Wikipedia states that “Panning is the spread of a sound signal (either monaural or stereophonic pairs) into a new stereo or multi-channel sound field. A typical physical recording console pan control is a knob with a pointer which can be placed from the 8 o’clock dial position fully left to the 4 o’clock position fully right.”
Audio panning is the phenomenon to which decides where any audio signal will be sent to either left, right, or center position. This is all assuming you’re using stereo settings.
For the best sound panning experience make sure your monitors are at an equal distance from themselves and from you. Your audio monitors should form an equilateral triangle from your left monitor, right monitor, and your head. This will form “The Sweet Spot” (see image below).
There are more technical descriptions of panning than what I’ll cover, but here is what you need to know. If you produce music and you have never used panning, everything will be centered. This means that everything will use the right and the left side of the sound space equally. There would be nothing you hear more on one side or the other, and certainly no standalone sounds on either side. Why might this be a problem?
Well simply put, there is a limited sound space you have to work with, especially when making louder music. If you have everything centered, it may sound muddier and generally less clear per layer of sound you input. This all changes when you pan.
Some of the lighter and less dynamic instruments can be panned fairly well. These can include high-hats, atmospheric effects, backup vocals, and most anything that wouldn’t be considered a lead instrument. Things like bass drums, bass guitars, lead guitars, and lead vocals are usually never panned. You want those to have higher power and sound and therefore, they deserve to be centered so both sides of sound are fully used to amplify them.
Panning, as mentioned in Wikipedia, works on an 8-4 clockwise schedule. Usually, 9-3 are the main portions of panning, but the specific 8 positions and 4 positions are mainly used for background noise only. Because these positions aren’t supported well by non-surround sound systems, they are rarely used due to the reverberation these signals receive (due to the position) and the “distant” sound it gives off. Nothing with high volume is ever used on the 8 and 4 positions.
There are guides to using panning but there are no set rules on what should always go where. It takes some fiddling around with for every song. I will say that panning is always an option a producer should try with every project they endeavor on. Mixes that have no pan usually sound muddy and dry; even with a great speaker system, non-panned mixes will sound empty.
Panning will take a good ear to master. If you can’t hear the difference, mess with panning some more then come back and try again. The second version has much more sound space to work with and more “room” to put a few more instruments in the mix without sacrificing quality.
When you have a small mix, you rarely want to put anything on the 9-3 spots. It would make the mix sound separated and uneven. However, large orchestrations would generally use all panning positions to maximize sound space and quality without having to decrease the number of instruments they use.
In the end, Panning is indeed your friend!
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