The Humble Pan Pot: A Critical Tool
Early in a mix, you work to find fader and pan positions that best reveal the mix. We call this balancing a mix, and it is not easy. I’ll mention quickly that the mute button is part of this process. If the tracks don’t fit together in a way that makes musical sense to you, at any fader or pan pot position, then mute one of the cluttering tracks.
But, back to the pan pot. What are the strategies for this simple control? Several priorities must be considered, and balanced:
You might pan things simply to create a realistic image of the instrument in the stereo field.
Drum overheads can be spread out to create the illusion of the drummer playing right in front of you. This is called ‘Audience Perspective’ because this view of the kit is from the front, like an audience member looking at a drummer on stage. Your biggest clue here is the location of the hi-hats and the motion of any tom fills. Right handed drummers put the hi-hats to their left, and the toms off to the right, with the lower toms further to the right. For an audience member, that means the hi-hats are localized to the right, and descending tom fills move to the left.
‘Drummer’s Perspective’ is another choice. This stereo image of the kit puts the listener on the drum throne (that’s what they call their stool, and who are we to argue), with the hi-hats off to the left, and tom fills panning further right as lower toms are struck. If you play air drums while mixing, this will be satisfying way to work.
While Audience Perspective and Drummer’s Perspective are, in fact, opposite panning solutions, they are borne from the same core concept: pan to create a realistic illusion of the instrument. Choose your view of the instrument.
Similar approaches can be taken with any stereo tracks: string sections, horn sections, a chorus, etc. Piano presents an interesting challenge. Is it low to high, left to right, as if you are sitting at the piano keyboard? Or is it high to low, left to right, as if you are looking at the open lid of a grand piano from the side, as would happen in any concert where piano is a featured instrument? You choose. For a bit more on pianos, here’s an article I wrote for Recording Magazine a few years back http://www.recordingmag.com/resources/resourceDetail/188.html
- Left/Right Balance and Mix Center of Gravity
Another part of the decision process for panning has to do with giving a mix an overall, centered feeling. If, on average, your mix is louder on the left, the whole mix will feel lopsided. A left-heavy mix tells you that you likely need to find a balancing track to slide over to the right. The goal is to give the mix an overall center of gravity that is dead center.
Yes, you can be left- or right-heavy briefly. It becomes a form of musical expression, leaning one way, then another, and then resolving it when the mix is restored to a centrally strong image. But an entire mix that is lopsided, for its entire duration, will almost always be a mistake. At the very least, it says you aren’t taking good advantage of both speakers (or both ear buds). You have precious few ways to reach the listener – left and right. Use ‘em both!
- Spatial Counterpoint
Panning priorities also depend on the interaction among tracks. Similar tracks (doubled electric guitars, for example) can be panned to the same location, but they sound even more interesting panned opposite each other. Double tracks become wide walls of sound when panned to opposing sides.
Listen to other performances for interaction as well. Call and response tracks might work better when separated from each other – not necessarily hard panned to extremes, just separate enough to give their interaction spatial distinction. Guitars and keyboards often interact in interesting ways, playing together and then breaking into separate but complementary parts. This is nicely revealed and enjoyed when they are panned to unique locations in the stereo field.
Then there are some counterintuitive pairs you’ll pick up over time: Rhythm acoustic guitar is often played with percussive muted strums in between ringing chords that interact nicely with hi-hats. Yup: Acoustic guitar and hi-hats are common tracks to separate with panning for interesting spatial counterpoint. As you audition all of your tracks at the beginning of every mix, note which tracks sound best offset from others.
- Audibility and Intelligibility
Tracks fighting to be heard benefit from being panned away from their competition. When guitars and keys blur together, making it hard to enjoy either performance, separate them with pan pots to reveal both tracks. A vocal and a saxophone might step on each other unless panned to different locations.
- Best Use of 2 Channels
Lastly, and this one might annoy you at first, but one guiding principle is for the most important tracks to be dead center, or close to it. Vocal, kick, snare and bass are core elements of many styles of music. Put ‘em in the center so that you get the benefit of both speakers/ear buds for these important instruments. And for listeners who don’t happen to be sitting dead center, between the monitors, they’ll always hear these instruments, because you ‘ve panned them to both speakers.
Pan the other tracks around this central core, guided by the suggestions above, and your pan pot decisions will lead to a strong musical mix.