Kim Lajoie's blog

Pan how you like

by Kim Lajoie on January 31, 2011

I don’t think panning is an essential mixing tool.

This is because – in my opinion – it doesn’t cause any problems, and it doesn’t solve any problems.

I don’t think ‘bad panning’ is the cause of any mix problems. Try to think of the craziest approach to panning imaginable – say drums hard panned one side, lead vocals hard panned another side. Bass off-centre, etc… The opposite of common practice. Now listen to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The mixes are great! The bizarre panning doesn’t let the music down. I don’t think unconventional panning makes for a bad mix.

In addition, I don’t know of any production problem (including composition and engineering) that is best solved with panning. Sometimes I see panning proposed as a solution to instruments clashing or something like that, but that sort of problem is actually better solved through tonal adjustment (such as EQ). The existence of that kind of problem is usually caused earlier in the process – a lack of decision-making around what elements of the mix are most important, and a lack of courage to thin out and push back less important elements. A good stereo mix makes for a good mono mix. If a mix doesn’t work in mono, chances are it’ll be pretty dismal in stereo too.

Panning is also something that’s commonly understood. I don’t see people asking questions about ‘how to use panning’. Anyone with headphones or two speakers instantly understands how panning can be used to best support a song. The only time I’ve heard panning used in a way that didn’t support the song was by an artist of mine who had made some demos using only her Mac Mini’s built in mono speaker. And as you can imagine, the bizarre panning was the least of my worries. In all the many amateur mixes I’ve heard (from people who actually care about mixing), panning has never been a problem.

The only way panning can be a problem is if people rely on it to solve problems that are better solved using other tools or techniques. In which case panning is not actually the cause of the problem – and neither is it the solution.

So feel free to pan however you like – you won’t do anything wrong. You’ll know if what you’re doing doesn’t support the song. And if you think it’s ok, it most certainly is.

-Kim.

10 thoughts on “Pan how you like

  1. As we discussed elsewhere, I think there are a lot of interesting points related to the stereo field and the use of panning. The interaction between panning and reverb is an interesting topic, for example. I recently discovered what a profound difference it makes to pan pre reverb vs post reverb. Also, whether or not the reverb is true-stereo or not (or mono!) makes a significant difference. –Bill

  2. Kronsteen says:

    There’s one obvious panning issue – people’s left and right ears tend to have different response curves. If you’re right handed, your left ear is probably more sensitive to high frequencies (and vice versa).

    That’s why in a lot of dance tracks with hissy high hats on the off-beats, they’re almost always panned to the right if they’re panned at all, to increase separation. If they were panned left, there’d be more headaches through listening to headphones.

    I also generally find that if a slapback effect is right first then left, it sounds more balanced than left then right.

  3. Kim Lajoie says:

    @William Clarke-Fields
    True stereo reverbs are great. You’re definitely right that panning pre-reverb makes a difference!

    -Kim.

  4. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Kronsteen
    That’s the first I’ve heard of right-handedness or left-handedness being related to uneven hearing response. Got any references?

    I’ve always thought it was different for each person – depending on their own lifestyle. For example, violinists often have very poor hearing in their left ear. I remember reading somewhere that people who drive in the US have better hearing in their left ear because the driver’s side window is on the right (not sure how true that one is, though!).

    -Kim.

  5. Kronsteen says:

    My original source was a lecture on neurology I went to by accident(!). Half an hour with google gave me a lot of research on one-sided noise induced hearing loss, a broad acceptance that most people hear speech better in the opposite ear to the hand they prefer, and a lot of speculation (implausible, to me) that this is to do with the left-brain supposedly handling language.

    So the evidence is not clear cut, but anecdotally I can report that a minute of LW radio in my right ear gives me a headache, but two hours of the same in my left gives no problems – I’m right handed. Anyway, here’s some links I found.

    Questionable Science:
    http://hubpages.com/hub/Tomatis-Therapy
    http://scienceblogs.com/developingintelligence/2007/01/post_7.php
    http://www.ican-do.net/hearing.htm

    Less Quesionable Science:
    http://www.soundtherapyperth.com/overview/rightear.php

    Discussion:
    http://www.futureproducers.com/forums/showthread.php?t=194669

    Tangentially Related:
    http://www.hearingreview.com/issues/articles/2009-07_02.asp

  6. Rolf Hansen says:

    I agree that you can’t “save” a mix with panning things around, on the other hand I think you improve a mix a great deal. This way you make it sound like it doesn’t really maatter.

  7. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Kronsteen
    Interesting reading, thanks! (Apologies for the late reply)

    @Rolf Hansen
    I’m not saying it doesn’t matter – I’m saying panning is pretty straightforward. There’s not much to it and you should just ‘pan how you like’. There are not many aspects to making music that are like this.

    -Kim.

  8. ilter says:

    Well, panning matters a big deal if you are mixing tracks for clubs. Some clubs sum 2 channels into mono, but not all. You want half the crowd -almost- not hearing the singer? So be it, but not me.

  9. Kim Lajoie says:

    True, but if you’re mixing for stereo-handicapped playback systems, you probably already know about it. It’s the same for pop music and teenagers sharing earbuds. Or anyone with their stereo speakers pointed in different directions. Depending on your outlook, the results will vary from ‘interesting’ to ‘less than ideal’.

    Yes, it matters. But it’s also pretty easy. Important elements should almost always be panned centre. Everything else can go wherever you like.

    -Kim.

  10. ilter says:

    Actually no, Kim, we really don’t know where people will end up listening to our mixes. And that’s why we -mixers of the mainstream music- have to be careful with our panning decisions for a while. Maybe forever.

    We all know that if you are away from the (2) speakers, everything sounds mono anyway, but you don’t want to risk -as you said- the *important* elements (What are those, right?).
    But this is how our current mixes are established… based on tried and true set of common approaches (not the “rules” because it sounds somehow limiting the creativity, although it’s not), and that includes panning.

    Haas is there for a reason. It’s a method everyone can use and benefit from.
    Panning is a very important, creative tool. I guess you’d agree with my last sentence.

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