An Audio Masterclass visitor wants to pan, but doesn’t know the rules. Do you have to know the rules before you break them?
A question from an Audio Masterclass reader…
“Hi David, today I have a question to ask. If a person needs to pan instruments what rule do you use?”
I’m inclined to say that there should be no rules. I find panning in modern music totally, absolutely, mind-numbingly boring. I much prefer the interesting ways pan was used before the so-called ‘rules’ were invented.
But if you want to earn a living from your music, you have to work within the bounds of what is commercially acceptable. In effect, you have to follow the rules, or starve.
So here are the rules of pan (so you know what to break, if you want)…
1. Always pan the lead vocal center
This is something of a no-brainer. When is the last time you heard a lead vocal that was not panned center? Not in this decade, nor the last one, nor the one before that, and not even the one before that. Just pan it center and don’t bother thinking about it.
2. Always pan the bass center
There is a reason behind this. If the bass comes from both stereo speakers, it can be louder than if it only comes from one. Also, in the days of vinyl records, there could be problems with mistracking on playback if the bass was panned all the way to one side. Loud bass frequencies panned hard left or right can cause the groove to become shallow, and the stylus may jump out.
3. Balance the channels equally
A mix can sound odd if one channel seems to have a greater weight of sound than the other. In general, the channels will sound balanced if both left and right meters are mostly at the same level. This doesn’t always apply however, so balance should be judged subjectively.
4. If you have two similar-sounding instruments, pan one left and the other right
If you have two guitars strumming away throughout the course of a song, then if they are panned to the same location in the stereo image they will sound confused, almost as though just one instrument is playing. And any lack of synchronicity might make it sound as though the instrument is being played badly. Panning half-left and half-right is often a good solution. Bear in mind however that you should always check that a mix sounds good in mono.
5. A stereo pair of microphones should be panned hard left and hard right
If you have used any of the common stereo microphone configurations where the microphones are balanced across the stereo sound stage, then they should normally be panned hard left and hard right.
6. Check your pans on headphones
What sounds good on loudspeakers doesn’t always sound good on headphones or earbuds, particularly hard pans. There is no reason why you shouldn’t ever hard pan, but do check it on headphones.
7. Pan individual drum mics so that each drum matches its location in the overheads
You don’t have to do this, but if you don’t consider it then you are not mixing drums properly. The low rack tom for instance might be half-left in the stereo image of the overhead. It normally wouldn’t make sense to pan the individual mic on that drum to any other position.
8. Don’t make a single instrument three meters wide
This can easily happen with asymmetric miking. For example, if you aim two microphones from different positions at an acoustic guitar, one towards the fingerboard and the other towards the belly, then pan hard left and right, the result can often span the entire width between the speakers. In some cases, it can sound like two guitars are playing in exact synchronicity. It is completely different to anything you could possibly hear in real life.
9. After you pan an instrument, reconsider its level
This is connected with the ‘law’ of your pan control. A pan control can be designed so that when a mix is played in mono, the positions of the pans are irrelevant. You can turn any pan control and the level of that instrument will not change. OR… it can be designed so that wherever you position the pan, the level of the instrument in the stereo mix stays the same. OR… the pan law can be a compromise between these two options. So unless your pan law is correct for stereo mixing, the level will change when you pan.
But it’s a subjective thing too. If say you have several instruments panned center, then you pan one mid-left, it will suddenly stand out more in the mix. You might therefore want to lower its level.
10. If you want to fit in with the audio community, follow these rules
But if you want to stand out, then BREAK THEM, BREAK THEM, BREAK THEM!