For dedicated (or should that be addicted) iOS music app collectors, Christopher Rice of Holderness Media will be a familiar figure. Chris is the brains behind the excellent Echo Pad and Swoopster iOS effects apps, both of which I’ve reviewed previously on the Music App Blog website.
Chris is now back with a third effect app to add to his portfolio – Stereo Designer – and like his earlier apps, this is an app dedicated to a particular kind of audio effect. In this case, and as suggested by the very apt title, Stereo Designer allows you to manipulate the stereo image of an audio source in a variety of ways. You can, for example, enhance the stereo width of a signal making it seem wider in the stereo field. Equally, you can take a mono signal and make it appear as if it is in stereo. The app also offers mid-side processing and high/low pass filtering.
All of the Holderness Media apps are ridiculously inexpensive and, at the time of writing, at UK£1.99, Stereo Designer ought to be affordable even to the most hard-pressed of iOS musician. So, given the budget price, is Stereo Designer a nailed on ‘buy’ for your (ever expanding) app collection?
Is it in stereo?
Stereo Designer is an iPad-only (full size or mini) app and requires iOS7 or later to be installed on the host device. The app includes support for both Audiobus (Input and Effect slots) and IAA (as an effect) although it can also be used to process live audio from your iDevice’s audio input or a suitable audio interface if connected (and it has been tested with a wide range of audio hardware for compatibility). I did most of my own testing with the app via Audiobus and IAA, both using Cubasis as my DAW.
If you have seen or used Swoopster, then the interface of Stereo Designer will seem instantly familiar. The app provides you with two ‘display modes’ to work in; Perform and Tweak. In Perform mode you get four large X-Y controller pads that allow you to tap and drag a controller node to change a selected pair of parameters. As with Swoopster, the pads on the left are configured to control the same parameters as the pads on the right and you are (in most cases), applying these parameter changes separately to the left and right channels of your stereo audio signal.
On the Perform screen the parameters you control are Delay and Low Pass (upper X-Y pads) and Pan and Output level (on the smaller lower pair of pads). The low pass filter, pan and output level are pretty much what you would expect but the delay parameter is not ‘delay’ in the conventional sense of creating echoes or noticeable repeats. Instead, adjusting the delay settings allows you to create very short time differences between the left and right channels of your audio and, if done subtly (which Stereo Designer makes very easy to do), and assisted by panning the two channels hard left and right, it can create a wider sense of ‘stereoness’ (no, that’s not a real word) in your audio signal.
As with Swoopster, you also get a central strip of buttons within the interface and these provide access to the presets (or to save your own), enable you to switch to Tweak mode, to link the controls of the left/right channels and bypass and mute options. You can scroll the preset section to access a large number of different presets and switching between presets is pretty instant if you want to make changes on the fly.
Perform mode is great for – well…. performing – but if you want a bit more in terms of detailed control, then the Tweak display mode provides access to some additional parameters in the form of six horizontal sliders for each channel. The additional controls provided here are Input (the input level) and High Pass (adding a high pass filter to the low pass one). You still get access to the same central strip of buttons in this display mode.
While Stereo Designer’s first calling might be to add a bit (or a lot) of stereo widening to your existing stereo audio source, it has a couple of tricks up its sleeve. If you are using a mono source (and you can select the audio input format via the Input options located top-right of the Tweak screen), you can use Stereo Designer to create a ‘fake’ stereo signal from it. While this is a variation of the ‘make it wider’ theme, it is a very cool effect to have available and it can often be used to give a somewhat uninteresting sound a much more interesting flavour. This effect is particularly good when applied to a mono guitar, for example, where you can use it to create a sense of a double tracked guitar played very tightly.
Perhaps less familiar to the more inexperienced iOS musician is the mid-side processing option. Some of the presets use this form of the processing but you can switch between the normal stereo processing and the mid-side processing via the Mode button that also appears top-left of the Tweak screen. Incidentally, the Mode options also allow you to invert the phase of either the left or right channels. Without getting bogged down in technicalities of the phase relationships between the left and right channels of an audio signal recorded via two microphones, if your audio signal sounds a bit ‘nasally’ (like it has had the middle frequencies carved out of it), then try flipping the phase of one channel and see what happens :-)
Mid-side processing is quite an interesting option. In this processing mode, the software’s audio processing looks at the stereo signal in a different fashion. Instead of considering the left and right channels of the stereo signal and allowing you to process them separately, it isolates that element of the audio signal that is in the center of the stereo image from the portion of the signal that is nearer the right/left edges of the stereo image; hence the ‘mid’ (stereo center) and ‘side’ (stereo edges) label.
When you switch to the mid-side mode (or select a preset that uses this mode), a small letter M and S will appear at the top of the control set in both Perform and Tweak modes. No, this doesn’t turn the effect into a well-known UK high-street shop or into something from Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, in either mode, the left-hand set of controls are now working on the ‘mid’ element of your signal and the right-hand side controls of the ‘side’ element.
This is a much more subtle way to tweak the stereo image of an already stereo signal and you can create some interesting effects here. Even something as simple as changing the relative output level of the mid and side elements can change the way you perceive the stereo image. This is a useful option to have; well done to Chris for adding the option :-)
As an aside, this mid-side processing is often what lies at the heart of ‘voice cancelation’ software. As vocals tend to be placed in the center of the stereo field, if you de-emphasise the central portions (that is, drop the level of the ‘mid’ channel), you reduce the level of the vocal relative to those elements that appear towards the edges of the stereo image (which is often where instruments such as synths, piano or guitars get placed). The problem – and this is why voice cancelation apps almost always tend to produce indifferent results on complex audio material – is that the center of the stereo field is also where the kick, snare and bass instruments get placed; drop the mid field and you also kill the energy of these elements so the mix tends to sound a bit hollow.
Given the very well designed interface, like Swoopster, Stereo Designer is a doddle to use and, whether you use it for real-time processing or just in a ‘set and forget’ format to enhance the stereo imaging of a particular audio signal, it really doesn’t take much work to get on top of what the app has to offer.
There are a number of obvious applications for Stereo Designer. Slapped across a mono signal, you can easily fake a stereo signal from it and, as mentioned earlier, I found this very effective used on a mono guitar part. Equally, if you just want to make a particular stereo recording sound a little ‘bigger’, the ability to widen the stereo image is great and this works either for individual instruments or for complete mixes. Take some care, however, as the processing can be a bit addictive. Once you like what a bit of widening does, the temptation is to add a bit more…. and then a bit more….
In a music production context, the thing to watch out for here is that the stereo widening, while sounding great when listened to on a stereo system, might just do some weird things if you then listen to your mix in mono. It should be standard practice to always check a final mix for mono compatibility but this is particularly relevant if you have applied a decent dose of stereo enhancement somewhere along the line….
Finally, I found the mid-side processing option really useful. This is more subtle in what it does but, for just giving a signal a little magic fairly dust, it is a very neat option and perhaps less obvious to the listener than overcooked stereo widening might be.
Stereo Designer’s presets do a great job of demonstrating what the app is capable of and, while stereo width effects are top of the app’s agenda, the high and low pass filters are also very effective tools for more obvious creative processing effects.
All plugged in
Used in the Audiobus Effects slot, Stereo designer behaved itself impeccably on my iPad Air test system. I threw a number of different audio sources at it via apps sat in the Audiobus Input slot and, as a mentioned earlier, adding that extra bit of stereo width is a seductive option on almost any sound source. It sounds great… just try and use some restraint if possible :-)
Used as an IAA effect app placed as an insert effect on a Cubasis audio tack, Stereo Designer also performed well. The app includes an IAA transport panel (located bottom-left of the screen) when being used in this mode. On a couple of occasions as I flipped back and forth between different apps, Stereo Designer did seem to ‘forget’ it was supposed to be in IAA mode but, as soon as I returned to Cubasis, that connection re-established itself. I don’t know if this is an IAA issue (that is, something within iOS7), a Cubasis issue or a Stereo Designer issue but, whatever the cause, it was the only minor glitch I experienced. It didn’t cost me any work and was always recoverable with ease; most certainly not a deal breaker.
iOS audio effects apps come in all shapes and sizes. We have the excellent multi-effects units that offer huge numbers of different creative processing options (for example, Turnado or Effectrix) right through to the dedicated, single effect specialities (for example, AudioReverb or the AUFX series). We also have a number of more specialist audio processors (such as Audio Mastering).
Stereo Designer is probably nearer the ‘dedicated single effect’ end of this spectrum. It might well be considered quite a specialist application and perhaps it is… but don’t let that fool you into not adding it to your wishlist. This is a very well conceived effects processor that has a very seductive sound. Whether it is just a bit of stereo enhancement you are after or some more obvious stereo ear candy, Stereo Designer is just the thing.
Is there a downside to Stereo Designer? For me, yes, there are two. First, given the current limitations of iOS, I can only use it on one audio signal at once (bah! but not Chris’ fault obviously). Second, there is no VST or AU version for me to use on my desktop computer. For the job it does, it is top-notch and I’d love to have this app as a desktop plug-in. Any chance Chris?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, with an introductory asking price of UK£1.99, this is seriously cheap software, and it would still be cheap if it was twice (or three times) the price. If you have any sort of iOS music app habit, then I’m afraid this app will not help your addiction – just buy it now – but at least you won’t knock too big a hole in your disposable income in doing so.