The art of panning. Soft pan vs hard pan. [video]

This is exciting!  We're getting past the basic "into to recording" type posts and into more of the "how to record and mix posts."  In this post we'll be looking at the art of panning.

Mix your songs in mono before playing around with panning.

Seriously, mix in mono first.  It may seem boring, but it will make the overall experience of mixing better, and give you a better mix.  In this case, mixing harder is mixing smarter.

Once you have the basic levels setup, and you have everything coming through the mix and sounding good in mono, then it's time to get into the fun of stereo mixing.

What makes a mix stereo vs mono?

Mono means that the exact same signal is sent to every speaker.  In live systems that have subwoofers, the signal can still be mono - just there is a crossover setup so that the subwoofer only plays the low frequencies of the signal.  But the same signal is sent everywhere.  If your speakers are setup in a certain way, and you're sitting in the right spot, it will sound like all the sound is coming from directly in front of you.

Stereo means that there is a left and a right channel / signal.  This gives you the opportunity to send some signals everywhere, some to the left, and some to the right.  This creates better definition in the audio and a more natural sound and vibe.  If your speakers are setup in the same way and you're in the same spot (as the example in mono) then some of the mix will sound like it's coming from directly in front of you, while other audio will seem wider.  Some will also be clearly coming out of only one speaker, either left of right.

Hard Panning.

Hard panning is when a signal is sent hard left or hard right in a stereo mix. It seems like an odd thing to send all of one instrument to just the left speaker, and all of another instrument to just the right speaker.  But I bet if you listen carefully to some of your favorite recordings, it's done like that.

It's really common to have one electric guitar panned hard left and another guitar panned hard right.  This helps people to visualize there being 2 guitar players and easily pick out both guitar parts.

If you have a single stereo track (like a piano / organ), by default in most DAWs it's set as a hard pan.  The left channel is all the way left and the right channel is all the way right.  This gives that instrument a wide placement in the mix - it seems to be coming from all around on both sides.

You can also hard pan "straight up the middle."  This is like a mono position, where if your optimally placed between 2 speakers it will seem to be coming from right in front of you.

Soft Panning.

Soft panning can be a pretty cool way to separate a mix, but not everything will let you do it.  I had a friend trying to mix an album on a Portastudio that would only allow hard panning.  If you moved the pan knob at all to the left, it was hard left; at all to the right, and it was hard right.  It was really old school, but he made it work and it worked pretty well.

Personally, I like doing some soft panning - especially with stereo tracks.  With hard panning, everything is either extremely wide or extremely narrow and up front.  With soft panning, you can place things throughout the entire width of the stereo field.  Setting the lead vocal and bass straight up the middle, acoustic 1/4 left and right, organ / piano 1/2 left and right, and one electric hard left with the other electric hard right.  This is an example, and it might not work with your mix, but give something like this a try.  But what this gives is a full feeling wide stereo image.

Soft panning gives you a more "modern" feel, while hard panning gives a more "vintage/classic rock" feel.  Pan according to what you're mixing.

Give your mix a workout with different panning to see what it sounds like.  You might just love the outcome!