Panning for Dummies - Placing instruments within the stereo spectrum

When you watch a live band perform, think about how they appear on a stage in front of you. Typically you have the drums and the vocals in the middle. Guitars and bass are on the sides. This is also how we hear the sound coming from the band in the live environment. And unless the producer is deliberately trying to do something avant-garde, most rock recordings strive to recreate this sonic situation in recordings beacuse this is how we're used to hearing rock music. So producers use panning to place the instruments in the desired place in the stereo spectrum.

So here is just one very typical way we hear music on a recording. You can confirm this by listening to recording through headphones and noticing where the sounds seem to be coming from:

 

Rhythm Guitar                   *        Drums         Bass                  Rhythm Guitar**

                      Lead Guitar                                             ***

                             Backing vocals                       Backing vocals

                                                    Lead Vocals

 

                                                    The Listener

 

 

Notes:

* Bass could optionally go here. One approach is to record the players in relation to wherever they actually stand on stage during live performances.  So you could place the bass on whichever side you're used to hearing it from live.

** This could be:

  • a doubled rhythm track in the case of a one guitar band
  • the second guitarist's rhythm track in the case of a two guitar band. Some two guitar bands place the guitarist's tracks on the side of the mix that corresponds to their respective side of the stage. For example, in the case of Iron Maiden, this could be Adrian Smith's rhythm guitar track.
  • removed entirely to recreate a rawer, more live sound of one guitar band. A good example is on Van Halen's Running with the Devil. The rhythm guitar is all on the left (only the guitar's room ambience is on the right).

*** Lead guitar could optionally go here. In the case of two guitar bands, this would typically correspond to the right side right side rhythm guitar part. For example, in the Iron Maiden example above, you'd put Adrian Smith's lead guitar track here.

Basic Panning Concepts

  • Strive to give each instrument its own place in the stereo spectrum.
  • Generally speaking left to right placement corresponds to clockface positioning on the panning control. That is, to put lead vocals dead center, pan them to 12 o'clock.
  • Front to back depth is created by prominance in the mix, either by pure volume (louder sounds closer), or sometimes by effect. For example, the more reverb you add to an instrument, the further away it sounds. Therefore, if you want the lead vocals AND the drums to be centered in the mix, you could pan them both to 12 o'clock, but the vocals should typically be louder than the drums. Tip: You can also pan either drums and/or the lead vocals slightly off dead center (say 11 or 1 o'clock) to help keep them from interfering with each other in the mix.
  • Rhythm guitars in Dino rock are generally panned hard left and hard right -- i.e. around 7'oclock, and 5 o'clock respectively. Guitar solos are usually panned to a more central spot in the mix than the rhythm guitar tracks. Typically from 10-12 o'clock or 12-2 o'clock.
  • Pan your guitar effects oposite from the dry part on a separate track. For example, if you pan your dry left rhythm guitar hard left, pan the reverb or ambience for that guitar track hard right on a separate track. If you pan your dry lead guitar to 2 o'clock, pan the delay for that guitar track to 10 o'clock on a separate track.

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