Interestingly, as plug-ins, including synthesizers and samplers, have grown in sophistication, pan dials in most DAWs are frequently overlooked. The competitive nature of modern synthesizers is that their presets ensnare you with broad, panoramic sounds. Their position in the stereo field is, for some reason, not for us to meddle with. Through this article, I'm going to encourage you to get back in touch with your pan dial, to challenge any notion that pan isn't every bit as essential as volume, EQ or effects processing when it comes to creative mixing. We'll look at static pan treatments for improved mix clarity and auto-panning effects to get sounds moving in ways that you—not your preset libraries—control.
Working with pan is complicated by the fact that modern DAWs allow us to work with stereo or mono tracks, side-by-side, without any pan decision-making required. If you set up a stereo synthesizer sound on a hardware mixing desk, you'd have to decide whether to plug in both outputs or work with a sound in mono. Even if you did choose the stereo option, you'd still have plenty of control, as you'd use the pan dials to set how broad a stereo image these would provide. When using soft synths in most DAWs, a single pan dial is used for mono and stereo tracks alike, so stereo sources can't easily be narrowed in this way.
To understand how to make great use of the stereo field, let's first understand a little more about the way we perceive sound. The first thing to note is that, usually, a sound heard in the center isn't actually produced in the center. The vast majority of mix work we do is on a pair of speakers positioned to the left and right. Therefore, our perception of a central position is created by equal amounts of volume reaching us from these two positions. Our ear-brain sums the signals and concludes that, as their volumes are matched, they must be coming from a sound source directly in front of us. Only surround-sound or mono systems provide a true center speaker.
It's also important to remember there's a crucial difference here between speakers and headphones. On speakers, even sounds panned hard-left reach our right ears, as the signal produced causes air vibrations that our right ears pick up at a lower level than on the left. On headphones, sounds panned hard left will only appear on one side of the mix, with no natural acoustic process to disperse any part of this signal to the right. This helps explain why producers who mix on headphones tend to produce narrower mixes than those working on speakers. Hard-panning on headphones often sounds too bold or disarming.
Like any music-making process, panning provides an opportunity to be creative, and you should certainly experiment with finding your preferred positions for your sounds. However, it's generally agreed upon that as sounds appear most rooted or grounded in a central position, this is probably the place for the most important components of your mix—lead vocal, synth lead, kick, snare and bass. This doesn't mean these elements have to be panned centrally, nor does it mean that other elements in your mix can't be panned in the middle. But there are huge advantages to spreading the other elements around these core sounds to ensure there's a real width to your mixes; they'll sound clearer as you free up space for each sound.
Instantly, the overall sound is bigger and bolder, but each sound also becomes more individually recognizable, as it now has its own space in which to breathe. In particular, listen to the new separation we've achieved between the centrally panned snare and the panned toms. These pan positions replicate the positions of each piece of an acoustic drum kit as heard from the listening position, but these principals of panning drum sources are just as valid if you're working with electronic sounds.
There's plenty of energy in the beat programming, but the mix itself is dull, mostly due to its lack of width. We can fix this very easily but we need to be selective about which elements move and which stay panned centrally. The weight in this mix comes from four separate sources—the kick, the snare, the pitched "throb" which plays every couple of bars and the pitched tom. The hats are important, too, since they add groove, but they're competing for space in the cramped confines of the middle of the mix.
Immediately, there's more room in the mix, not only for the hats but also for the elements in the middle, which now have two fewer elements to compete with.
This creates some nice drama: the tom pulls your ear to the right, but the throb grabs your attention from the left when it appears in the second bar. When both sounds were panned centrally, this tension didn't exist, so the mix gets a brand new character without additional programming or effects processing.
The thin percussion part on track 1 would also benefit from a shift away from the middle of the mix, but this element presents its own challenges. Though it's not paired with another sound, it plays consistently through the mix, so it might draw focus too readily to one side or the other if it's left in a static position. Instead, make this sound move from side to side. We can do this two ways. The first option is to add a layer of automation to the track, using the pan parameter to move the sound from side to side by creating points wherever they're required.
This works well but has its drawbacks. If your track runs to 200 bars, creating the required number of automation points takes time, particularly if your DAW doesn't easily let you copy automation data. Equally, if you change your mind about how well the automation is working, you might be forced to start again. This is where auto-panning effects can be hugely useful, as their job is to move sounds from side to side. They use an in-built engine, like an LFO, to generate movement. Auto-panners often add additional and easy-to-adjust parameters, so if you have second-thoughts about the speed of left-to-right movement, its depth (how hard to the left and right a sound pans) or even its behavior (slow back-and-forth or jumping steps, for example), these factors can be altered quickly.
Parameters here include width (to control whether movement is deliberately narrowed from the default hard left/right) and smoothing (to control whether there are hard jumps from side-to-side or soft slides). From the rhythm drop-down menu, it's possible to specify the number of bars or beats over which movement will take place, and the rhythm shape option at the bottom selects different movement types, like switching regular left-to-right movement with random jumps or steps. Through all these parameters, it's possible to configure almost any movement you like, which frees up more space for the kick and snare parts within the track, which are now the only elements in the center of our mix.
We need to pay the same attention to detail if we decide to enhance our programmed beat loop with effects. By default, effects like delay pan centrally. So if a delay is set up on an auxiliary channel, even if the source sound is panned to one side or other, the delays generated from the sends will be panned centrally.
But what happens when we start to introduce other musical parts? Should all pitched instruments be panned centrally? Absolutely not. Imagine seeing a band on a decent-sized stage. The bass player's amp might be off to one side, with the electric guitarist forming a pair on the other side of the stage. The vocalist might be in the middle, amplified through the main PA, and the drummer might be slightly off to one side at the back. Similarly, imagine seeing an orchestra on an even larger stage. The musicians wouldn't all stand in a line in the middle; they'd be spread wide from left to right. In fact, in an orchestra, much of the melodic content comes from the first violins, who traditionally sit to left-of-center from the audience's perspective. So it's absolutely not the case that important musical parts need to be panned centrally, though it is generally true that the bass will be in the middle to prevent bias to one side or other.
Lastly, we're using a gentle, distant pad from Blade. Pads from modern plug-ins tend to be big, wide sounds—which is fine, provided they're not taking up greedy amounts of the stereo image. If you find yourself working with a pad that's too wide, imaging plug-ins, which allow you to narrow the stereo perspective of a sound, can be very useful.
What's clear is that the creative options offered by panning—whether wide, fixed positions or dynamic, shifting ones—open up another avenue for improving the quality of our mixes. Compared to leaving every element within our projects panned centrally, fighting for air and space, mixes which place their constituent tracks carefully within the stereo field always sound more alive.