Creating a sense of space in your tracks is vital for a professional, polished sounding mix and master. With a slew of stereo width plugins on the market one could be mistaken for thinking that would be an easy task, but the problem is many of these plugins severely mess with the phase correlation of your mix.
Many of the current stereo width / imaging plugins out there also stick to a very basic formula consisting mainly (if not solely) of a stereo width knob, with maybe some very basic phase flip, mid-side, and mono low end features. Plugin Alliance members, Fiedler Audio, set out to renovate this formula with Stage.
“the problem is many of these plugins severely mess with the phase correlation of your mix.”
When opening Stage, there are four clear sections: In, Panorama, Ambience, and out, with Ambience having LFO (woah, never seen that before) and ‘Colour’ (they must be British – that’s normally a good sign in Pro Audio) subsections. Starting with the input, I quickly spotted two features I rarely see, a tilt and an MS (mid/side) balance knob. Tilt I can see being a simple yet effective and helpful tool when mastering if I’m sent a mix that is slightly lopsided. Say the entire mix leans to the right too much, simply move the tilt knob to the left until the right channel is attenuated (up to 6dB) and boom, the mix is centered.
“”I quickly spotted two features I rarely see, a tilt and an MS (mid/side) balance knob.”
The MS knob I found to be very useful making small adjustments by attenuating either the mid or side signals (sum or difference) to either bring out some ambience with the side channels by moving the knob to the right, or create a more focused center by moving the knob to the left and attenuating the mid signal. This spared a few mid/side compression and EQ moves I would have normally made, so I’m all for it! I can also see the MS knob being infinitely useful to tweak the spatial characteristics of an instrument bus such as guitar or drums as well.
“This spared a few mid/side compression and EQ moves I would have normally made, so I’m all for it”
The Panorama section is the classic width-focused section we have seen so many times, but only taking up a quarter of the GUI and less than a quarter of the total functionality that Stage offers. In addition to the standard width knob, we get a pan knob, which is interesting since, unlike the Tilt knob, this simply makes the widest point of the left or right channel narrower and closer to the center compared to the opposite channel, while keeping the left and right channels at their original levels.
“… the algorithm now uses delay in addition to mere levels to adjust your width.”
The main application that popped to mind for me is if the mix engineer had been having a little too much fun with imaging plugins on the mix bus, you could use the pan knob to tidy it up. Also, this could be used as a way to really hone in on where an instrument bus sits in a mix. If you want to enhance your stereo image even more, you can turn on the pan delay function so that the algorithm now uses delay in addition to mere levels to adjust your width. Therefore, there is an additional level of control and an additional way to protect the all important phase correlation.
Now the cool part – the intriguing Ambience section. A quick turn to the trusty manual Plugin Alliance always includes confirmed my suspicion – the Ambience section uses delay in order to create a sense of space in your mix. Not only can you increase the size of this space (in milliseconds) and add feedback from the delay to simulate additional reflections in a room you can use the LFO to add movement. This is something that, out of the 300+ plugins I own, I’ve never seen before. I found it to be a great replacement to the EQ’d mid/side reverb I will often use while mastering (about 1% wet for mid, 3-5% wet for sides) and like that reverb, it’s followed up by a ‘Colour’ section (there’s that English talk again) which allows you to EQ strictly the Ambience. Thanks to the smart, well chosen frequency points you can simply and quickly cut all of the bass out of the ambience to keep clarity intact whilst adding some top end sparkle if you’d like. It also works in any other situation where you would like to tailor the tonality of the Ambience you’re adding to a source. I would have personally appreciated a more involved EQ section for mastering, but for the couple projects I tried it out on, I had no significant instances of the ‘Colour’ section cutting me short from the sound I wanted. The cool thing is this plugin even works on mono sources so the creative possibilities don’t just end at stereo tracks and busses. The LFO allows you to take that sense of space you create and modulate it to add movement to the source, which is pretty damn cool.
At a full 180-degree phase spread you can cause the stereo image of the left and right channels to move forward and back in an alternating pattern, whilst at zero they move forward and backward in a simultaneous, pulsating fashion with some cool results. Like most things on the mix bus and when mastering, I found this definitely worked best when used subtly. I can see myself throwing this on a synth bus though and slamming the ‘Amount’ for some really cool, almost auto-pan like effects. Being able to flip the phase of each channel and adjust the LFO frequency gives you some tools to keep everything from negatively impacting the source, regardless of the application. Best of all, the Ambience section as a whole sounds GREAT. If you wanted to use this as more of a special effect you could, for instance, crank the feedback parameter getting blatant, almost spring reverb like results.
“Best of all, the Ambience section as a whole sounds GREAT.”
The icing on this imaging cake is the option to either route your input section directly to the output as your dry signal, or run it into the Panorama section and then to your output to be used as your dry signal. This is important since with the output section, you are able to blend the wet signal from the Ambience section in with your dry signal to taste, as well as independently bypass your wet and dry signals to make auditioning a breeze. Alternatively, you can use strictly the wet signal only from the Ambience section if you so wish. The major thing I would love to see Fiedler add is some multiband options so that I can keep my low end mono whilst widening the high mids and top end and, though the ‘Colour’ section can perform similarly, it isn’t quite as tweakable as it could be with multiple bands. It would also be a great addition for the devs to include some built-in phase correlation, polar sample, polar level, and/or Lissajous metering as a visual aid to cross-reference as an update. In the meantime though, there are a handful of great metering plugins to turn to, including some solid options from Plugin Alliance themselves.
“This is important since with the output section, you are able to blend the wet signal from the Ambience section in with your dry signal to taste, and independently bypass your wet and dry signals to make auditioning a breeze.”
The thing that stuck out to me is that when using my metering software (and my ears after switching the source into mono); I realized there was no damage whatsoever to the phase correlation at normal settings throughout the testing process! This ladies and gentlemen, is an achievement in its own right. If your phase correlation is thrown off, then your mix or master will not translate nearly as well, plus when the track is summed to mono (which in addition to a meter is a great way to check your phase), major elements of the song will disappear. No big deal, right?
“… there was no damage whatsoever to the phase correlation at normal settings throughout the testing process.”
Well, most phones sum your music to mono if you’re playing them back without headphones (which is sadly how a lot of music is listened to nowadays), but even more so than this, like I said above, if your phase coherence is out of wack, you’ll be failing the goal of creating a song that sounds great everywhere. Not only will this affect mono playback, but also monitors and headphones that differ from your own. For this reason alone, I think Stage has earned a home as the first insert on my mix bus or mastering chain, but throw in input tools, the Ambience, LFO, and ‘Colour’ sections, combined with the fact that Stage takes up very little CPU and we have a winning piece of virtual gear.
Compatible on Mac:
Mac OSX 10.8 – 10.12: AU, VST2, VST3, AAX (Native)
Compatible on Windows:
Windows 7 – 10: VST2, VST3. AAX (Native)
- Clean, easy to use GUI and routing options
- Brilliant and unique application of Ambience and LFO sections
- less phase coherence issues than many other imaging plugins
- No multiband functionality
- Colour / EQ section needs more options