Out of sight, out of mind: sound can’t be seen, and this might explain why a lot of audio engineers tend to overuse and boost sound effects, trying to please their ears. But sound is a matter of nuance and finesse, if you’ll pardon my french, and turning things up to 11 won’t get you a better result. Striking examples of this can be observed in how pan controls are used.
Post-it: Panning is about positioning the sound of instruments, left and right, in a song’s stereo space.
If you look (ha!) closely enough, in some songs, drummers are treated with massive arms lengthening surgery during the mix. Drums are often panned the following way: cymbals are on each side, and somewhere between the toms we go from 100% on the left to 100% on the right – if you close your eyes and try to picture what you’re hearing, strange images will come to haunt you.
One way to manage panning is indeed to close your eyes and try to picture the band playing, and to architect the song according to where you want to be in this scene, as a spectator or as a musician; it then becomes much easier to position instruments in your mix.
There are no hard rules when it comes to mixing, and there will never be, but you still got to have some equilibrium between the left and right channels in your song. Think of a balance (those two pan old-school weighing scales): at the end of the mix, it should be … balanced! You can’t just stack everything on one side or the other. Sure, there can be a slight difference, but not too much, as it would make your song hard and unpleasant to listen to after a while, causing would-be fans to just skip ahead. Especially nowadays, with lots of music being enjoyed with headphones, thanks to iPods and the like.
Here’s a good example: « Strawberry Fields Forever », by the Beatles. Ok, at the time, subtle panning was not an option but listening to music on Headphones neither. On this track, the drums and mellotron are on the left side, the guitar, brass and strings on the right. And it’s quite unpleasant to listen on headphones, as you’ll witness yourself with the following video.
Balance often comes naturally during the mix. Once the panning of the drum kit is done, which ends up fairly centered, you integrate the rest of the rhythm section (bass, keyboard), also at the center, and then the more free-form instruments (guitar, keyboard, brass, percussions…), which is when the architecture of the song is made.
For instance, if you have two guitars, you can decide from the start to put one on the right and the other on the left, which respects the balance. If one of them is more present, you’ll add more other instruments on the other’s side to compensate and keep both ears happily working. Here’s a song by Explosions in the Sky to illustrate this.
Note that placing an instrument 100% on one side is a pretty radical choice, and it must be done with an artistic goal, to really bring something special to the song. Otherwise, the instrument might be lost and not feel like an integral part of he mix.
This leaves us with vocals. The lead singer is always in the center: there are exceptions, but that’s one of the rare things you’ll find in almost every mix. Backing vocals offer some degree of fun and freedom to the audio engineer, but just like with instruments, a left-right balance must be respected, unless it’s treated really as another instrument – in which case it can be integrated with the rest, enabling more radical choices.
To sum things up, even if there are no rules, a “standard” mix will have drums, bass and vocals at the center. The other instruments will be on the left and right sides (though rarely 100% on one side only), and spread to occupy the stereo space, for example a guitar 70% on the left and 30% on the right, and a keyboard 70% on te right and 30% on the left.
One word to keep in mind: balance.