Stereo Panning to get better mixes

Nowadays, all home audio systems are in stereo. It means that the sound comes through two speakers: Left and Right.

Long time ago, music was listened to in mono-systems, in other words: through only one speaker. Then, stereo systems were created, but they were not used properly at the time.

Planning the panning

In Panning, we have 3 specific sources: LeftCenter y Right.

Imagine a live situation, with a band on a stage. The singer is placed at centered front, the guitar on the left and the keys to the right.

Low frequencies are omnidirectional, that means: we cannot perceive the specific location of the source. So; Low frequency-based instruments could be perfectly placed at center.

So, at center: Lead Vox, Bass Guitar, Kick and Snare. All other instruments could be distributed across the panorama on the sides.

Drums

Drums are an interesting and fantastic instrument with some parts that have their own position in the mix.

An interesting point to consider is the perspective of the listener.

There are 2 common cases:

  • Drummer’s perspective
  • Listener’s perspective

So, the pan of each part of the drums will be chosen from it.

The Kick: Low frequency-based instrument. In some genres, it has a high amount of low and sub-low frequencies. So, we will place it at the center of the panorama.

The Snare: In most of cases, the snare will be placed at the center of the panorama because of an artistic choice. Some mixing engineers could prefer to pan it a bit to the left or to the right.

The HiHat (or Charles): The panning of the Hat is definitely an artistic choice. If the scenario is a real acoustic drum, it could be placed hardly at left, considering the drummer perspective, or in another hand, at the right considering the listener’s perspective.

The Toms: Please, allow me a few words about it. I really enjoy listening to a tom’s fill in a recording because of its panning! It depends on the perspective, of course.

In a basic drum’s configuration of 2 floating toms and a 1 floor tom:

Drummer’s perspective:

  • Tom 1: 30% Left
  • Tom 2: 30% Right
  • Floor Tom: 70% Right

Listener’s perspective:

  • Tom 1: 30% Right
  • Tom 2: 30% Left
  • Floor Tom: 70% Left

The Overheads

The overheads are a preview -or a global perspective- of the entire drums kit. These are commonly captured with 2 mics, with a stereo par configuration of condenser mics. In this kind of take, we can perceive the distribution of the elements across the panorama, mainly the cymbals, hats, and drums. So, a good practice could be to match the panning of the direct takes (Close mics) vs their position in the stereo imaging (on the overheads take).

Other elements

The Lead Vox:

The singer is -In most of genres- the lead element of the song. It contains the lyrics and the main line.

It is important to always listen to the main vocal, so a good strategy is to pan it at center.

The Bass Guitar:

As I previously said, low frequency-based instruments should be centered on the panorama; this way, it will be more consistent in the big picture of the song.

Frequency-Based Panning Strategy

Fact: Two elements who are living in the same frequency range of the spectrum, will be always “fighting” for room and presence.

Panning will help us to make space between these elements.

IE: Hihats and tambourine are living in the same range of the frequency spectrum, so a good strategy to separate them, is panning them to opposite sides.

Same with mid-high frequency-based instruments like electric guitars and Rhodes.

Stereo Tracks Panning

Sometimes, Stereo FX, like Chorus, Reverb, Phaser or even a PingPong delay, makes a huge impact on the resulting sound of individual instruments, but it takes a lot of space on the general panorama.

Don’t be afraid to reduce the stereo image of it, or pan it like a block.

Dynamic Panning

Imagine the following scenario: A full band song, where in the verse of the song we have the hat on the left and the tambourine on the right, but then when the chorus comes, drummer plays the ride instead of the hat. So, now the ride and the tambourine are at the same place (At the right of the panorama)

Ride and tambourine are living in the same frequency range of the spectrum, just like Hat and tambourine.

So now, we can move the tambourine -with automation- to the opposite side from the ride.

Some Tips and Tricks

  • Low frequency-based instruments should be panned at the center of the panorama.
  • Lead vox, kick drum, snare drum and bass guitar work well panned at the center of the panorama. All others should be placed on the sides.
  • Instruments with similar frequency content should be panned to the opposite side from each other.
  • Instruments with a high amount of low frequency content work well close to the center of the panorama. On the other hand, instruments with a low amount of low frequency content works better placed far on the sides.
  • If static panning is not working at all on specific parts of the song, we can try moving elements temporarily via pan automation.

Special thanks for its contribution – reedition and translation – to Fernando Cubillos Songwriter, Producer, Mixing Engineer (Mark Farner / Daniela Serey / Bauhauz)

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