Since stereo recordings replaced mono in the late 1960s, producers have had to fill out two speakers with sound instead of just one. The first thing that they did was to just put everything in one speaker. The drums might go in the left, the bass in the right, the guitar in the left, the vocals in the right and so on.
This technique is known as “hard panning.” Modern producers don’t use it nearly as much, because it’s a pretty poor technique for creating a true stereo mix. You’d never go see a band that had its instrumentalists on two completely separate sections of a large room, so hard panned mixes sound unnatural and uncomfortable.
In general, I like to use more nuanced techniques in my stereo mixes, sending a snare drum 20 percent to the left and a background vocal 10-15 percent to the right or so. I don’t pan hard, because i’s too distinct of an effect in most situations and it ends up distracting from the song. Listen to the Beatles’ mono mixes for early albums like Rubber Soul, then listen to the stereo mixes. The stereo mix is needlessly confusing for modern listeners.
With that being said, there are several good reasons to use hard panning, provided that you know what you’re doing. Here are a few tips if you’re interested in using this technique in your mixes.
1. Panning anything to the hard right or left gives the sound more focus. This is a pretty basic rule, but keep it in mind as you experiment. If you’re putting something in the right or left speaker, you’d better have a good reason for doing so.
Say you have a sound effect that comes in halfway through your song, plays once and disappears. That could be a great situation for a hard pan–listeners will get a little surprise, and by the time they focus on the effect, it will disappear. However, you wouldn’t want to put the drums or bass entirely in one speaker, since that would greatly distract from your song overall.
In other words, before you pan anything, ask yourself, “why am I doing this? Why does this track need the extra focus?” Hard panning is a gimmick, so be careful with it.
2. A hard pan isn’t necessarily a 100 percent pan. I consider anything about 70 percent hard panning. By leaving 20-30 percent of a sound in the other speaker, you can limit the drastic, “hey, look at me!” effect that panning tends to have on your mix.
As with everything else in home recording, you should experiment to find out how different percentages affect your stereo mix. See what you like.
3. Use several different types of monitors. If you’re sending something completely to the left or right of your mix, you should listen in a few different ways to make sure that you know what you’re doing.
Listen to your mix on nice monitors, headphones, in your car, on a boombox, and on any other system in your home. Hard pans can sound wildly different on different systems due to the spacing between speaker sets, so you owe it to your listeners to do some homework. If your pan sounds too severe, dial it back a little during your next mix.
Have any questions about hard panning? How do you use this technique in your recordings? Share your thoughts below.