Stereo Image & Panning in Mixing

written by Ozcan Ertek

In the last article, we talked about how to make every sound audible for the audience by imagining or visualising our whole mix as though it were in a three-dimensional space.

When starting with a mix, it probably appears a little chaotic, with everything panned to center and zero work with an eq leaving the frequency spectrum super messy. Essentially what is happening is that sounds are competing, so, we should tweak one or more attributes to change the perceived position and space surrounding the sound so as to make it fit better into the mix.

Firstly, work with the stereo image, starting with the volume and the panning, place  each instrument in the desired space. When mixing it is important to use the audience’s view as a perspective. Start panning two guitar players who are standing on both sides of the room; one to the left and one to the right on the X-axis. This is a basic stereo setup, where you have two channels; and the level of panning controls how far these instruments appear to the left or the right of the soundstage, using this method creates the illusion that the guitar track is somewhere between the two speakers.

In actual fact, even “ the middle” is an illusion. Stereo or ‘’stereophonic sound’’ is actually a method of  sound reproduction that forms an illusion of multi-directional audible perspective.  There is no middle speaker (unless you are in surround sound studio) but sound is perceived to be coming directly out of the screen due to equal volume levels in the left and right speakers.

What better place to start building your mix than the kick‑drum and bass parts? 

A  good rule of thumb is to always demand bass frequencies are found in the  center with kick drums! Get them to work well together in  the center and you’re on your way to a good mix. Vocal recordings or samples are mostly also placed in the center of the sound stage with the kick drum and bass.

To create a stereo image around the center sounds we can pan other components such as guitars, synthesizers,  keys, and brass section away from center to the left or right. For example panning for the first guitar will be a bit to the left, and the second will be panned a bit to the right. This will construct a bit of space in our mix and begin to translate more naturally through the speakers. By considering panning with the Kick, bass, guitar, vocals, snare, hi-hat and synth, brass you can begin to enjoy a much more rich stereo image from the mix.

To further the illusion, fill the gaps that were created by the panning work with a bit of reverb, creating an aura  around the instruments. This kind of mix is good for a lot of jazz, pop/rock, indie, and  other types of “open” mixes vs. a more commercial type of mix known as the “Wall of Sound”.

The wall of sound is  created when every channel in the music mix fights for sonic space and no one wins,  except vocals. Imagine all the channel volumes are equal so there’s no spatial separation in the mix. The bigger the band, the more likely this will happen. The focus on this kind of mix is normally sits with the vocals, which almost seem to be kind in front  of the band, or at least in front of the music. In this style, vocals tend to be some of  the most dynamic instruments in a mix but being one of the most important parts in a song, they should be well-controlled.

While the magic behind fitting together a “Wall of Sound” mix may seem to evade most, you might be surprised at how much you can discover about the mix of any hit record if you use a structured approach to listening, learn to interpret your meters, and try a few technical tricks. This kind of analysis also helps when exploring more underground productions, where vocals are not always as upfront as commercial-type mixes. At the end of the day the mix that you are going for should be the one that fits your song and type of production, pick a similar piece and reference the mixing style.

With so many parameters available why choose panning first? 

Well, actually you don’t have to and of course you shouldn’t rely on panning alone. Using EQ to get clarity in the separation between sounds, so you can hear everything unobstructed, volume and compression are also huge things in mixing and will be explained later in the series. At the end of the day, because we do listen the music in stereo we may as well take advantage of the spacial effects available by using panning.

To conclude, mixing is essentially just getting all the different elements of your song to work as well as possible with on another therefore; in a great sounding mix, the channels will complement each other, not compete with one another.

Using panning to place every instrument between two speakers help us for clarity in the mix. Next week we continue with EQ’s and Compressors to get better balance and dynamics.