Philosophies Behind Better Panning

 In TSM Studio Blog

The art of panning is often a seemingly more difficult technique to carry out than it seems. Surely, we’ve all become accustomed to hard panning stereo tracks left and right, but these one-size-fits-all approaches leave so much to be desired in an arrangement that requires depth and movement. 

It’s not uncommon that many producers and mixers overlook panning in the early stages of a mix. Although it may be tempting to implement bold, signature processing techniques like serial delays, the Haas effect, and doubling in order to open up an arrangement, creative panning can supersede all of the above when carried out by the right mixer.


Understand The Center of Your Mix

The center image of our stereo field acts as the primary focal point for our central nervous system to localize sound. Considering the lead vocal, bass, and kick drum are integral to our perception of rhythm and spoken word, these elements tend to take a dominant approach in where our listeners’ attention is drawn.

In order to complement these key center elements, we need to meticulously arrange the backing instrumentation around them in order to create either a tight or spacious stereo image. If you’ve ever critically listened to an acoustic ballad from a singer/songwriter, it’s likely that you’ll notice the panning techniques implemented weren’t intent on creating a larger than life atmosphere. When the human voice and its message are prioritized among all other instrumentation, providing the listener with the proper front to rear depth can either amplify or attenuate the intended impact of the song.

Conversely, in an EDM arrangement that’s intent on sounding massive in the club or at festival grounds, taking advantage of all the room a stereo image has to offer can augment a live performance. Rather than setting the panning knobs hard left and right, introducing elements within the pockets of the stereo field can enhance the illusion that a wall of synths are playing in unison. 

However, in order to expound upon the depth of your mix, you need to pan with intention. Randomly sending pan pots to a variety of degrees left and right can cause more disarray than receptive interest. Remember that the center elements of the mix demand attention, therefore the sides can introduce distractions

Take, for example, an acoustic or electronic drum kit consisting of only a kick drum and a snare drum. If you were to then have these two instruments play the most brutally simple rhythm you can imagine with the kick drum panned to the center and the snare drum panned hard left or right, you would quickly experience the change in your perception of rhythm. What would originally sound like a tight sequence that you could bob your head to would almost instantly trigger an onset of discomfort each time the snare drum played on the extreme end of the stereo spectrum. Although the rhythm remained the same, our perception of that rhythm changed drastically.


Pan Rhythm Groups Accordingly

Similar to our last example, let’s once again imagine an acoustic or electronic drum kit. However, this time let’s introduce some shakers, congas, and a djembe playing grooves that meld with one another and create a cohesive sense of rhythm. If we were to pan these instruments apart from one another with too much depth, we could ruin the entire rhythmic groove of the song. Considering these instruments are played with the intent of accenting one another, it’s likely in the best interest of the song to keep their separation in the stereo field as minimal as possible. If the shaker is panned slightly to the left, perhaps panning the congas and djembes a bit more centered within that spread can accentuate their sense of rhythm without making them feel like a separate group of instruments played in an entirely separate space. This same philosophy can be applied to rhythm guitars and lead guitars, arpeggiated synths and sustained synths, string and woodwind arrangements, so on and so forth.


Taking Genre Into Account

With different styles of music come different panning approaches that best suit the needs of that material. Similar to how we can pan to orchestrate an organic stereo image, we too can pan to conjure an artificial one. Our process of panning a Jazz trio might be to create the illusion that the instrumentalists are playing right in front of us, panning each instrument out relative to their spatial location.

On the total opposite spectrum lays how we would approach panning a more synthetic genre of music, such as the newly emerging genre Hyper Pop. Within this modern, experimental approach to Pop music, minimalism coincides with maximalist tendencies to scatter ear candy in every pocket of the stereo field. 


In Closing

What makes both of these approaches work is the context in which they’re applied. Whether the source material at hand calls for realism or idealism, delegate your instruments’ roles accordingly and experiment on your own to find out what works best in that circumstance.