I was conducting a recording clinic at a local music store a few weeks ago. One of the questions I got was from a recording student about panning. He said, “I was listening to a mix the other day and things were panned in such a way that the instruments sounded like the were floating between the speakers. I felt like I could just reach out and touch what I was hearing… How do you do that?…”
I told him that the fact that he felt like he could “touch them” in space was likely due to proper filtering and phase integrity of the mix more than it was panning.
In fact, I believe that for new mixers, there are only 4 panning positions that he needed to worry about:
Of course, panning is important for balance. You definitely don’t want a left-heavy or right-heavy mix. You do want to have things panned in such a way that makes the mix feel balanced. But, no one has ever won a Grammy for “best panning on a record”. So don’t worry about it too much. Make the major issues like phase integrity, balance and artist performance the major issues. The smaller issues will take care of themself over time as you become a better mixer.
Treat panning like this: pan the kick, snare, bass guitar and lead vocal to the center. Keep most everything else OUT of the center.
If there if there are 2 electric guitars (or acoustic guitars), pan them hard-left and right unless they are distracting that way.
Take the toms and spread them out as if you were sitting behind the drums (if you are panning from a drummer’s perspective). Hi tom at 9 o’clock, mid Tom to 1 o’clock and low Tom to 4 o’clock. Pan the overheads hard-left and right.
Quickly adjust panning on everything else to make your ears happy with the balance and then move on.
It’s not that important. What is important is that you listen to the mix in mono most of the time so that you can detect any phase issues and to make sure that you are listening in the “worse case scenario” (yes, people still hear your mix in mono). When you come out of mono, you should be happy with the panning.
If you will take the time to make sure that things are phase accurate, filtered, and EQ’d correctly, panning should almost be second nature to you.
If you want to learn how to manage phase and balance issues, I show you some of these tricks in my tutorial videos like this one.