In this lesson, we’re breaking down the role of panning in a mix. We’ll cover all the key topics like how panning works and how to use it in your DAW to give you a proper grounding in audio panning. You’ll also learn my top audio panning strategies so that you can apply panning in your mixes to best effect.
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What is panning in sound?
In audio, panning is the process of positioning sounds at particular locations in the stereo image of a mix. Using pan pots, you can make an instrument sound as though it is coming from a specific point between your left and right speaker. You can also use panning on stereo instruments to control how narrow or wide the instrument sounds. The process of positioning instruments from left to right and controlling the width of stereo instruments allows you to spread instruments out across the stereo image in the way that best suits your mix.
Hearing in stereo
The ability to make it sound as though an instrument is coming from a specific point between your speakers is down to the way that we hear sound, specifically ‘binaural hearing’. Binaural hearing refers to the way in which we hear with two ears. Because our ears are placed in two different locations, we hear sounds from two different points in space. The brain is able to use the differences between what the left ear hears and what the right ear hears to determine the location of the sound from left to right.
If a sound occurs to the right of you, then your right ear will hear the sound before your left ear. That’s because the sound has to travel further to reach your left ear. This difference in arrival time is known as interaural time difference. Not only that, but if a sound occurs to the right of you, then your right ear will hear the sound more loudly than your left. This is known as interaural level difference. The same is true if a sound occurs to your left. The sound will be heard sooner and louder by your left ear than your right. These differences in arrival time and level between your ears are what your brain uses to discern the location of the sound.
But what if a sound occurs directly in front of you? In this case, the sound will arrive at both your left and right ear at the same time and at an equal level. In this instance, the lack of difference between what each ear hears is used by your brain to perceive the sound’s location as being in front of you.
How does panning work in audio?
So how do we use this in panning? Well, when we mix music, we usually use (at least) two speakers. One on your left and one on your right. When you play a sound in your mix, you can use panning to control how loudly that sound is played from one speaker in comparison to how loudly it is played from the other. Playing a sound louder from one speaker will make your brain perceive the sound as being located on that side. Because of this, we have the ability to position sounds at any point between the two speakers. We position the sounds using a pan pot, short for panoramic potentiometer.
So how do we use a pan pot? First, imagine that you’re sitting between two monitor speakers mixing a song. With the pan pot on a mono channel placed in the centre position, a copy of the signal from that channel will be played out of both speakers at the same level. As such, you will hear the sound at an equal level in each ear. This means that you will perceive the sound as coming from right in front of you. We call this position ‘phantom centre’. It’s called this because there isn’t actually a speaker in the centre that the sound is coming from. The sound is coming from the left and right speakers. Nevertheless, your brain perceives the sound as coming from the centre because you are hearing it at an equal level in both ears.
Now, imagine you start to pan that track to the right. As you turn the pan pot to the right, the copy of the signal which is coming from the left speaker will get quieter. Because you are now hearing the sound more loudly in your right ear than in your left, you will perceive the sound as being located to the right. The more you pan to the right, the quieter the left channel gets, and so the further to the right the sound appears to be located.
What happens when you pan a stereo track?
So, we know what happens when you pan a mono track. But what happens when you pan a stereo track? This could be something like a piano which has been recorded in stereo using two mics, rather than in mono using one mic. In many DAW’s, Pro Tools for example, a stereo channel will have two pan pots. One controls the position of the left side of the signal. The other controls the position of the right side of the signal. This is really useful, as it allows you to control not only the location of the instrument in the stereo image, but also how wide or narrow the instrument sounds. Here’s how it works…
Panning stereo tracks
Let’s continue with our example of a stereo recording of a piano. You could place the pan pots hard left and hard right. This would spread the piano across the entire stereo image. Now let’s say you moved each pan pot inwards towards the centre by 50%. This would keep the piano located across the centre, but it would make the piano’s width narrower than before. The closer the pan pots are positioned towards the same point, the narrower the instrument’s width becomes.
Now let’s say you panned both pan pots towards the left. Both the left and right sides of the signal are now positioned on the left of the mix. The further left the pots are positioned, the further left the piano appears to be located. Again, the closer to the same point that the pots are panned, the narrower the piano’s width sounds. The further apart the pots are panned, the wider the piano’s width sounds.
So as you can see, if your DAW provides you with two pan pots on a stereo channel, then you have the ability to place a stereo instrument anywhere in the stereo image and with your chosen width.
Pan pots vs balance pots
However, not all DAW’s offer you this level of control. Some only offer a single ‘balance’ pot on stereo channels. With a balance pot, the left side of the stereo channel is fed only to the left speaker. The right side of the channel is fed only to the right speaker. So unlike our previous example, none of the signal from the left side can be moved to the right speaker. None of the signal from the right side can be moved to the left.
Consequently, all you can do is alter the balance between the level of the left side of the signal (which is fed only to the left speaker), in relation to the level of the right side of the signal (which is fed only to the right speaker). As you pan to the right, you turn down the level of the left side of the signal. Pan all the way right and the left side of the signal becomes inaudible. Clearly this does not offer you the same control over the positioning and width of stereo tracks in your mixes as having two pan pots does.
In the past, this was the only option available for stereo tracks in Logic. To gain more control, it was necessary to insert the ‘Direction Mixer’ plugin. In recent updates, you are able to toggle between ‘balance’ and ‘stereo pan’. Selecting stereo pan allows you to adjust the position of the stereo instrument using the pot, and the width of the stereo instrument using the ring around the pot. Although a slightly different layout to having two pan pots, it does indeed allow you to control both the position and the width of a stereo track.
Audio panning strategies
So, we now know how it is that we are able to use panning to make it sound as though an instrument is coming from a specific location from left to right. We also know how to implement panning in a DAW. But how are we best to apply panning in our mixes? Well, panning is very subjective. As well as being largely down to personal taste, it’s also influenced by things like genre and the instrumentation of a track. There are however, a lot of helpful tips and strategies that you can work from to help you find the right approach to panning. Here are my top 10 tips for applying panning in your mixes:
1. The centre position
When it comes to panning, there are a few instruments which are almost always panned to the centre of the mix. Kick drum, snare drum, bass guitar and lead vocals are usually panned to the centre. Typically, we place the most ‘important’ parts of the mix centrally. Of course, deciding that one track is of greater importance than another is very subjective. But we can likely all agree that the lead vocals are one of the most important tracks in a mix.
As for low frequency instruments (like kick and bass guitar) they are generally kept in the centre for practical reasons. It’s harder for us to perceive the location of low frequency sounds than it is high frequency sounds. So it makes sense to keep them central. What’s more, panning low frequencies away from the centre can potentially cause problems with uneven power consumption between speakers, as well as issues with the needle bouncing out of the groove when the song is pressed to vinyl. Accordingly, it’s advisable to keep frequencies of 120Hz and below panned centrally in the mix. Of course, it’s not impossible to find a bass guitar panned off-centre from time to time, particularly on jazz records. If you do this, be sure to roll off some low end for the aforementioned reasons.
2. The sound stage
One concept which can be really useful for panning instruments is to imagine the space between the left and right speakers as a stage. Imagine how the musicians would be placed on a stage at a venue or festival. This can really help you make decisions on where to place instruments from left to right. If you’re questioning where to place an instrument, ask yourself how the musicians would be arranged on stage if they were playing the song live. Of course, you will have to make an exception for the bass guitar and keep that central rather than panning that off to one side which is where the bass player would likely be stood on stage.
3. Keep the mix symmetrical
Generally speaking, it’s best to aim for mixes which are symmetrical in terms of the number of things that are panned to each side. A mix which has more things panned to one side than the other can be quite uncomfortable to listen to. As such, you should try to distribute things symmetrically. If you have two guitars and one piano, try panning one guitar to each side and the piano to the centre, rather than having a guitar at one side and a guitar, plus a piano, on the other.
Of course, it’s not always possible to make your track symmetrical with the tracks you have available. If you have a mix where there are fewer instruments on one side than the other, and it feels as though you need to add something to the side with fewer tracks panned to it to keep the symmetry, then there are things that you can try. Try adding a delay to an instrument that is placed on the fuller side and then pan the delay return to the sparser side. Alternatively, pan the reverb of a track on the fuller side to the sparser side. This can help to maintain a feeling of symmetry in your mix.
4. You don’t always have to pan stereo tracks around the centre
Something that many people do is pan all stereo tracks (like piano, acoustic guitar, strings etc.) around the centre. But this doesn’t always give you the best result. Whilst panning these around the centre with your chosen width can sound great, there’s nothing wrong with panning them off to one side. This is particularly beneficial if you have more than one stereo track in your mix. Take for example a song where you have a stereo piano track and a stereo strings track. Try panning the piano to 9 o’clock and 11 o’clock. Then pan the acoustic guitar to 1 o’clock and 3 o’clock. Now, rather than having both tracks panned across the centre of the stereo image, each track has its own space in the mix on either side.
5. Keep the drums focussed
Many mixers pan the drum overheads hard left and right. This can make the drums sound very wide. But it can also cause the location of the drums to sound indistinct. Instead, try panning the overheads to 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. This will maintain some width, but will make the drums much more focussed. Then, pan the toms and hi hats to the location that they appear in the overheads for a focused drum sound.
6. Pan drums in audience perspective
When you mix drums, you can pan the kit in one of two ways. You can either pan the kit in the audience’s perspective, or you can pan it in the player’s perspective. You will hear examples of both in mixes. Personally I like to mix drums in audience perspective. This means that the rack tom should be panned to the right and the floor tom to the left. The hi hats should be panned right and the ride cymbal to the left. Of course, if you prefer to mix your drums in the player’s perspective, then that’s fine. Just be sure that which ever you choose, you pan everything in one perspective. Don’t make the mistake of panning your overheads in the player’s perspective and the toms in the audience’s perspective.
7. Pan similar parts opposite
Panning similar instruments to opposite sides can help to prevent the masking that could occur if they were panned closely together in the mix. Placing them at opposite sides of the stereo image helps to give them greater separation. If you have a keyboard and a piano for example which have similar frequency content, pan them apart from each other to give each its own space in the stereo image.
8. Don’t rely on LCR panning
Perhaps one of the most commonly taught panning strategies is LCR panning. LCR panning is a process in which you pan instruments in one of only 3 positions. Those positions are hard left, hard right or centre. Personally, I’m not a fan of this approach. That’s because when you only pan things to the centre or to the far left and far right, it can sometimes leave a gap in the spaces in between the centre and the outer edge which can sound quite unnatural. Personally, I prefer a mix which fills out the whole stereo image and leaves no gaps. So if you do use LCR panning, make sure that your mix doesn’t have a gap between the centre and outer edge on either side.
9. Balance the frequencies and levels
When it comes to the frequency content and the volume level of the left and right sides of your mix, it is best to keep them as balanced as you can. Having a mix in which one side sounds noticeably brighter or darker than the other can be uncomfortable to listen to. Equally, a mix in which one side is noticeably louder than the other is also uncomfortable to listen to. Of course, variation is inevitable and is what we often use in our mixes to keep things interesting. But a perceivable difference in both frequency content and level between the two speakers can be very fatiguing. Try to maintain the balance in both of these elements for a more natural sounding mix.
10. Use panning automation
Don’t be afraid to use automation in your mix to change your panning during the song. A common application includes moving things around when a new instrument comes in to maintain symmetry. Another is to automate the panning so that the mix sounds wider in the choruses and narrower in the verses. This gives the chorus more impact and can make your mix more interesting and exciting to listen to.
As you can see, using panning in your mixes allows you to spread instruments out across the stereo image, so that the listener perceives the sound as coming from a specific point between the left and right speakers. Controlling the position of instruments, as well as the width of stereo tracks, gives you the opportunity to present your instruments in the way that you feel best suits your mix. How do you like to pan the instruments in your mix, and why do you do it that way? Leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comment box below!
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