Audio panning in a mix:
How you pan can make the difference between a poor, good and great mix because it affects the interplay of sounds or instruments over time. It also affects how solid or loose your mix feels and how wide your mix sounds in stereo. Panning also influences how good your mix sounds when stereo channels are summed and played back in mono.
It's a good idea to do audio panning before you EQ, compress, set levels and apply effects as all these processes will be affected by your panning decisions.
Panning Instruments in a Mix:
A basic rule-of-thumb audio panning method for any instrument or sound in your mix:
- Do I want it to stand out and always be present in my mix regardless of the playback scenario the track gets played in or which other instrument comes into the mix?
- Does this instrument drive the groove and movement of the track?
If yes for either question... ...leave dead center and even consider keeping it fully mono. This is why pop vocals, dance kicks, basses and snares tend to end up in the middle of the mix. They lead or drive the song so hard center straight down the middle panning makes sense. Equal energy from both speakers at all times.
In more traditional band-style mixing, like rock for example, panning is often used in way that mimics a live show’s sound from either the audience or stage perspective. Kick, bass, snare, vocal center. Guitars and keys off to the left and right. Overheads spread out nicely. You get the picture. ;-)
Panning choices are of course highly subjective but there is a basic formula of sorts that most modern mixes will adhere to:
Kicks, snares, basses and lead vocals tend to be panned dead center because these are usually elements that you want to appear solid in your mix. You want these elements to hit the listener straight on and it doesn't get more straight on than dead center.
The rest of the elements or instruments is where it gets more subjective and where you can also get more creative with your panning, although there are still some tried and true methods you can use:
Some mixing engineers and producers like to stick to only three pan positions. They set every channel to center, hard left or hard right and nothing in between.
Drums, apart from snare and kick, are usually panned as they would appear on a drum kit, either from the drummers point of view, with the hi-hat and left overhead off to the left and toms and right overheads spread out to the right of the spectrum, or from the audience's point of view with everything switched around. This type of panning isn't as common in EDM, dance or electronic genres as it is in rock and some pop.
Guitars, keys, synths and backing vocals are usually best off-center, either hard left or right or somewhere in between. These elements along with some of your drums and your effects are what you'll use to create width in your mix.
It pays to spend time getting familiar with the different instruments and sounds in your mix and experimenting with different pan relationships because each mix is different and how you pan will play a vital role in the result you get with your final mix.