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The Basics of Panning in a Mix

Panning is a topic that seems to be never discussed. I guess it’s not as flashy as incredible delays, or advanced compression techniques. However, there’s a hierarchy in terms of what influences a mix. The top of this hierarchy is the basic balance. Second to that is your panning scheme, wherein the stereo field everything is living. After that comes all of the signal processing.

So let’s talk Panning. Let’s get a mindset and understanding of what we’re doing and what we are trying to achieve when we move stuff around the stereo field.

1. Power

The phantom center of our stereo field, that is, the place that we perceive exactly between the left and right speakers is our point of power. Whatever lives there commands the most influence because it is central. Whether it’s a lead vocal or a guitar solo, the centerpiece is typically going to be perceived most dominantly to the listener’s ear. We usually want to position our primary elements here. Lead vocal, Bass — whatever musical element is driving the record.

Any impactful element like a drum or a big synth is going to draw the ear. Typically this means we want those kinds of elements to also be balanced in the stereo field so that the listener isn’t pulled to the left or the right (and therefore away from our focal elements). If we want the listener following the vocal, it’s going to be distracting if there’s a snare way out on the right side. If we keep the snare centered, we won’t get this distraction.

This doesn’t mean these elements have to be dead center, but just know that the further out they get the more distracting they can become.

Lastly, our rhythm drivers are strongest in the center. If we have a central rhythmic idea, it will translate most clearly from the center position.

And if you’re thinking, gosh, it seems like a lot of stuff to jam into the center: you’d be right. The center is the core of our music.

2. Breadth

There are definitely compelling reasons to get out of the center. We tend to think of “bigness” as being the same as “loudness” but in reality, this is not the case. A great example would be the “Lungs” album by Florence And The Machine. Those records sound huge, but in terms of commercial loudness, they’re actually on the quieter side. The perception of size comes from the imaging — the front to back (the contrast between things which sound close and things which sound far away), and the stereo imaging (the contrast between the left and right speakers).

This means it can be good to get stuff out of the center.

Certain elements lend themselves to this naturally: the low-end of a piano vs the high end of a piano, double rhythm guitars, stereo-ized synths, and wide reverb. These things will still feel concentric, meaning the left and right sides hold equal weight, while not being in the center itself.

Other elements we can simply hold license to pan out. Augmenting elements that just support the core ideas, like percussion tracks, or synth layers, or guitar jangles, or textural effects can easily live on the sides because they are there for the purpose of filling out the sound, rather than being unique, central ideas.

And sometimes we can inch our core ideas out of the center a little bit. Maybe our acoustic guitar is the rhythm driver of the song. We can do a partial pan move to get the acoustic a little left or right, without totally dislodging it from the central image.

3. Glue

It’s important to consider how pan placement will effect the connection between elements. When we pan things together, they connect. When we pan them apart, they disconnect.

If we have a conga, agogo, cowbell, and djembe, and they all form one rhythmic idea together we can literally ruin the song by panning these elements apart. If they are functioning together musically, this idea is usually best communicated when they are in fact together. I would much rather a smaller sounding record with a more compelling rhythm than a huge sounding record that feels disconnected and the listener doesn’t capture the complete musical idea.

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All of that being said — we can use our pan schemes to create new rhythmic dynamics. If we have a hat that’s just riding out 8th notes, and we automate our panning to push every other hit out to the left, we’ve now created a quarter note pulse within the hi-hat line.

When we do this, we have to acknowledge that we are creating a new rhythm — so we want to only do it if this new rhythm compliments the rhythms already present in the production. Through this kind of stereo accenting, we can also augment existing rhythms.

For example, if we have a hi-hat line that switches to an open hat at the end of each measure, we could have our hats panned a little left, and then automate the position to go a touch further left on the open hat, which will make the note stand out. That’s profoundly different than automating our open hat all the way to the right, which will pull the ear in a completely different direction and create an effect of disconnect.

4. Stage Imaging & Player’s Perspective

Sometimes we want to use panning to create an organic image, such as the idea of a band or an orchestra playing in front of us.

For this, we generally need a room capture to localize the sound, and then we move things about to kind of “lock-in” the image. This approach creates the illusion of a real setting and is commonly used in more “organic” genres.

In more synthetic genres, we usually don’t try to convince anyone that there’s anything real happening as we’re using elements and arrangements that aren’t acoustic in nature.

In some genres, we see a mixture of both. For Rock, I like the “player’s perspective” approach to drum panning, which leans the hat to the left and places the cymbals and toms in an array across the stereo field. This is great for air drumming, and while that sounds silly at first, our goal is to engage the listener as much as possible. So if giving them player’s perspective helps them drum along and engage with the song: that’s a win.

5. Pan Automation & Auto-Panning

While it’s good to get an overall static panning scheme, our mixes are defined by the things that move, not the things that stay the same. I already mentioned pan automation a bit above. Pan automation can also be an imperative part of defining the size of our song sections.

For our closer, more personal parts of a song, we may not want things panned to the extreme left and right. As the song gets more dramatic, we can pan things out more and more. Not only can we define the feel of our sections this way, but we can create contrast going from section to section which creates a more impactful experience and helps the listener follow along.

We can also use auto-panners to create stereo effects on keys or make vocal delays feel like they’re swirling around the vocal rather than just rolling through the dead center of the record, which in turn also creates more room in the center for the dry vocal itself.

How we choose to pan our elements comes down to the stylistic approach to the record, what we choose to make central to the listener, how things connect rhythmically, and how each moment comes together. Pan is an under-attended aspect of stereo mixing, yet one of the most influential components to making a great mix. So don’t just go panning things around randomly. Create a concept for your stereo image and work toward that.

Video Tutorial: Planning Your Panning

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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