Panning is one of the first concepts people become familiar with when getting into music production. The pan pot (panorama potentiometer) is right there on the channel strip and moving it around probably feels very intuitive. However, there are some idiosyncrasies and misconceptions when it comes to panning which I will attempt to explain and dispel, respectively.
When you pan a sound you distribute its voltage between your left and right speaker, creating a spectrum of width for your mix. Pan a sound left and you hear it on your left. Pan it right and now it’s on your right side. Pan up… well now it’s in the middle. Simple, right? Well let’s see.
Have you ever panned an instrument to one side and then wondered why it suddenly lacked power? Damn, better put it back in the middle, right? Wrong.
When you pan a sound to the middle of your mix a voltage is sent equally to both the left and right speakers. Because each speaker is driven by an amplifier, you have double the wattage driving a sound that is panned to the centre than you would have driving a sound that is panned hard to one side (in which case only one amp is driving it).
The general rule of thumb when doubling wattage is that it yields another 3dB (sometimes referred to as the 3dB law). It means that when a sound is panned hard to one side, it will be 3dB quieter than a sound panned to the middle of the mix. So, you may compensate for this with your faders but it is also more than likely that your DAW itself is capable of offsetting this effect – either by turning down the centre image by 3dB or by turning up the sides by 3dB. Have a look through the software’s preferences for these features (may be called Pan Law).
Some DAWs provide you with a balance pot on a stereo channel rather than a pan pot(s) and there is an important distinction. The difference is that instead of distributing a signal between the left and right buss as a pan would, a balance simply turns one side of the stereo signal down in order to make the other side more prominent. This yields a tilt in balance to the dominant side. It is important to note that when balancing a stereo signal hard to one side, you are essentially losing the other side of the signal! Instead – if you want to move a stereo sound completely to one side – you could try converting the stereo signal to mono and then panning it rather than balancing.
Too often I’ve seen people duplicate a signal in order to pan one instance left and the other, right. The myth is that this will make it sound wider. While this may have an effect on volume, it does nothing for width. When panned centre, a signal gets split across the left and right mix busses. When duplicating to pan into opposite sides, the signal gets split across the left and right busses. Same thing… it sounds like it’s in the middle!
For a stereo signal it is the difference between its sides that makes it feel wide and the same-ness that gives it centre. If you want to widen a sound, you need to create (or enhance) the differences between the left and right instance. A mono sound is mono because it is a single signal with no point of difference. The mono signal can be widened with any stereo modulation, e.g. tremolo, chorus, phaser, flanger, doubler etc.
Insert such a mono-to-stereo plug-in directly on a mono channel and, presto! Width. This is because you have introduced difference between the out-going left and right versions of the signal. If a source is already stereo you can still do this but, if there is an existing difference between a left and a right side, you can use a stereo widener/enhancer to further increase width. These processor types find the difference between the two sides of signal and turn them up. In extreme cases this can cause the signal to sound wider than your speaker set-up!
It is important to note that not everything in a mix should be wide. Overall width in a mix can be created very effectively by simply panning mono sounds to different positions in the stereo spectrum. This helps to separate between sounds. If everything is wide, then everything will be competing for space across the stereo spectrum, making it difficult to focus on any particular element – especially in a busy/dense mix! Be careful about which sounds are going to take up all or much of the spectrum and don’t be afraid to hard-pan mono sources; just make sure you have something to counter-balance them with in the adjacent side.
Marcel Bellvé is program co-ordinator at SAE institute and produces electronic music.