These nine tips will help you understand how panning can help add width, space, and depth – and generally help you make better audio mixes in your home studio.
When mixing your tracks, panning contributes to how wide your mix will sound. It can be used to create space, enhance the existing space, create a more immersive musical experience for your listeners, and generally help you make better audio mixes in your home studio.
In Image No. 1, the mix is panned very narrowly, and the Stereo vectorscope indicates there is not much spatialization, or width.
In Image No. 2, you can see the result of a much wider mix, without any processing required beyond panning.
How to use panning musically
How do you know what to pan, and where to place instruments and tracks in the mix? Typically, the backbeat and lead vocal are the focal points of the mix, so the kick, snare, and lead vocal are often lined up in the center, referred to as C or 0 by most DAWs. The other elements of the mix are what you (or your mix engineer) will use to create a stereo image of your song, understanding that our ears focus on the signals panned center or panned extreme left or right, while the points in between are less distinct.
Think of this as creating an audio picture for your listener to experience. In some cases, this will mean you can picture the musicians playing their instruments as they’d be 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 concrete rules for this, just guidelines, but here are a few tips:
1. Double-track the guitars
When recording guitars, double-tracking (recording the same part twice) and panning one track extreme left and the other extreme right can create a much fuller-sounding mix without overloading the instrumentation of the arrangement.
2. Complementary panning
If two instruments in your mix occupy a similar frequency range, try panning them opposite of one another. You don’t have to pan them to extremes: 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. That can be fatiguing and make it difficult to discern what the ear should focus on.
3. Place the snare drum 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.
4. Create narrow verses and wider choruses
Try keeping a relatively narrow image across your mix during the verses and then widen it by panning the elements that appear in the choruses further from center. Having elements pop out like this, or shift temporarily to a more extreme pan setting, will create change and excitement.
5. Check your mix in mono
Listen to your mix in mono periodically to ensure you aren’t losing too much in the translation. It’s possible to spend time focusing on panning your mix only to go too far and realize it sounded more impactful before you even began. It’s also worth noting that if you’re mixing any form of electronic music – or anything that’s likely to be played in a club setting – 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 shoot for a nice, wide mix, but keep checking it in mono to make sure you aren’t losing anything when it’s collapsed to mono.
6. Check your mix in headphones
Check your mix in headphones to make sure it doesn’t sound off-balance or disjointed. 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. Not to mention, a lot of folks in your audience might be listening to your music in headphones!
7. Stay balanced
Make sure 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 might consider panning the instruments on opposite sides. Since these two instruments are usually playing a similar rhythm (8th or 16th notes), keeping them opposite of one other maintains a similar timbre and rhythmic feel in both speakers. Panning a lot of rhythmic elements to one side could be quite distracting.
8. Model a vintage mix
Sometimes older recordings, or modern recordings mixed with nostalgic, vintage methods, 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.
9. Pan judiciously
Sometimes the widest sounding mixes don’t come from panning everything, they come from panning a few interesting elements while maintaining a strong, balanced center. This also tends to correlate very well in mono. Try making just one element of your mix wide and spacious – maybe doubled-guitars, a stereo piano track, or overheads – and make everything else work around the center with careful level settings and judicious EQ. You’ll be surprised how powerful this can be!
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