Hey guys, sorry I've been away a while. To ease my guilt, I'm writing a post about panning with an excessively cheesy title.
Panning is exceptionally important for allowing each instrument in a mix to be heard without detracting from the song itself. It can also be used for funky effects, which can make one dizzy, or for highlighting certain sounds. It is easiest to understand panning visually. Please meet my visual aid buddies in the figure below: Burt, George, and Jim. They will be dancing around the stereo plane to illustrate my point.
Refer to the figure below. If all my visual aid buddies are placed in the center of the "stereo plane" (i.e. equal left and right volumes), they are very difficult to see. Luckily each of my buddies looks a bit different. If they didn't look different, one could be hiding behind the other. This is similar to a piano sounding different to a guitar. When they are played with the same pan setting, you can still differentiate between them but when two guitars are played with the same pan setting, it will sound either like a mess or as if one guitar has a chorus effect.
In the figure below, two of the buddies are panned close together, near the center. They are both quite visible but are blending together well. The green guy looks as if he is a super-geek or smells really badly because he is standing out. This is exactly the same idea for panning different instruments... the guys in the center crowd are gonna have the bigger punch, but unless they are slightly spaced out, they will just be a mess. The guys who choose to stand out will have less punch but more definition. However, I warn you that if the nerd stands out too far he can sound really bad. Also, if you space everything out too much and don't have an "in-crowd", you will have no punch and basically land up with a bunch of bad-smelling nerds.
Yes, that's right... the secret of panning is merely peer pressure. I'm sorry if this explanation is really childish. To make up for it, here are some real tips:
- Start with your rhythm instruments... i.e. drums and bass.
- Mute everything else and setup your drum's panning similar to as if you were sitting behind the kit... i.e. your snare and bass close to center, cymbals on far left and right, and toms going from left to right.
- Next unmute the bass and slowly move the panning fader from far left to far right. You should hear where the punchiest point is. There is no solid rule - you simply have to find it.
- Next unmute the guitar and repeat the same process as the above step.
- Continue this method through all the instruments and then move on to the vocals.
- The lead vocals should always be near the center and background vocals shouldn't be panned too far to the left or right unless you are trying to be arty.
- Make slight adjustments until you are happy.
- A word to the wise: be very careful when panning anything too far to the right or left, no one really likes nerds :)
Other posts you might find interesting:
Sound Mixing Tips: Bringing an Instrument Out of the Mud
What Gives a Guitar its Tone?
Sound Mixing Tips: High There?!
What Exactly is Mastering For?