A simple approach to mixing a rock song: Part 3 - Pan

Submitted by mic on Fri, 03/23/2018 - 13:11

admin: First posted on 2007 06 21

It is time to cover panning. On a scale from -100 to 100, where "-100" is "left channel only" and "100" is "right channel only", here is where one of my songs ended up:

Kick -20
Snare 35
Toms -45
Hihat -30
Crash 40
Bass 0 (center)
Simple somewhat clean riff guitar -15
Rhythm guitar 35
Rhythm / riff guitar with phaser -45
Main verse vocals -10
Second verse vocals 10
Short chorus vocals 20
Second short chorus vocals 20
Solo 20

A couple of notes on this song: Most instruments play through the whole song, so all of what you see above comes at the same time. It is hard to notice a pan in the (-25, 25) range and hence the kick, bass, and vocals carry the center of the song. Even though the bass and vocals are all at the center, they are at different frequency ranges and do not interfere with each other. The simple somewhat clean riff guitar basically repeats exactly what the bass does, and so we spaced it out a bit, but almost unnoticeably. This guitar is not really a separate instrument. Most of what it does is to color the bass.

The verse vocals could have gone together, but spacing them out a bit made them fuller. The chorus is not actually a chorus. I was not sure what to call it. It is a two seconds line repeated often, so the fact that it is panned a little makes the song bounce a bit between the center and the right.

The big bounce between left and right actually happens between the kick and the snare, which is something we have grown to like. It works well for laid back songs like this one and for other songs as well.

The tom was set far left by accident in an attempt to simulate the placement of real drums. Instead it ended up accentuating the fills that our drummer played, which usually started at the kick, walked through the snare, and ended at the toms. The toms were used rarely anyway. We would have liked to space out the two floor toms further, but all were recorded on one track.

The hihats are right above the kick drum, which is nice even though it is not realistic. At the frequencies that the hihats and kick occupy they complement each other nicely, and so it is nice to have them together. Once the hihat was "positioned" we forced the crash to the other end. The idea was that the crash is one of those instruments that say: "Pay attention", so it might as well say that louder by throwing the highs from one end of the song to the other.

The two guitars to note are the clean rhythm and the guitar with a phaser. They are both close to mid-range and both play throughout the song. They were placed on opposite ends to make them easily distinguishable.

If I was to summarize everything above I would say:

  1. One purpose of panning instruments is to separate instruments that may otherwise clash as they fall in similar frequency ranges. This was done for the guitars. Similarly, the purpose is also to put together instruments that complement each other. This happened to the kick and the hihat;
  2. Another purpose of panning is to make the song bounce from left to right and to make it lively. This was done in the case of the verse and the chorus vocals, the kick and the snare, and the hihat and crash;
  3. Still another purpose of panning is to make the song spread out and appear fuller. This happened in the case of verse vocals and the whole song in general; and, finally
  4. Another purpose of panning is to simulate real life experience. See how we placed the tom above.

All reasons are important, but (4) above really needs some discussion. There are two ways to pan:

  1. We can attempt to simulate real life. We can imagine a band on stage and replicate how this band would sound; and
  2. We can try to follow ad hoc rules as the ones we used to mix the song described here.

There is no right choice. We started mixing this song trying to replicate a real-life band placement and the results were ok, but just ok. Perhaps that was the right start, as it gave us some ideas about what did or did not sound correct. As various versions of the song emerged though, we deviated from the original plan. The end result therefore mixes the two concepts above. Most of the professionally recorded albums that I have go for (2) above, but this is not a rule. Whatever we choose to follow however, we are sure to pay attention to the specifics of the song similarly to the way we did for the song above: laid back songs which needed a bounce, guitars clashed, the crash could be more forceful, and so on.

Besides taking care of the song as a whole, we also try to note if there are important changes throughout the song in terms of tempo, melody, arrangement, and other. This specific song does not change much from beginning to end. It basically stays the same, except that the solo guitar replaces the vocals a couple of times. Hence the panning does not change through the song either. There are songs that will change drastically though. I see no reason why panning should stay the same through a whole song, especially if the song changes significantly in terms of tempo or melody, or if different instruments come in. Obviously, in real life the drummer will not run from one end of the stage to the other, but sometimes it makes sense to move some instruments, including the drums. That may or may not happen in professionally recorded albums. I remember listening to a DVD Audio mix of Deep Purple’s "Machine Head". If I remember correctly, every time a solo would come in instruments would move. On the other hand we have Slayer’s general panning formation that is well spaced out, but has not changed in the past few years.

One question we still struggle with is: How much pan is enough? Our first mixes were very well "centered". Everything was very close to the center and ended up sometimes in a big blob. Now we spread out things more. Sometimes, the weirder an instrument is, the more interesting is to stick it somewhere far left or far right. Either way, we are still experimenting.

authors: mic

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