Panning is one of the most overlooked, yet most effective ways to make your mix sound better.
By effectively panning certain instruments either to the left or right and to different degrees, you’ll be able to improve your mix in two key ways, namely:
(a) You’ll give your instruments more space in the mix, so that they wont sound so cluttered.
If you’ve ever listened to an unmixed song with tons of instruments, you’ll know just how confusing it is to listen to as all the instruments are panned dead center.
(b) Your mix will sound more life-like, more 3D sounding (if that makes any sense).
Panning in the Real World
If we listen to a rock band live, the vocalist, lead guitarist, bassist and drummer are all not lined up in the center of the stage, they are spread out.
You’ll usually have the lead singer in the front center, the guitarist to the side and the bassist and drummer in the back near center.
Any other instruments such as percussionist would be off to one side or another.
Of course, the lead singer, depending on how much drugs and alcohol he is on will be moving about the stage, but that’s neither here nor there.
For us panning is useful because it allows to not rely so much on eq’ing to declutter our mix, which if you have no idea what you’re doing can lead to disastrous effects.
Panning Like a Pro
So how can you effectively pan instruments while mixing your song? Keep these guidelines in mind:
Lead vocals remain front and center. Doesn’t matter the genre, could be rock, rap or country. If there is any main vocals in your song we want to hear them and they’ve got to be right in front of us.
You want that thumping bass?
Then keep the bass dead center as well.
It wont conflict with the vocals, because it is at a much lower frequency and you don’t need to turn the bass up too loud to be felt.
I would recommend keeping it no louder than -15db in hip hop and dance songs.
For added effect, you can duplicate your bass track panning one side to the left and the other to the right, while keeping one in the center and see how that sounds.
I wouldn’t recommend this for parts of the song where there are lots of instruments or vocals.
Backup vocals should be panned both left and right.
Especially for rap songs, where the vocals are front and center, panning the backup vocals to both the left and right during the chorus makes for a more grander feel.
The best example I can think of is on Kanye’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing.
You hear how the main vocals have no back up vocals but when the chorus kicks in it creates a more spatial 3D feel?
As far as drums are concerned, you’ll want to keep the kick and snare panned to the center, with any other percussion such as hi-hats or toms or shakers, panned to either the left or the right.
Mixing a Rock Song
If you’re mixing a rock song, you’ll want the drums panned in a similar fashion to how they are in real life.
For example, keep the drums and snare center, hi-hats to the rights, cymbal to the left, and crash going from the left to the right.
So that when the drummer bangs on the left crash and moves to the right crash, you’ll feel it as if it were being performed live.
This is the same approach as you’d take with the toms. For hip hop and EDM, you probably just want to make your kicks bang.
Panning All Other Instruments
Particularly in hip hop and EDM where a ton of synths are used you are going to want to pan to either side depending on where your ear tells you it should go.
A big part about panning instruments effectively depends on your taste.
Always try to make mix decisions that make the song feel better and not ones that are technically correct.
Music is about conveying emotion and panning is just one trick you can do to bring your song to life.
Here’s a cool diagram showing you one way you can place an orchestra in a mix. It is not the only way to pan but it should give you some idea of visualizing where the sounds in your mix could be.
That’s all for now.
Be sure to let me know in the comments if you found this primer on the power of panning useful and some of the tricks you use.
Also if you’re too overwhelmed by all this, try out our online mixing and mastering service.