Panning Your Mixes
Panning is underrated. While it’s one of the simplest mixing tools to wrap your head around, it’s also one that doesn’t get talked about that much.
Unlike EQ, compression, reverb, and many other effects, panning is super simple. A few quick dial turns can instantly make a world of difference.
Panning: A Simple Enhancement
Listening sources like headphones, studio monitors, and car stereos have two or more speakers, allowing sound to be presented from two different directions. This creates a stereo listening field.
You can make sounds appear to be coming from your left side, your right side, straight in front of you, or anywhere in between.
Figure 1: The stereo listening field
Every track in your DAW is either a mono track or a stereo track. A stereo track has two channels of information – one for the left speaker and one for the right. These channels can be identical or have differences between them.
There are three common strategies for panning:
- Keeping a mono track centered in the middle
- Panning a stereo track to both the left and right sides
- Panning a mono track to one side
Figure 2: A center mono track, a stereo track panned to both sides, and a mono track panned to one side
Panning is a great way to enhance your mixes. It makes them more balanced, makes it easier to hear all of the instruments in your song, and improves the presentation of your music overall.
Choosing To Pan (or Not)
There are no rules for what should be panned or not, but here are some common practices that most music observes.
Keep Your Low Frequencies Centered
First, it’s helpful to avoid panning lower frequencies. This applies mostly to a song’s rhythm section, since instruments like kick drums and bass guitars fill out this portion of the frequency spectrum.
Historically, keeping lower frequencies centered had to do with the technical limitations of vinyl. Today, keeping the lower frequencies in the center keeps them focused and impactful, driving the song’s rhythm.
Center The Lead Vocals, Pan Harmonies and Backing Vocals
Lead vocals are almost always centered in mono. Like bass instruments, this keeps them focused, easy to hear, and easy to understand.
Additional vocal tracks, including harmonies and backing vocals, are frequently panned to both sides. This fills out the stereo field to create a powerful vocal performance, usually applied during big moments like choruses.
Enhance, Don’t Fix
Finally, it’s best to use panning as a way to enhance your mix, not fix it. If two tracks are clashing in the mix and need separation, panning shouldn’t be the default solution. This method for separation automatically fails when a song is played in mono, so solving these issues without panning is more effective.
Creating Stereo Pairs
Whenever you pan an instrument to both sides of the stereo image, it is important that the tracks on either side are different from one another. If you pan the same exact track to each side, it will just sound like it’s centered. There has to be contrast.
Figure 3: Two guitar recordings. Same piece, slightly different results.
Stereo tracks take care of this automatically. They are recorded with distinct left and right channel audio.
If you want to pan a mono track, you still can. To convert a mono track into a stereo track (or a stereo pair of mono tracks), you will have to create a second mono track. Here are the most common ways to do this.
Record Multiple Takes
The best and most common method to create a stereo pair is to record multiple takes. Play the same guitar riff twice, sing the same chorus twice, and pan different versions of these recordings to either side.
No matter how similar these recordings are, there will always be subtle differences that make them unique. These little differences set the tracks apart and create a stereo image.
If you are struggling to create pairs that sound similar enough to each other, that’s okay. There are ways to create stereo pairs without recording multiple takes, but this is the best method.
The more you practice your performances, the easier it will be to get recordings that sound similar enough to pan.
Add a Delay
If recording multiple takes isn’t an option, creating a delayed version of your mono track is an easy way to “fake” a stereo pair. All you have to do is create a second version of the track in question, add a short delay to it (usually under 50 milliseconds), and pan each version left and right.
This method makes both tracks sound just different enough to make your brain differentiate them.
Pitch, EQ, and Other Effects
Similar to delay, you can use pitch, EQ, reverb, and a variety of other effects to differentiate a pair of identical tracks. As long as you create enough contrast, the sky is the limit. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Panning does not have to be limited to center, hard (all the way) left, or hard right. You can pan your tracks anywhere in between.
However, be careful about panning in between these settings. Panning tracks between hard left, center, and hard right can sometimes be effective, but often times panning completely to one side or staying centered is just as good if not better. Experiment, but note that these positions aren’t always the best option.
Figure 4: Partially panned vocals.
Contrast and Balance
At the end of the day, your goal for panning should be to create contrast. Panning gives you the power to add extra variation within your arrangement, enhancing the listening experience.
Similarly, finding balance with panning is important too. Too much panning or too little panning will keep you from creating meaningful contrast.
For every song you mix, look at your instruments, try them out panned and centered, try different combinations, and find a balance of pan settings to fill out the stereo image of your tracks.
There are an infinite number of ways you can apply panning. Don’t be afraid to get creative with it. Panning is easy to apply, easy to test, and it can create a great deal of enhancement in your songs.
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