Using panning musically
How do we know what to pan, and where? In much of today’s popular music, the backbeat and lead vocal are the focal points of the mix. Because of this, the kick, snare, and lead vocal are usually panned center, often referred to as C or 0 by most DAWs. The other elements of the mix are what the mix engineer typically uses to create a stereo image of your song. Our ears tend to focus on the signals in a mix that are panned center or panned extreme left or right, while the points in between are less distinct.
The idea here is that we’re creating an audio picture for our listeners to experience. In some cases this will mean that, if you close your eyes and hear your mix, you can picture all of the musicians playing their instruments as if they were positioned on a stage. In other cases, it just means that you’re trying to create movement and excitement by having newer instruments pop up in your stereo field for the ear to focus on.
There are no hard and fast rules for this; just guidelines, but here are a few tips:
Double-tracked guitars: When recording guitars, double-tracking (recording the same part twice) as well as panning one recording extreme left and the other extreme right can create a much fuller-sounding mix without overloading the instrumentation of the arrangement.
Complimentary panning: If there are two instruments in your mix that occupy a similar frequency range, try panning them opposite of one another. You don’t have to pan them to the extreme. For instance, a guitar panned slightly to the left will complement a keyboard panned slightly to the right. This will create a better balance throughout your mix, as the listener won’t perceive all the instruments to be coming at their ear from exactly the same position—which can be fatiguing and make it hard to know what the ear should focus on.
Snare on or off center: Panning a snare dead center can immediately make it sound punchier, while panning it slightly to one side might cause the listener to focus slightly more on the lead vocal or kick drum.
Narrow verses, wider choruses: Try keeping a narrower image across your whole mix during the verses of your songs and then widening that image by panning the elements that appear in the choruses further away from center. Having certain elements pop out like this, or even just move temporarily to a more extreme pan setting, will create excitement.
Check in mono: Be sure to occasionally listen to your mix in mono to ensure you aren’t losing too much in the translation. It’s possible to spend a long time panning everything, only to go too far and realize your mix sounded more impactful before you even began!
Consider the club: If you’re mixing any form of electronic music that’s likely to be played back in a club setting, bear in mind that most playback systems are mono. Having identical audio signals panned both to the left and the right can cause phase cancellation when the mix is collapsed to mono, particularly in the low end. You should still mix a nice-sounding wide mix, but keep checking it in mono to make sure you aren’t losing anything when the mix is collapsed to mono.
Check in headphones: Check your mix in headphones to make sure it doesn’t sound too disjointed or off balance. Your monitor speakers might be excellent, but since headphones lack the crosstalk (audio information from the right speaker reaching the left ear and vice versa), the experience can sound different. Remember, much of your audience might be listening to music in headphones!
Don’t overdo it: Make sure that the elements you pan don’t make the left or right side too rhythmically busy. For example, when mixing two instruments that occupy a similar higher-end frequency range, such as an acoustic guitar and a hi-hat, you can pan each instrument opposite sides. Since these two instruments are usually playing a similar rhythm (8th or 16th notes), keeping them opposite of each other maintains a similar timbre and rhythmic feel in both speakers. Panning a lot of rhythmic elements to one side could be quite distracting.
Vintage vibe: With that said, sometimes older recordings, or modern recordings mixed with nostalgic, vintage methods, might pan the drums almost all the way to the right, and the bass opposite on the left. Doing this will require more effort and attention on the part of the listener, but it can result in interesting textures.
Less is more: Sometimes the widest sounding mixes don’t come from panning everything, they come from panning just a couple of interesting elements while maintaining a strong, balanced center. This also tends to correlate very well in mono. Try just making just one element of your mix wide and spacious, like doubled-guitars, a stereo piano track or overheads, and make everything else work around center with careful level setting and judicious EQ. You’ll be surprised how powerful this can be!