This post focuses on the placement of sounds in the stereo image during the mix process.
Proper use of stereo imaging in a mix is probably almost as important (or even more important in sparse mixes) as equalization, yet it is largely overlooked as an area for improvement in engineers and producers of beginner and intermediate experience. Intelligent panning and equalization compose about 80% of a good mix, in my opinion.
The Stereo Field ‘Real Estate’
The stereo field can be thought of as your ‘real estate’ for sounds. In any real estate market, there are prime spots that should be reserved for ‘special’ things. In stereo, these spots are center, left, and right. When you choose to place anything in these key spots, make sure you have considered why. These are the spots that most affect the mix. Mixes with much use of hard panning will sound heavier and unfocused. Mixes with much use of the center channel can sound clustered and claustrophobic.
Conventions, Best Practices and their Reasons
As with any set of rules, these conventions can be broken to very good effect. There are good reasons for these standards to exist, however, and they have to do with the way sound is produced and heard. Back in the days of the Beatles, Abbey Road’s first console only had three panning settings: hard left, center, and hard right. Listen to their recordings before 1968ish and you’ll hear lots of unconventional panning (from today’s perspective).
Low frequency sounds such as kick and bass sound best in the middle. There are a couple of reasons why this is the case. First of all, sounds in the middle are being driven equally by both speakers. Bass sounds require a lot of energy to produce and having two speakers working at producing the sound means that the speakers don’t have to strain as much. Secondly, bass tends to be the foundation and anchor of the mix so, psychologically, having the anchor in the middle is reassuring to the listener. Choosing to have bass sounds panned will make a big impression on the listener… it’s obvious and catches attention. As such, panning a bass sound should be done in special circumstances when something specific is to be accomplished.
It is the natural inclination of just about everyone just starting out to pan reverb returns to full stereo: hard left and hard right. This is not a good idea unless your mix is very sparse. One of the things that reverb does is it defines the depth ‘space’ in which different sounds live. As such, it can also define the ‘space’, left and right, in which the sounds live. If one is contrasting a dry sound with a wet sound, panning the dry sound to ‘live’ outside the stereo span of the return makes the dry sound appear much drier and the wet sound appear much wetter. If the dry sound were to be panned within the span of the wet sound, its tight decay would be obscured by the decay of the reverb. Also, a hard reverb pan all the way to the left or right makes the edges of the mix sound muffled. As the left, right, and center channels are the most important, leaving these areas clear allows incidental and critical sounds to be heard without competition. If I need a reverb to return in the center, I pan the left and right channels ‘in’ a little bit (such as 80% right and 80% left). I often will pan a return exclusively to the right or left sides, ‘out’ from center and ‘in’ from the edges (such as 20% right and 80% right). Having reverb in the center of a mix will obscure the impact of critical rhythm sounds such as snares and kicks. The same general principles apply to delay returns, albeit a little less strictly as they tend to be sparser.
Another natural inclination of beginners is to pan stereo overheads and drum rooms hard left and hard right. This can work well for a very wide drum sound. However, in busy mixes it can sound better to bring the pan in a bit or even have the drums be mono altogether! Radiohead frequently uses mono drum overheads. I bet many of the records you listen to on a regular basis have mono drums and you haven’t even noticed. Mono drums give you more room to experiment and to fit sounds in the mix. Generally speaking, the simpler the drum part, the better it sounds in mono. Most ‘dance’ music has drums entirely mono to ensure that the entire club, both left and right, can hear the beat. This philosophy applies to other ‘club’ music, as well.
Rhythm guitars are generally placed very wide. If the guitars are a central part of the song and need to be heard prominently, panning them hard left and hard right makes sense. I usually make the wideness of rhythm rock guitars to be a top priority. If the guitars are merely texture, consider pulling them into the space in-between.
Avoid having any strident sounds panned to the edges of the mix, especially ‘sine’ type synthesizers. Ears don’t like sounds that don’t blend. Sine synths blend poorly and panning hard reduces blend even more.
Consider automating pans to create motion and to shift the image of the song from section to section.
Lead vocals are often panned dead center. This makes a lot of sense psychologically, particularly if the vocal part is solo and not doubled. If the part it doubled, it can be more effective to pan the doubles left and right a bit to make room for drums and bass.
Background vocals almost always sound best with an equal balance and with lower parts panned inwards. If the backgrounds are incidental, hard panning left or right can be very interesting. If the backgrounds repeat a lot, the 50%-70% ranges of left and right make a great target for carving out their home.
If you have a stereo synth sound to place, consider simply throwing away one channel. Often the other channel is merely a ‘chorused’ or delayed copy designed to make the preset sound bigger. Bigger is not always better in mixing.
Oh… and stereo widening gimmicks? Skip them. Leave that stuff up to an experienced mastering engineer.
General Philosophies for Panning
Some producers are really into documenting a performance. If this is your thing, it makes a lot of sense to pan the performers as they are literally spaced in their performance. Decide whether you want the image to be from the band’s perspective or the ‘audience’ perspective. If the drummer is considered the middle, the snare drum, for example, would be panned slightly to his left (provided he is right-handed), the hat further to the left, etc.
If you’re more interested in producing a unique environment, throw that idea out the window and do whatever you feel.
As you can see, panning is a complex and subtle process. To review… don’t have a bunch of things panned in the same area. If you find that certain sounds are ‘stacked’, try soloing those sounds and make sure they don’t interfere too much with each other. I like to have sounds evenly balanced in the space. A typical mix of mine would probably find sounds panned, from left to right: 100%, 85%, 75%, 65%, 50%, 30%, 20%, center, 20%, 30%, 50%, 65%, 75%, 85%, 100%.
Panning can be a lot of fun….