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It’s quite easy now with modern DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) to automate panning so that a track can “move” around as the song progresses. Depending on the style of music, bouncing an instrument from one side of the mix to the other can add excitement or grab a listener’s attention. It can also be used subtly, by slowly shifting an instrument’s location, to signal either a new direction in the song or to create an almost imperceptible uneasiness. [editor’s note – see last month’s issue or head here for Part One in our series on stereo panning and mixing.]
THE MID-SIDE PAN
I won’t go into how to set this up, as it’s a bit complicated for the beginner, but if you already know how to do it, or are willing to put a few minutes into watching YouTube videos on the subject, we highly recommend you try using the Mid-Side miking technique the next time you are tracking acoustic guitars in a mix. The Mid-Side miking technique allows you to change the amount of “stereo-ness” in the mix after you have recorded, instead of being stuck with what you recorded using an X-Y setup. With the acoustic recorded in Mid-Side, you could have the intro playback in stereo and then narrow the field as the vocals come in to give them more presence. Or you could try the opposite by having the guitar start in mono and then slowly broaden to stereo to make the mix more interesting as the listener gets used to the progression.▼ Article continues below ▼
Another great way to utilize panning in your mix is to pan your reverb. By mixing in different patterns of delays in the left and right channels, some reverbs can recreate the feeling of sound bouncing around in a real space. This will help create width and depth for your tracks in the stereo mix. This should be done sparingly, though, because when overdone it can create muddiness in the mix. If time is available to you, experimenting with the panning of reverb can lead to some pretty creative sounds. But for the rest of us who have budgets to consider, we find it best to keep our reverbs nice and centered and used conservatively.
WHERE YOU SIT
Remember to keep checking your mix with a pair of trusted headphones. And before you finalize a mix, especially one with heavy panning, you should reference it on a couple of different systems, preferably in different spaces to make sure that your panning efforts aren’t hurting you. Many people listen in less-than-perfect situations; for instance, listening in most cars usually produces an unbalanced experience with the speaker that is closest to the listener delivering the most energy. This is where LCR can be a good method, because even though instruments are hard-panned, most of the information is the same through either the left or right channel.
Panning has some general rules (and with all general rules, feel free to break them and experiment), which generally lead to good results as proven by decades of mixes. Acoustic pianos generally sound good hard panned in stereo unless the mix is too muddy, in which case try mono and finding a location in the mix somewhere around 10 or 2 o’clock. Lead vocals are almost always panned down the middle, as are bass and kick drums – although in jazz, the bass and kick can go slightly off-center. Percussion (think shakers, tambourines, hand claps, cabasas, snaps, cowbells, etc) all sound good panned fairly hard. Some percussion can go in the same location as other main rhythm instruments to give them added flavor without standing out, while often a new percussion instrument that comes into the mix during a certain section, like the chorus, should be by itself, low in the mix, to change the energy level of that part.
Remember to maintain balance in your mix; if you pan a rhythm electric piano part fairly hard left, make sure you have something to help balance it out, like a rhythm guitar part, panned somewhere to the right. If you’ve been trying to get the mix right but it just isn’t working, then try breaking some panning rules. Do something crazy – want kick drum hard left? It might just be what the song needs or at the very least get you to hear the mix differently and create a needed breakthrough so that everything, wait for it…pans out.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA. He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. Reach him at zac at nighttrainstudios.com.
Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/producer at Night Train Studios. He is also a talent scout at Black Cloud Productions. Reach him at brent at blackcloudproductions.com.