Moulton Laboratories
the art and science of sound
Principles of Multitrack Mixing: The Phantom Image
By Dave Moulton, with Alex Case and Peter Alhadeff
December 1992

The quirky natures of phantom images.

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The view from 2005: This was an early article (1992) I wrote for Recording Magazine (Home and Studio Recording then). Thinking about the quirky natures of phantom images and applying what I’ve found has led to many things in my professional career, including the principles behind Sausalito Audio Works’ Acoustic Lens Technology, a great deal about room design, and an immense amount about human hearing. Just so you know, I expanded this article into a section in my book, Total Recording.

The Phantom Image

Stereo sound has proven to be a fabulously successful and effective way to present recorded music to listeners. The sense of spaciousness, realism and you-are-there ambience that come with a good stereo recording (as opposed to a monaural recording, consisting of a single signal) are powerful and exciting supports for good musical materials and performances.

The foundation for the stereo effect is the “phantom image,” a life-like apparent source of sound hovering in the space between the two loudspeakers of a stereophonic system. Creatively and effectively controlling the quality and placement of that image really improves the quality of a recording. One of the real benefits of this particular element of recording craft is that the listener doesn’t know why the recording with well-crafted and convincing phantom images sound better, he or she simply likes it more, finding the music more realistic and more enjoyable. It is one of the “magical” aspects of the craft.

The phantom image is the product of some rather elaborate mental operations by the auditory mechanism and brain. It comes in two versions: monaural and stereo. The monaural (mono) version is the result of an identical signal sent to both loudspeakers. It is interesting that we don’t sense the two loudspeakers as the separate sources of energy that they are, but instead as only one imaginary source somewhere in between the two real sources. Visualize two light bulbs in a dark room, situated in front of you, but off to the left and right. Imagine that when they are switched on, instead of seeing each of them, instead you only see one light bulb coming from a point between the two actual bulbs. That, friends, is the mono phantom image. Amazing!

The stereo phantom is quite similar to the monaural one, but is based on two signals that are not quite identical. Usually, the two signals are derived from two microphones listening to the same source from near each other in the same room. This phantom is more three-dimensional and realistic than the mono phantom, and far more stable in localization. To use it, you usually need to make a true stereo pair of tracks of the instrument you want to have appear in a stereo phantom image, although it is possible to simulate it, as we will discuss later on.
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     Oct 11, 2006 12:35 PM
Thanks for the handy info
San Antonio, TX     Jul 27, 2010 10:03 AM
Sounds killer in stereo. Holy mono compatibility issues Batman!!!
Chris J 
Minneapolis     Mar 10, 2011 02:29 AM
This was a fantastic article. One of the more eye-opening things I have read in quite a while.

Thank you very much for the information. I can't wait to try it out.
Groton, MA     Mar 11, 2011 09:51 AM
Thanks for your comments. Just so you know, that was one of the first articles I ever wrote! I was really nervous about how it would be received!

Dave Moulton 
Israel     Jul 07, 2011 07:03 PM
Great article really good staff!!!
Well I really dont understand how to do it in my mix
Do I have to use stereo delay or mono put the delay 100% wet
-6 DB vol on the delay
if you can show this on you tube one video attached to this article

Thanks for your great material !

nyc     Jul 17, 2011 06:15 PM
extre-he-hemely interesting and helpful. Great site altogether. Thanks.

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