By Craig Anderton
Panning controls affect the stereo placement of signals, allowing to create a soundstage with width - you can pan some instruments to the center, some left, some right, and anywhere in between. This gives a more realistic mix, because in the real world, sounds do emanate from different locations (think about a live performance; the drums are almost always in the middle of the band).
However, panning isn't only about realism; it's also about keeping instruments from interfering with each other, as well as adding special effects. Here are some tips designed to help further your skills in the art of stereo.
Well, as least temporarily. When starting a mix, some engineers start with all the channels panned to the center to create a mono mix. This makes it easy to tell which sounds are "stepping on" each other. To take an extreme example, if you pan bass all the way to the left channel and the kick drum all the way to the right, you'll have no trouble separating. But when mixed in mono, these two bass signals might blend, and muddy each other. When listening in mono, it's possible to separate the instruments by other techniques, primarily equalization, so that they become even more distinct when spread in stereo.
As you set up stereo placement for instruments, think about your listener's position. For example, for a drummer the high-hat is on the left, and the toms on the right. For the audience, it's the reverse (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: FXpansion's BFD Eco has an option to flip the stereo perspective between audience and drummer perspective.
I generally go for the performer's perspective, unless the object is to emulate a concert experience. For concerts, the audience perspective makes more sense because that's how the music would be experienced.
Low frequencies are fairly non-directional, whereas highs are very directional. As a result, pan low frequency sounds (kick drum, bass) toward the center of a mix, and higher frequency instruments (shaker, tambourine) further out to the left and right.
Placing the delays from a delay effect in the same spatial location as the sound being delayed may cause an indistinct sound. One "fix" is to weight your instrument to one side of the stereo spread, and the delayed sound (set to delayed only/no dry signal) to the opposite side. If you're using stereo delay on a lead instrument that's panned to center, you can get some lovely results by panning one channel of echo toward the left, and one toward the right. If the echoes are polyrhythmic, this can also give some ping-pong type effects. Of course, this can sound gimmicky if you're not careful, but if the echoes are mixed relatively low and there's some stereo reverb going on, the sense of spaciousness can be huge. Another option: Filter the echoes so they have more midrange or highs than the sound being delayed.
Sure, you can just move panpots around arbitrarily until things sound good. But consider drawing a diagram of the intended "soundstage," much like the way theater people draw "marks" for where actors are supposed to stand. When it's time to mix, this diagram can be a helpful "map."
Here's a tip from Spencer Brewer (Laughing Coyote Studios) regarding an effect that Alex de Grassi uses a lot on his guitars to create a wider stereo image with two mics. However, note that this effect also works well with piano.
This "fills in" the center hole that normally occurs by panning the two main signals to the extreme left and right.
Many signal sources are still essentially mono (voice, vintage synths, electric guitar, etc.), but there are ways to "stereoize" sounds. The easiest option is to copy a track and "slip" it ahead or behind the original track to create a slight delay between the two, then pan the two tracks somewhat oppositely (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: Two copies of the same vocal track in PreSonus Studio One Pro. The upper track is delayed by about a 32nd note; note that the upper track is panned toward the left, while the lower track is panned toward the right, to create a stereo effect.
In some cases, it's most effective to slip the original track ahead of the beat and the copy a little late, so that the two end up "averaging out" and hit in the pocket. But you can also use slipping to alter the feel somewhat. To "drag" the part a bit, keep the original on the beat and slip the copy a little later. For a more "insistent" feel, slip the copy ahead.
How much slip to add depends on the instrument's frequency range. If the delay is too short, the two signals may cancel to some extent and create comb filtering effects. This can result in a thin sound, much like a flanger stuck on a few milliseconds of delay. Lowering the copied signal's level can reduce these negative effects, but then the stereo image will be correspondingly less dramatic.
If the delay is too long, then you'll hear an echo effect. This can also be useful in creating a wider stereo image, but then you have to deal with the rhythmic implications-do you really want an audible delay? And if the delay is long enough, the sound will be more like two mono signals than a wide stereo signal.
Thankfully, it's easy to slide parts around in your DAW and experiment. Just be sure to check the final result in mono; if the sound ends up being thin or resonant, increase the delay time a tiny bit until both the stereo and mono sounds work equally well.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.