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Stereo Panning: A Question Of Balance

6:48 am Home Recording

When it comes time to mix those 8 or 16 or however many tracks down to stereo, there are three basic factors under your control for each track: (1) volume level; (2) EQ and effects; and (3) stereo position (panning).

In this article, I would like to offer some cheap advice on stereo panning. This may seem rather unimportant compared with the other factors, merely a matter of placing the most important elements in the center and panning secondary guitars and keyboards to the right and left. There. Done! But of course there’s more to it than that.

A lot of today’s listening takes place in headphones, where the placement of sounds to the left or right is very obvious. Stereo drums sound very different from mono drums in headphones. Same with any other stereo signal, like the stereo return from a reverb or chorus unit. Everything seems exaggerated and hyper-clear in headphones, which is not surprising considering that the sounds seem to be coming from inside the listener’s head!

With this in mind, I have found the following practices to be advantageous.

1. Avoid the extreme left and right.

In the earliest days of stereo LPs (those black vinyl discs), it was such a novelty that everyone tried to be as “stereo” as possible, possibly to justify the $1 extra cost per album over the mono version. This, along with the common 4-track recording limitation, resulted in songs with the drums all the way to the left and the bass all the way to the right, among other now-odd setups. Several Beatles songs, including “Nowhere Man” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” basically have the instruments on one side and the vocals on the other.

This super-stereo is great for impressing people with your new “hi-fi,” but not so great in headphones! A sound panned all the way to one side will not be heard at all by the opposite ear. This scenario cannot occur in the real world, and the headphoned brain doesn’t know what to make of it. The result is an uncomfortable “split head” feeling that distracts from the actual music.

The upshot: Don’t pan any mono instruments or vocals full left or right. Pretty darn far is OK, but not all the way out. Send a little bit to the other ear.

(Note that stereo returns from a reverb or chorus-type effects unit, as well as the stereo instrument signals mentioned below, can be panned full left and right, since the effects or instrument sound is pre-distributed across the stereo stage.)

2. Aim for a balanced mix.

Think of the mix as a seesaw. If you put something on the left side, you need to balance it with something similar on the right side. If there are two guitars on a song, you would typically pan one toward the left and one toward the right, although if one is the lead guitar, you may want to put that one in the middle with the vocal and pan the rhythm guitar and keyboard left and right. The important thing is to always consider the panning question in terms of balance.

One way to keep your mix in balance while adding an “odd man out” part, like a tympani or a triangle (or anything else), is to send the new signal through a delay unit set to 20 or 30 milliseconds. Then pan the original signal to one side (possibly all the way over for maximum effect) and pan the delayed signal to the other side. With the levels of the two sides matched, this seems to put the new signal in the center (since it’s on both sides), yet it isn’t actually in the center, so it doesn’t interfere with the vocal or anything else that is there. Neat!

3. Use micro-panning.

I’m not one for hidebound convention, but there are certain sounds in a pop or rock recording that just belong in the center of the stereo stage. I’m talking about the kick drum, the snare drum, the bass, and the lead vocal. In songs that are not “art” songs (or “self indulgent” songs), these elements are always in the center. But! They don’t all need to be dead center. I play a little game with the centered elements, with only one of them actually centered and the others each a tiny bit left or a tiny bit right, no two in the exact same place.

This would never be noticed in speakers, but in headphones, a sound a tiny bit to the left may sound like it’s maybe an eighth of an inch off center inside your head. That tiny offset keeps any two instruments from occupying quite the same position on the in-head stereo stage. Each has its own little part of the center area, and each is heard more clearly as a result. The average listener won’t notice what you did, but they will notice the result.

4. Use stereo instrument signals if possible.

Most keyboards and some guitar stompboxes have left and right outputs and are capable, at least with some voices or settings, of producing a stereo signal. If you can spare the tracks, it might be a good idea to record both sides of this signal. (Before trying to record in stereo make sure that the two outputs are not exactly the same with your current settings. That’s mono, and there’s no sense recording two tracks of it! Find a voice or setting with a definite stereo image.)

When you mix a song with a stereo instrument track on it, remember that just because it’s a stereo track doesn’t mean it has to be centered. Your panning choices for that instrument are not limited to wide stereo, narrow stereo, or mono, all centered. Try panning the left side full left and put the “right” side in the center! This causes the instrument to evenly occupy the entire left half of the stereo stage. If you have another stereo instrument on the same song, pan it center-to-right to fill up the other side of the stage. This can give a really full, spacious sound with just two instruments!

Keep these tips in mind when you’re mixing your next project, and you’ll add a “new dimension” to your mix.

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One Response
  1. Brian :

    Date: August 9, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Great article! But I do have a question, I’m trying to
    do a simple pan. So I Layed out 3 tracks of the entire song on each track. I put one track to the left, one to the right and one in the center. And when I listened to it on my home receiver it sounded no different than before. I first listened to the song with it only in center. Then I did the 3 tracks with one in the center,100% left and 100%right. There was barely a difference. I heard more sounds coming out of my left and right speaker when I rendered it with it being on center only. Why is there barely any difference. I just want to make my music sound a little more full. I’m finding out this is not as simple as I hoped it would be.
    Thanks
    Brian

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