It might sound stupid to some (or all!) of you, but panning plays a very important role in a mix. Panning, of course, is the placement of audio in stereo field. Do you want something just in one speaker? Do you want it in the middle of everything? These are very important decisions and can affect how the listener perceives your song. If you don’t have anything panned hard (all the way to the outside edge of the mix), then your mix won’t sound big and open. If you have too many things panned hard, your center will suffer and the song might sound weak. If too many things that are in the same EQ range are panned together, you will get a build up of frequency in that spot.
Here’s an idea - not everything that is recorded stereo needs to be panned out hard left and right! Back in the day, mixing boards didn’t have pan knobs, they had pan selectors. All you had was left, center (mono), and right. Some consoles, like the Abbey Road Red consoles, also had a “stereo” feature that put the audio into both sides simultaneously as well.
Starting in the late 60’s and early 70’s though, the pan knob that we use today was invented, and it gave us the option of more positions.
This allows a world of possibilities! Panning a bass guitar just a few degrees off of center can free up the center range for the kick to come through clearer. Many times, the snare and vocal share similar EQ curves. If you pan the snare slightly off center, you free up room for the vocal. It’s much easier for people to sit side by side than it is to have someone sitting in your lap, and the same goes for audio.
This is my basic technique for panning…
- Stereo guitars are always hard L/R
- Stereo pad sounds (strings, synth pads, etc) are always hard L/R
- Drums are panned to sound slightly exaggerated in the toms, but everything else on the kit is basically panned where it really is.
- If I have a piano and organ (or another keys sound, like a Fender Rhodes), I will pan them somewhere in the area of 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock, respectively. Sometimes between 9-10 and 2-3 as well. It just depends. When I say this, I mean that I will take both the left and right of the piano and place them in the same spot. I want the piano on one side of the mix and the other keys on the other.
- Bass is slightly off center (maybe 5 to 10 points to the left - you can’t tell it’s not centered, but the frequencies sit better).
- Acoustic guitar is opposite the bass.
- Backing vocals are panned tightly around the lead vocal, depending on how many backing vocals I have to work with.
- Lead vocals are centered.
- Guitar solos are usually centered unless one of panned guitars drops out to play the solo. Sometimes when you have two guitarists and you have them panned hard L/R, one will drop out to play the solo and I will leave them panned to keep the image of two players intact. That is more a judgement call when tracking, though.
If you need something to stand out in the mix, panning is often a viable option over volume. An example is, if my ride cymbal isn’t poking thru enough, I will try and pan it a little more and see if that helps give it it’s own space in the mix.
Automation is basically telling the program you’re using to remember a move you do (a fader adjustment, pan adjustment, EQ change,etc.), and then repeat it every time you play the song during the mix process. Back when I started in the business, only the most expensive boards had automation (there was no Pro Tools back then!), so the automation came from YOU doing the changes in REAL TIME as you made the final mix master! Sometimes you had to enlist other people because there was so much to do that two hands couldn’t cover it all.
These days, life for an engineer is much less stressful. Automation allows you to do many complex moves over and over and they will be exactly the same every time, ensuring a mix will sound the same 6 months from now when you need to go in and make a few little changes.
I do LOTS of automation. Sometimes my vocal volume automation line looks like a city outline from all the ups and downs I draw in to keep the vocal level. I cannot stress enough the need for vocal automation. Compression will only get you so far unless you destroy the vocal with massive compression, and hopefully you know better than to do that! Lots of compression is one thing, completely squashing the life out of a track is quite another!
When I think I am finished with the song vocally, I will open my volume automation window on the vocal track and start listening very critically. I am listening for any dips or swells in the volume of the vocal, however slight. I have been know to do .5db changes on words! I want the vocal to sound as smooth and even as possible. Sometimes that requires automating EVERY WORD in a line or verse. You do what you have to do to make your vision happen. A blanket 3db boost on a verse is not going to cut it. Don’t take the lazy way out - make it great!
I not only automate vocals, I automate EVERYTHING! Drums, guitars, bass, whatever. If it needs a panning move, EQ change mid song, volume adjustment, anything at all, I’m going to make sure it happens. One of my favorite, and go to, moves is guitar automation.
When the song you’re mixing, especially a rock song, reaches the chorus, that’s when you really want to grab the listener. What I do, and many other engineers do too, is automate the guitars up a db or two to bring up the energy up a notch. Any more than 2db and it will probably be heard and stand out, when all you really want to do is give the listener the feeling that the song ramped up a little bit. I do this pretty much every mix and it never fails to add power and energy to the song in just the right places. Also, automating the guitars down a db or 2 during the solo will put more emphasis on the centered solo, and a db or 2 isn’t enough to “wimp out” the overall song. It allows the solo to sound louder without actually turning it up. Try it next time you are mixing a hard rock track.
If you don’t do subgroups in your mixes, you need to start. Today. I group “like” tracks together in every session. I have an overall drum group, a distorted guitar group, a back vocal group, a lead vocal group (if recorded on more than one track). I even group within groups! As you may remember, I like to use snare and kick samples to support the live tracks, and I will group the live and sample together on an aux. I group the toms together on an aux as well. Then, I group those groups along with the rest of my drums to another group! Why do grouping? A few reasons. I like to do overall things to my sessions. I like to get my individual drums sounding how I want and then group them all for some group EQ and parallel compression. Maybe even a limiter to really bump them up in the mix without fear of peaking the aux group. I find with guitars, it’s good to do group EQ and/or compression because it really makes them glue together and give me a more cohesive overall guitar sound. The same goes for backing vocals.
AUX OR VCA GROUPS?
Personally, I can answer this question very easily. I like to use aux tracks instead of VCA groups because with a VCA, you don’t have the ability to add inserts (EQ, comp, fx). A VCA group is just an overall volume for every track in the group, and my whole intent behind grouping is coloring the entire group as a unit as well as the individual changes I have already done separately.
So that’s it for this time. In the next (and final) installment, I will go thru some of the final touches you should do for your mix to make it turn out as professional as you can make it. See ya next time!
Head Engineer - LIRS