Depending on the DAW (or mixing console), audio panning is represented as either a pan knob or slider that can be moved all the way from one side (left) to the other (right) and set anywhere in between. This makes us think that, as we pan a track (or instrument), we’re moving it along a horizontal line and giving it space. Kind of like placing a musician or amplifier on stage.
We’re not sending a horizontal line into our speakers though. We’re sending two cables, two channels, a left signal, and a right signal – only two things. When we pan we’re actually deciding how much goes into the left channel and how much goes into the right. So unless a track is panned all the way to either side, there will be some of it present in both channels and, as a result, both speakers.
So where does the illusion of space and distance come from then?
From the way, our ears pick it up. When we hear a sound more in our left ear than we do in our right, we perceive it as coming from the left and vice-versa. The less we hear a sound in one ear or the other, the more distant it seems, which means more space. While hearing the same sound equally in both ears gives us the impression of it being right in our face. A-ha!
Creating space and making things sound “in your face” is something we always try to achieve in music. Good audio panning will get you 80% of the way there! It’s about more than simply giving each musician his space on your imaginary stage. It’s about moving things out of the way, it’s about featuring what’s important, it’s about sonic illusion, and most of all, it’s about balance.
Use LCR panning to open up the mix
Now that you understand how audio panning works, you should be able to better appreciate the idea of LCR panning. For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet – it means panning things strictly hard left, hard right, and dead center, meaning nothing in between.
It’s about separating the ambiance from the actors, the background from the main features, or the space from the “in your face” to be more precise. It’s all about creating width and room in your mix. Because the greater the distance between the center and edge, the bigger space will be. Think about a filled club vs. an empty club. Which seems bigger?
Below is an acoustic piece with only a handful of tracks. Everything is centered except the keyboards which are stereo and hard-panned. The two guitar tracks are panned differently in each sample. Give both a listen and think which one sounds better.
Example 1 (1)
Example 1 (2)
In the first sample, following the “imaginary stage” approach, the two guitars are panned halfway left and halfway right. So they’re not in the same “place” as the keyboard or the vocal.
In the second sample, following LCR, they’re panned hard left and hard right (same as the keyboard). Now which one sounded more open?
SPOILER! Personally, I prefer the second. In the first one, it feels like the guitars are fighting the vocal for dominance and the keyboards seem detached from the mix.
Use a hybrid approach to achieve balance
While LCR is a good place to start, there are always exceptions to the rule. Sometimes tracks will just sound weird when they’re panned completely either way, but if you leave them centered it will sound too dense. Close mics on drums, percussion, minor melodic phrases, and so on, are good examples.
If you have your overheads panned hard left and right (and most of us do), then the toms and hi-hat will already have their place. Put any of them in the center and the mix will turn dense and lose space, but moving them all the way to the side will usually sound weird. However, pan those close mics following the image that the overheads created and you’ll get more punch and better balance overall.
Or maybe your guitarist wanted to fill up the verse with a few melodic phrases. You know, those short solos played parallel to the vocal melody? If you leave them centered they’ll probably fight the vocal for space, but they disrupt the balance of the mix when panned all the way to the side. You have to find the sweet spot where it sits best.
This is a pop piece with a lot of tracks, but I want you to pay attention to the shaker. I turned it up so you can hear it better.
Example 2 (1)
Example 2 (2)
Example 2 (3)
- In the first one, the shaker is in the center.
- In the second sample, it’s panned all the way to the right.
- Finally, in the third, it’s balanced to the right against the hi-hat mic (which was leaning left according to the overhead stereo image).
Which one sounded cleanest to you?
SPOILER! Number 3 is my favorite. The shaker seems to be fighting the snare for space in the first one and it’s outright distracting in the second.
So, how does a Pro pan?
There’s a reason why I asked which sample you think sounds better. Ultimately, audio panning is all about personal judgment. You’re the one painting the sonic picture according to what sounds best to you. I gave you the approaches, examples, the how, and the why, but what you do with it is up to you.
I also write: 5 Steps To Save Your Bass Sound