.2

   컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-|컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-
   *L*                                                                    *R*

Adding leads and backup-vocals

Lead vocals should be the most dominant figure in the stereo-image. The vocals are after all very important for the song, and we don't want them to drown in any other instrument. Thus place it in the middle of the stereo-image. (More about the lead when we add depth to the image.)

The backup-vocals can be fun to play around with. Depending on where you put them in the sound-image you can get the song to sound much different. Here also depth is important.

                                    b-drum
                        tom.3       s-drum

                              tom.2          tom.1
                ride-cymbal                             hi-hat
                     crash.2                      crash.1

                                    bass-gtr

             backup-vocs.1                          backup-vocs.2
        guitar.1                                             guitar.2


                                   lead-vocs

   컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-|컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-
   *L*                                                                    *R*

Adding depth

Now all our building blocks are at place. And here comes the depth. The depth is mainly moderated by changing the volume of each instruments, but it can also be adding reverb or echoes.

I've tried to place the different instruments on their places, both depth and stereo wise in my "illustrations". However there are a few things that could be modified and experimented with.

For instance, the bass-drum could be brought forth in the image. This is because we want this drum to very distinct, and perhaps to be dominant over the snare. This is of course no must, it's rather a matter of taste. I like to have much b-drum, because it adds much bass to the song and is the main source of the "beat". Do keep this in mind though: The b-drum should never ever be dominant over the bass-guitar. That's actually a very important thing. The b-drum and the b-guitar should work together to build up the bass-regions of the sound. This also bottoms in which frequencies the instruments have (read my article about sample frequencies in Hugi #13).

The lead vocals should be the most dominant part of the image. This is easy to understand. But the backup-vocals could either dominate over the guitars or the guitars could dominate over the backups. This is also a matter of taste, but most used is probably the guitar-dominated version. This is because the backups shouldn't be more than a "underline" for the lead-lyrics, and not be a dominating part of the sound.

This gives us an image that should look something like this:

                        tom.3       s-drum

                              tom.2          tom.1
                ride-cymbal                             hi-hat
                     crash.2                      crash.1
                                    b-drum

                                    bass-gtr

             backup-vocs.1                          backup-vocs.2
        guitar.1                                             guitar.2


                                   lead-vocs

   컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-|컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴컴-
   *L*                                                                    *R*

Finishing up

One thing I should add is that you almost never use hard-left or hard-right (which means that nothing of what is played in the left speaker can be heard in the right). There's always a little "leak" over to the other side. But if you want to have a really tight, distinct sound you should go for more hard-left and right.

For instance, power metal (such as HammerFall and Edguy) has much "leak" from left to right, and right to left, while for instance Faith no More has a very tight sound on their "King for a day" album.

And 80's synthpop had lots of these kind of "leaks" as well, while for instance house-tracks have a more distinct position of its instruments.

Hope you got some things cleared up when it comes to the use of stereo-effects and panning.

Makke/Visuale/Hugi/Trebel