Panning is many times taken for granted in a mix, but where you place mix elements in the stereo soundfield can have huge repercussions to your balance. Here’s an excerpt from the 4th edition of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook that explains the potential panning problems and solutions.
There are three major panoramic areas in a stereo mix: the extreme hard left, the extreme hard right, and the center.
The center is obvious in that the most prominent music element (like the lead vocal) is usually panned there, but so is the kick drum, bass guitar, and even the snare drum. Although putting the bass and kick up the middle makes for a musically coherent and generally accepted technique, its origins come really from the era of vinyl records.
The Beginning Of Panning Time
With the first stereo recordings in the mid-’60s, sometimes the music from the band was panned to one channel while the vocals were panned to the opposite one. This was because stereo was so new that the recording and mixing techniques for the format hadn’t been refined yet, so what we now know as pan pots weren’t available on mixing consoles. Instead, a three-way switch was used to assign the track to the left output, the right output, or both (the center). Sometimes the channels were even dedicated to either left or right, like on the famous REDD console at Abbey Road Studios that was used to record The Beatles and other major acts of the day.
Because music elements tended to be hard panned to one side, this caused some major disc-cutting problems in that if any low-frequency boost was added to the music on just that one side, the imbalance in low-frequency energy would cause the cutting stylus to cut right through the groove wall when the master lacquer disc (the master record) was cut. The only way around this was to either decrease the amount of low-frequency energy from the music to balance the sides or pan the bass and kick and any other instrument with a lot of low-frequency information to the center. In fact, a special equalizer called an Elliptical EQ was used during disc cutting specifically to move all the low-frequency energy from both sides to the center to prevent any cutting problems.
Likewise, as a result of the vast array of stereo and pseudo-stereo sources and effects that came on the market over the years, mixers began to pan these sources hard left and right almost without even thinking, since a mixer’s main task is to make things sound bigger and wider. Suddenly things sounded huge! The problem came later, when almost all keyboards and effects devices came with stereo outputs (many are actually pseudo-stereo with one side just chorused a little sharp and then flat against the dry signal). Now the temptation was to pan all of these “stereo” sources hard left and right on top of one another. The result was “Big Mono.”
Big Mono occurs when you have a track with a lot of pseudo-stereo sources that are all panned hard right and hard left. In this case, you’re not creating much of a panorama because everything is placed hard left and right, and you’re robbing the track of definition and depth because all of these tracks are panned on top of one another (see the graphic on the left).
“One of the things I don’t like is what I call ‘Big Mono,’ where there’s no difference in the left and the right other than a little warble. If you pan the left and right wide, and then here comes another keyboard and you pan that left and right wide, and then there’s the two guitars and you pan them left and right wide, by the time you get all this stuff left and right wide, there’s really no stereo in the sound. It’s like having a big mono record, and it’s just not really aurally gratifying. So to me, it’s better to have some segregation, and that’s one of the ways I try to make everything heard in the mixes. Give everybody a place on the stage.” —legendary mixer Ed Seay
The solution here is to throw away one of the stereo tracks (the chorused one; keep the dry channel) and make your own custom stereo patch with either a pitch shifter or a delay. Instead of panning the two channels hard left and right, find a place somewhere inside those extremes. One possibility is to pan the left source to about 10:00 while the right is panned to about 4:00. Another more localized possibility would be to put the left to 9:00 and the right all the way to 10:30. This gives the feeling of localization without getting too wide.
TIP: Panning narrowly on the same side (like 1:30 and 3:00) provides the width and depth of stereo while still having precise localization within the stereo soundfield.
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.