Leapwing Audio, makers of the exceptional DynOne dynamics plug-in,now approach stereo manipulation with the release of StageOne. With three distinct uses, this plug-in is beneficial in mixing and mastering situations. An uncluttered interface offers one column per process: Width, Depth, and Mono Spread. All functions provide two controls, a namesake slider, which spans zero to 100, represents the amount of effect with zero adding no processing, while 100 is maximum and a second parameter that varies by section.
The first function comprises a Width section, offering a slider control to adjust the strength of the processing while its partner slider sets the high-pass filter (ranging from 20 to 500 Hz).Everything above the filter is processed; frequencies below are unchanged.According to Leapwing, Width was designed to help mixes with off-center panned elements that are too dense.StageOne can remap the stereo field towards (or beyond) the speakers while maintaining mono capability.Repeated requests to explain specific details were denied – trade secrets being what they are – but in my testing, the Width results were convincing. I spent months using only the Width section, in mastering mainly on stereo mixes.StageOne could be more potent for mixing purposes – that is to say, more of the effect could be unleashed, especially if the tracks came from another studio. It can do wonders on voice, especially backing vocals.Combined with the equalization, you can almost sculpt the backing singers' position to form a virtual semi-circle around the lead, for example.
I have a few pieces of analog gear that are remarkable at what they do at the expense of narrowing the stereo field (you know who you are). Usually, my choice is either not use specific gear or engage and accept a more narrow stereo field. In using StageOne, I level match the source mix with the proposed master and A/B them while adjusting the Width control until we're back where the mix started. I can think of several projects where I used a max value of 5 (out of 100) on Width. I'm not trying to be pretentious – unauthorized widening can get a mastering engineer in hot water quickly!
Aside: I want to thank Leapwing for allowing my many-months long evaluation of StageOne. Most Tape Op reviewers work as full-time engineers; thus, we encounter a variety of usage situations. Forcing a review to be done in two weeks will likely fail to reveal product limitations. Conversely, in my opinion the real power of some gear can only be discovered over time.That's where the Depth and Mono Spread functions of StageOne come in.I honestly ignored these at first – until I found a need for them.
Depth has two controls: Depth and Color.The Depth slider determines the level of added reflections.According to Leapwing, the reflection patterns have been directionally optimized to create an enhanced sense of depth in the sound field. Meanwhile, the Color slider applies a custom tilt (think seesaw EQ) to the added Depth reflections. Positive values boost high frequencies while attenuating the lows. Negative Color values do the opposite. The Color EQ only affects the Depth processing, not the direct signal. In a mastering situation, I've found Depth can help if there is an excess of boxy low mids, or if a reverb's decay is slightly shrill. It's refreshing to approach these common issues with a tool that is not necessarily an equalizer in the traditional sense. In many cases, StageOne was for me a less invasive, subtle correction, which is welcome in the "do no harm" mastering paradigm.
The third function, Mono Spread, processes center elements to make them sound thicker/ wider-but-still-in-the-middle – you have to hear it to really get it. Mono Spread uses a custom filter design to convert mono signals into pseudo-stereo while maintaining mono downmix compatibility. The Mono Spread slider controls the amount applied. It's partner slider in the Mono Spread section is called Center Gravity. Thistweaks a panning module for the section. On an anthology release, I was able to match lead vocals from an old song to be more in line the with majority of the catalog by using the Mono Spread function.The result need not remain in the middle; Center Gravity can steer the processing to left or right.On a single release, I was able to move a harmonica solo slightly to the left, thus making room for the rhythm parts on the right. Short of a remix, this would have been difficult to do without the help of StageOne.
Surprisingly, StageOne is not a resource hog, but it is not necessarily lightweight either. I contend the high-pass value control on Width section should go beyond 500 Hz to 20 kHz. In Leapwing's defense I'm the first person to make this demand, including their alpha and beta testers – but I know I am right.Finally, most stereo processors come from the land of "Seductive Audio Candy."StageOne can be easy to overuse, resulting in an earache (or an unhappy client). Restraint is advised.
In all honesty, there are other stereo processors available – many for less money. But if your clients are discerning, they'll hear the superior results with StageOne.When you read about big name engineers claiming they use StageOne on every mix, they're telling the truth... and I'm not a liar when I say that I remain envious of their freedom to exceed five on the processing scale.