How To Pan Instruments In A Mix

To get your music sounding open, clear, and wider you need to master the art of panning. In this blog post, I’m going to reveal some best-kept secrets about how to pan instruments in a mix.

Audio Panning is crucial when mixing because it helps instruments and vocals dominate their own space. It can prevent instruments from overlapping and reduce masking.

When used creatively, panning can also add excitement to keep the listeners glued to the stereo.

You have to be careful though because when used wrong, panning can make the stereo image sound unbalanced.

You don’t want to end up with a mix that is right/left heavy because this will ruin the listening experience.

So, a good balance is very important.

What Instruments Should Be Panned?

The best practice is to keep your most important instruments and vocals panned in the center so that they stay up front in the mix. Panning them left or right might make them sound quieter when played on different sound devices.

So, keeping them in the center ensures a consistent sound no matter the playback system or environment.

As a general guideline, sounds such as kick, bass, lead vocal, snare, and main keys/guitar are kept in the center of the stereo image. Then the other supporting instruments and vocals are panned left or right to fill up the stereo field and give the song a 3-dimensional feel.

Another reason low-end instruments such as kick, bass, and 808 are kept in the center is that in the old days of vinyl you needed to optimize how the stylus tracked in the groove. Stereo bass would make the needle skip on the vinyl.

That's how people got used to the low-end sounds being in the center and that tradition is still being kept to this day.

Honestly, in the digital domain, you can pan instruments wherever you like. However, that doesn’t guarantee that your song will translate well when played on various sound systems.

How To Pan Instruments In A Mix

Panning instruments is more of an art form, it's not a science. Just like any piece of art, there are no rules.

But there are a few guidelines that you can follow to ensure that you don’t get a weird sound that turns people off.

Here are a few techniques that you can use to make sure that you get a wide-sounding mix that is well balanced.

How to Pan Drums

There are two ways one can pan drums. There’s the audience and drummer’s perspective. So from the drummer’s perspective, the hi-hat will be on the left with the floor tom on the right. The audience's perspective will be the opposite of that.

Choosing one will depend on the recording. You can simply listen to the stereo room or overhead microphones to figure out if the hi-hat is coming from the left or right channel.

This also applies if you’re using VST instruments such as Superior Drummer, solo the overheads, or room. Listen to those two mics and pan exactly. If you don’t follow the overhead panning you’ll have a lot of cancellation and phase issues.

If there are no room or overhead mics then you’ll need to choose what sounds best for the song. Your panning decisions have to complement the rest of the instrumentation.

This also applies to electronic drums for genres such as EDM, trap, pop, etc. When it comes to these genres there’s no right or wrong.

But to keep a balanced stereo image you’ll need to pan sounds that complement each other. For instance, if the song has a hi-hat and tambourine then pan them separately, that will give you a balanced sound.

So, when you’re producing or recording drums you should always do it with panning in mind. If you find yourself mixing a song that only has a hi-hat then don’t be afraid to add a shaker loop to balance the stereo field.

If the musicians don’t like it then come up with creative ways to get a good balance, like using a ping-pong delay.

Sounds such as kick and snare are usually kept in the center so that they stand out in a mix. The rest of the drum kit can be panned left and right to make the drums sound wider and more exciting.

Where Should I Pan Guitars in a Mix?

How you pan guitars in a mix is determined by whether they're playing chords or single notes and how important the guitars are in that particular mix. If it’s the main guitar that is playing chords throughout the entire song then it makes more sense to keep it in the center.

This will help keep it up front and dominant in the song. Having it panned left or right will sound weird and the center will sound a bit empty. Unless it’s a stack of guitars instead of just a single track.

If it’s layers of guitars then you can pan them but you’ll mostly need one that’s in the center to keep the chords audible in mono playback systems. Again, when you record or produce you always have to do it with panning in mind.

When you only have a single guitar that’s not playing chords, maybe a melody, solo, or rhythm then you’ll need to find another sound in the mix that will complement the guitar.

It could be a piano, synth, Xylo, etc. you’ll need that sound to balance the stereo field. So if you pan the guitar left by 30% then it’s wise to pan that other instrument to the right by 30%.

You’ll need another sound to complement your guitar otherwise your mix could sound right/left heavy and unpleasant for the listener, especially if they’re using headphones or earbuds.

How to Pan Layers of Guitars

When it comes to panning layers of guitars it will depend on how many layers you have because one of them has to remain centered to get a big sound. 

So it’s recommended to use odd numbers (3, 5, 7, etc.) when recording instead of an even number of layers.

For instance, if you have 3 stacks of guitars then you’ll pan two of them left and right then have one remain in the center. This will give you a fuller sound.

If you’re reading this but have an even number of layers, let’s say 4 for example, then you’ll pan two of them separately, keep one in the center, and then treat the 4th one like a parallel track.

It needs to remain in the center though, but you can be creative with it by over-saturating it or compressing it hard, making it wide, etc. However, if you’re mixing a dense mix it’s better to just delete it.

How far should guitars be panned?

This will depend on the rest of the instrumentation and vocals as well. If you have background vocals panned 100% left and right then it’s wise to pan the guitars at 80% so that the guitars don’t fight for the same space with the vocals.

This applies to all the other tracks that are in the mix. The stereo image is big enough for all the sounds in a mix so fill it up as much as you can without causing any clutter.

Don’t be afraid to delete other layers to make space for the rest of the instrumentation. Just because it was recorded doesn’t necessarily mean it always has to be used in the mix.

If the guitars sound fuller with 3 stacks then there’s no need for more because you’ll end up with a lot of mud and masking.

So, there's no rule about how far the guitars should be panned. It all depends on where you've panned the other sounds in the mix, then find a pocket for the guitars to dominate.

Where Should a Guitar Solo Be Panned?

A guitar solo is usually panned in the center of the mix if there’s no vocal to accompany it. 

In some situations where there’s a vocal, you might still keep it in the center if there’s no other sound that you can use to balance the left and right. But you'll need to widen it so that it doesn't occupy the same space with the vocal or other main instruments (kick, bass, snare, etc.).

So when you’re panning a guitar solo you’ll need another instrument to keep the stereo image balanced or else the song will sound right/left heavy.

You can also be creative by panning the solo (maybe on the left) and then using a ping-pong delay effect to fill out the other side.

Where to Pan Bass in a Mix

The bass is usually kept in the center to keep it punchy and powerful in the mix. This is traditionally done because you want the low-end to translate well no matter where the song gets played.

For instance, most nightclubs will connect their sound system in mono because it’s much easier to set up and you get the same experience no matter where you are in the club (office, smoking area, bar, VIP, etc.).

So in that type of environment where there’s no stereo playback your bass sound will disappear and sound flat.

Keeping the bass centered is done so that the music sounds great no matter where it’s played.

You don’t know how people are going to listen to your music. Someone with a sound system that has two stereo speakers could decide to take one speaker outside the house and keep one in the house because they just want fresh air while listening to the music.

Or two people could be sharing Air-pods. If that happens and your bass is panned to one side then it’s going to fall flat.

This is why it’s recommended to always check that your entire mix is mono-compatible.

Instrument Panning Cheat Sheet

This is a short version but you can check out my other posts to get the full instrument panning cheat sheet with a detailed explanation and some creative ideas.

Here’s a general panning chart:

  • Kick, bass, snare and lead vocal = Center
  • Chords (keys, synth, guitar, piano, etc.) = Center
  • Cymbals (ride, crash, etc.) = Pan left and right
  • Toms = Pan left and right
  • Background vocals = Pan left and right
  • Single note guitar, synth, piano, etc. = Pan left and right
  • Brass (sax, trumpet, trombones, etc.) = Pan left and right
  • Woodwind (flute, piccolo, clarinet, etc.) = Pan left and right
  • Strings (violin, cello, etc.) = Pan left and right

Note that when I say you can pan them left and right you’ll need a complementary instrument. For instance, if you have a violin panned left, then it’s a good idea to have a viola on the other side to balance the stereo field.

Sometimes sounds that are not in the same instrument family can complement each other. This could be a synth + saxophone, piano + guitar, trumpet + clarinet, flute + Xylo, etc.

It’s all about finding the right balance, not so much about a particular family of sounds. So, you work with what you have in the mix and make it blend together nicely to give the listener a great experience.

Wrap

The one thing that makes panning much easier in the mix is to think about it during recording, sound design, or production.

Don’t be afraid to add some of your sounds when mixing for a client to balance the stereo image.

Remember to put all instruments in their rightful pocket.

If one sound is panned 25% then don’t pan the other sounds in the same pocket, move them to a different space like 36%. This will fill up the stereo field and make your mix sound wider and open.

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