Stereo imaging is a pivotal part of any mix. It mostly has to do with with the spatial locations of each sound source, both side-to-side and front-to-back. A well-mixed stereo image means listeners can easily identify where sounds are coming from, and the song sounds big and immersive. There are different ways to develop stereo image: recording techniques, basic panning, and even getting a bit of help from some of the best stereo imaging plugins available.
iZotope offers one of the best free stereo imaging plugins with Ozone Imager V2. It’s a pretty easy-to-use plugin that gives you control over the width of any sound, from making a narrow synth a bit wider, or narrowing a low-end sound to fit right in the center. You can also make a mono sound stereo without using any sort of doubling effects we’ll see in other plugins. Finally, Ozone Imager includes a vectorscope so you can visualize your stereo image and make adjustments accordingly.
Wider by Polyverse is another great free imaging plugin. The incredibly simple interface lets you add the illusion of stereo width to any mono signal, without any sort of phase issues. The controls let you expand the pseudo-width of an instrument up to 200%, and the unique algorithm keeps the sound natural and never phase-y. If you’re looking for a simple imaging fix, this plugin is great.
S1 Imager is fantastic for enhancing stereo elements in a mix. In the most basic sense, it’s kind of like an “ultra-panner” that lets you take stereo information and push it even further beyond the speakers’ boundaries. This can come in handy in a bunch of different ways. Try it on any stereo sound that could use an extra push, a reverb return, or even the mix bus.
Here’s another excellent free stereo imager VST. You can slap it on any stereo track, group, or mix bus and shape the width of those sounds using a single knob. There’s also a clever “Safe Bass” button that allows you to center the low-end information below a chosen frequency. That way, bass stays clear and punchy in the center while you can add width to the sides.
The Waves Doubler is a different kind of stereo imaging plugin than we’ve seen so far. It’s more of a pronounced effect because it uses delay and pitch modulation to produce a wider sound. You can use it for chorus-y and flam-like effects, vocal harmonizing, and of course, stereo widening. For simple and natural stereo imaging you probably wouldn’t grab Doubler first, but it’s an excellent plugin in its own right.
Space Strip is a unique multi-effect plugin with six built-in modules. The effects include Contour, Vibe, Slapback, Ambience, Ensemble, and Stereo. You can easily arrange these in any order you like. Space Strip’s cumulative effect is adding depth and space to sounds, particularly keyboards or synthesizers, by adding stereo vibrato, delays and reverbs, and regular stereo field manipulation. It definitely earns its place as one of the best stereo imaging plugins by providing multiple ways to mess with the image.
Stereomaker is a great up-mixing tool that can convert any mono signal to a stereo one by creating a virtual Side channel for M/S processing. It ultimately allows you to retain the tight and focused center of a mono sound but balance it better against the sides. You can also chose specific frequencies to process.
MicroShift is an awesome tool to have in the kit for analog-style widening. Sort of like Doubler by Waves, Soundtoys MicroShift uses a blend of delay and pitch modulation to create huge stereo width. The plugin is based on the Eventide H3000 and AMS DMX 15-80s hardware pitch shifters.
Pro-Q 3 is an EQ, yes, but an incredibly versatile one at that. It’s really one of those rare plugins that every mixer should own, and how it becomes one of the best stereo imaging plugins is through its M/S capability. By equalizing the mid and side parts of a signal differently, you can create the illusion of space.
Conclusion: Best Stereo Imaging Plugin
Each of the included stereo imager VSTs offers a unique way to create width, depth, and space around a sound. It can be really fun to just experiment with these plugins and learn how to enhance the stereo image of your mix beyond panning.