Your job as a producer goes far beyond laying down bass and beats. You’ve also got to think about where each element should sit in the mix. Strategic choices pertaining to space must be made for tracks to sound sonically interesting, and panning does just that. Panning is the placement of sounds across the stereo field, i.e. from left to right. This guide covers a quick overview on some of the basic principles of panning.
Separate elements that share the same frequency range
It’s easy for a mix to sound messy when two or more mid-range synth lines are playing on top of each other. As there is a limited amount of space in your mix, similar sounding elements need to be separated so that they don’t get in each other’s way. You can achieve this by panning your elements further apart from each other. Got a horn section that is competing with a synth line? Have the horns panned hard left and the synths panned hard right so that they no longer compete for space.
It’s important to consider that high-frequency sounds like synths and effects respond better to panning compared to their lower, bassier counterparts.
Not everything needs to be panned.
Keep your lower, bassier frequency content straight down the middle. As a general rule of thumb, bassy elements such as kick drums and bass sit best when completely mono’d. This will help to tighten up your mix and creates a solid foundation for you to work from. If you are working with multi-instrument loops, you can use a stereo imaging plugin to set a frequency threshold so that any sound below 120Hz (for example) will automatically be mono’d.
It’s common technique among producers to mono their snares and vocals. This helps with separation, and ensures that every element has room to breathe. It’s important to have some things completely mono in the mix, as a track with too much stereo width going on will lack punch and clarity.
Keep it balanced
Be careful not to lop-side your mix by having too many elements panned left/right. This will sound jarring on the average listener’s ears, and probably cause them to reach for the panning knob on their own stereo system. Instead, try to plan your panning strategy on a basis of ‘call and response’. For example, you could have one percussion line do its thing on the far left, acting as a ‘call’. Follow up the ‘response’ of that call by having the next line of percussion panned hard right. You can also use a spectrum analyzer to get a graphical representation of your track’s stereo image.