Leapwing Audio StageOne by Sound-Guy
A plug-in that enables modifying the audio panorama of stereo and mono tracks.
Leapwing Audio StageOne Sound Stage Processor
I must admit I had not taken notice of Leapwing Audio plug-ins until very recently, but see they make some innovative tools that don’t try to look analog, or try to emulate what analog processing can accomplish. The StageOne processor is their latest product and aims to manipulate an audio sound stage very transparently, and with no degradation of the audio, even if the processed sound is collapsed to mono.
What is it?
StageOne is a dedicated sound “position” processor, and as you can see, has three sections, Width, Depth, and Mono Spread. These act independently, but the results can interact in very noticeable ways. There is also a meter section that includes a master gain control (Output Trim, adjustable from off to +12 dB). The meter reads K-weighted LUFS levels with a momentary (4 second hold) peak indicator. My tests showed the meter is accurate, but as its scale is small, and it reads short term LUFS measurement, it’s more a guideline than a definitive LUFS meter.
The Wide section operates on a stereo signal, widening the left and right spaced signals while leaving the center alone. The phantom center signal is not moved or “stretched”at all. In fact, it has essentially no effect if you use it on a mono track, which is intentional. On a stereo track the widening can be extreme, pushing elements originally left and right of center out to the speakers, and even beyond! And the spread sounds remain clear with no “phaseyness” as mid-sides processing can produce. At the same time, the phantom center (like vocals and kick/bass) stays clearly and cleanly in the center. I found this works very well on mixes with clear elements, such as pop/rock/jazz. The effect to my ears is that clean hi-fi music spreads out a bit and sounds even more hi-fi. Almost like using a harmonic enhancer, but adding spatial separation rather than harmonic enhancement. The High Pass control in this section usefully stops lower frequencies from being widened so that, for example, bass guitar and kick drums near the center will stay in their place. I found this control to also be useful on individual stereo tracks and buses in a mix project to add sonic “depth” to instruments.
The Depth section produced more subtle effects than width, but used on a single instrument or vocal track created an ambiance as you would hear when a musician moves back in a moderate sized, acoustically treated room. On a full mix, especially a large symphonic recording of classical music, the effect was too subtle for me and I’d use a reverb if I needed to add “roominess” (but such recordings often have more reverberation than ideal anyway!). On a close, intimate recording of a small group in a dry environment, the Depth control added a subtle room effect, but I expect this process is best used on individual elements, either on a track or bus. The Color control shifts the effect from adding mostly low frequency reflections to adding high frequencies, and proved effective. This effect interacts with the next section that can “spread” a mono track (or phantom center), and adjusting both the Depth controls and the Mono Spread and Center Gravity control can really move an instrument or vocal around in the sound stage. I can see this really helping on backing vocal tracks that are close-miked.
Spreading the Mono
This section intrigued me since I sometimes want a dry vocal part to “fill out” more in the sound field without adding significant reverberation or delay. StageOne can add an aural spread to a mono track (as well as the phantom center of a stereo track) from nicely subtle to almost “phasey”, yet even with this effect, collapsing the track to mono yields a clean signal, unlike some stereoizing methods I’ve tried. Quite slick! One issue that fooled me momentarily was using a mono file in a mono track - in some DAWs (like Studio One) a mono track is truly mono and does not send stereo FX outputs on to the next bus, but collapses them to mono. This is a potentially useful feature (for instance, you can collapse a stereo file to mono if desired without needing an additional plug-in), but in the case of StageOne, a stereo effect is probably more desirable! Luckily you can switch the track to stereo, even when it is playing a mono file, and any stereo FX will send the stereo results along. Makes a big difference with the mono spread function! So if you try the StageOne demo and find Mono Spread not seeming to spread a mono signal, it’s not an issue with StageOne - check your track settings!
Note in using StageOne on a master bus, when you use the Width control to widen the audio space, it pushes the sides outwards, possibly leaving some “empty spaces” at about the 11 and 1 o’clock positions. You can use Mono Spread to widen the phantom center a bit to fill in these spaces. It takes only a little spread, up to about 20%, to smooth out the overall audio panorama.
This section also has a “Center Gravity” control that acts somewhat like a pan, but with a stereo mix it does not just shift everything to one side or the other, it kind of “spreads” the audio panorama to the left or right, affecting the opposed pans only slightly until you use the full +/- 100% setting, where it still leaves some sound in the opposite sides (although I’m not sure why you’d want to use that much center gravity shifting!). On a mono track and in conjunction with the Depth and Mono Spread controls, it does things I can’t really describe! But I found some fascinating effects I might just use sometimes.
The Tech Details
StageOne has a lot going on under the hood, and thus is not light on cpu load when all sections are operating. I found it used almost exactly 1% of my cpu resource (measured with REAPER’s Performance Meter) which is higher than most “common” plug-ins. But StageOne is not common! If StageOne is “on” but all its sections are turned off, it still uses 0.4% cpu resource (and adds a delay of 2048 samples - a delay that stays constant no matter how many sections are operated). Using only the Width section adds 0.1% cpu usage to the 0.4% idle level (0.5% total), Depth alone adds about 0.4% (0.8% total), and the Mono Spread alone also adds only 0.1% (0.5% total). These cpu usage levels are similar to some of my more complex processors, and StageOne certainly is providing some complex processing!
So if used in a mixing context, you may not want to use StageOne on every track, and probably not use every processor section when you use it. However, a few instances used on tracks needing special processing, maybe on a few buses, and on the master can be very useful.
As many plug-ins provide, StageOne has Undo and Redo (with multiple levels), A/B comparison, and factory & user presets. I found the Undo/Redo very handy when trying different settings. And all of these provide instant, glitch-free switching, so comparisons are not compromised by extraneous noises.
More Leaping Wings
Leapwing makes another spatial adjustment plug-in, CenterOne, one that works only on stereo signals, and is designed to manipulate the phantom center while keeping the panorama intact (as well as extracting LCR audio streams - take a look at the review). StageOne, as we have seen, is designed to change the audio panorama, so the two plug-ins provide somewhat complementary effects.
Overall StageOne is very impressive. It can modify the depth and width of stereo and mono tracks, and add “fidelity” to full mixes that are already fine. It is not a cheap plug-in, but If you are really serious about stereo processing, whether in a mixing or mastering situation, you’ll likely find it invaluable. There is a free demo available from Leapwing so you can try before you pull out your PayPal wallet.
StageOne has a Retina interface available for those who need it, and is available for Mac OSX (10.9 +), Windows 8, 10 (64-bit only) in AAX-Native, VST, VST3 and AU. However, all my tests, VST and VST3, were run on a Windows 7 machine (Pro, 64 bit, SP1) with no observed issues.
Unique processing algorithms for changing the audio panorama, including widening, depth adjustment and stereoizing a mono track.
Very clean, high quality results with the ability to modify a sound stage even in a full mix.
Glitch-free switching between A/B comparisons and Undo/Redo.
Moderately high cpu usage, but not more than other complex plug-ins.
64 bit only if you are still using a 32 bit platform!
Not cheap, but good quality never is!
StageOne - Leapwing Audio