Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Panning for Gold

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 :)
Panning is useful for both live and recording mixes so don't neglect it if you have the facility. You're the sound-guy... be creative.

Other posts you might find interesting:
Monitor/Speaker Placement
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?


Anonymous said...

I disagree with your drum panning suggestions.
The hihat should be panned to the right and toms should go from right to left (unless the drummer is left handed).

The reason?
The listener is not the drummer in the band (ok, you can make a special remix for the actual drummer to listen to). He isn't used to hearing things from the drummers perspective. He's used to standing in front of the band, thus having the hihat closer to his right ear.

- Peder

Mike the Tike said...

Good point Peder. It should be as you say.

Brian said...

Hey Peder,

I can agree with you to a certain degree. Primarily you would want the drums to be panned from right to left (i.e. hi-tom right and floor tom left, the listener's perspective). However, if you find that the panning is not working due to interference from the other instruments, I see no problem in panning the kit in the opposite direction. The objective is to create a space for each piece of the drumkit - not necessarily to recreate which side the drumkit is heard from.

My point is that, if it made such a difference - all left-handed drummers' kits would have to be panned oppositely. In my opinion, that just defeats the point.

Thanks, for the feedback though. It is always good to hear other opinions.