I had coffee with a fellow audio engineer this morning, and he was talking about how big of a difference panning can make on the sound of a mix.

He told me a story about a test he had to take in engineering school. The test was done in a 5.1 surround sound mixing studio. It began with a Pro Tools mix that was routed to the center channel only.

The assignment was to create a mix by only changing the routing of the various tracks. My friend said he was amazed at how much of an improvement he was able to make.

Obviously, mixing into six channels of surround sound gives you more options that a two-channel stereo mix, but don’t downplay the effectiveness of panning changes.

Panning vs EQ

A big part of the mixing process is using EQ to carve out a place in the frequency spectrum for each instrument. You want the vocals, drums, guitars, keys, etc., to all blend together nicely without a lot of buildup in certain frequency ranges.

For example, you might boost one electric guitar part at 1 kHz to really make it stand out. Then you might boost another electric guitar part at 3 kHz to give it its own unique place in the mix.

The key here is separation. You certainly want the instruments to blend together nicely, but you don’t want your mix to sound like a big, confusing, messy blob of sound. By carefully applying EQ, you can cause each instrument to stand out from the rest without being obnoxious.

EQ isn’t the only way to do this, though. Panning can play a huge role in getting separation between your tracks. Panning the acoustic guitar to the left and the electric guitar to the right can be a big step towards having a nice, full mix.

Panning in Mono

Wait…what? Panning in mono?

You’ve probably heard people say that you need to check your mixes in mono. What does this mean? Well, if your mix is played over a PA system or a mall speaker system, chances are it will be played in mono.

Mixes can sound drastically different when you switch from stereo to mono. If you’re not careful, some of the components of your mix can almost disappear when you “fold back” to mono. If this happens, you need to probably correct some of the drastic panning choices you may have made.

One way to do this is to listen to your mix in mono while making your panning changes. My 003 makes this easy. It has a “mono” button right on top that lets me instantly listen to my mixes in mono. Adjusting the panning of individual tracks can help you find the right balance if you listen in mono. Keep changing the panning until the mix sounds great in mono, then check it back in stereo.

If you consistently find that your mixes don’t sound good in mono. Try mixing the entire thing in mono. Don’t switch it back to stereo until the end. If you can get it rocking in mono, you’ll be blown away by how huge it will sound in stereo.

Have you tried this? What do you think?

[Photo by Tanais_Fox]

  • cwgunlock

    When I mix in mono then switch back to stereo, I feel like it only sounds waaay bigger because my ears were just accustomed to the mono mix and my stereo mix isn’t necessarily better because I mixed in mono, it just appears that way.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Yeah, I get that. For me personally…my mixes sound better and translate better when I make most of the heavy tweaks in mono. Otherwise, the problems with the mix simply “hide” behind a big stereo image.

  • Omid

    hi joe ,i want panning two instrument The amount >>30L & center… we Assume this two instrument be in same freq…what have Frequency interference two instrument

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      I’m sorry I don’t really understand your question.

      You should EQ both while listening in mono (both panned to the center) before you do panning. This will ensure that you’ve EQ’d them properly.

  • Philip Williams

    This sounds like a great technique to try, how do I do this with a presonus studiolive 1602 with protools?

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Just adjust the panning in Pro Tools. Give it a shot!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mitch.lieber Mitch Lieber

    I can’t wait to see the results of my current project with this method.  Hopefully there’s no phase issues.  

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Let us know how it works!

  • TOMMY

    SO, What’s right then?
    I asked if unhooking 1 speaker would be true Mono and told ” no” here. But SIMON said more or less the same thing and was told correct.I’m not complaining but just need to get down to the bare truth here.Does the nowadays DAWS sum it up if you’re on 1 speaker or what?
    Take Care and thanks for all the help,
    TOMMY..%#…

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      I don’t think it really matters. I just let my DAW sum to mono and play out of both speakers, but I also have a single speaker that I send a summed signal to as well.

  • CamBam

    How can I “press the mono button” if I don’t have a button for mono? Is there some way to do this in your DAW?

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Some DAWs have a mono button. Some don’t.

      If you have a “stereo width” plugin of some sort, put that on the master fader, set it to 0%, which is essentially mono. Then your “mono button” is simply enabling and bypassing that plugin.

    • Dano

      Also, If you’re using a control surface, or even on your interface, check for a mono button

      • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

        Yep. I’ve found a mono button on gear I never expected to have one on there. Fun surprise.

  • Konrad

    Great article. You’ve just show me completely different way of mixing. Thanks!

  • Dano

    Hey Joe, great tip on mixing in mono. This is something I make great use of for the past few years in my mixing, but from my experience I would like to warn about the pan law in use by the DAW as this greatly affects the resulting difference between mono and stereo summing. I suggest a complimentary post addressing pan laws and mixing in mono? Hit me up.

    Great job on this site by the way!

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Great idea on pan laws. I honestly know nothing about them. You should write it! :)

  • Phil

    Hey folks

    Unfortunately I have no clue whether this topic is still going on as there are no dates on the post and the comments…

    When working with Cubase 5, I use the StereoEnhancer set it to mode and now I only need to “bypass” the plugins on my master channel. If I need other plugins on my master channel I just do a “two-stage” master channel that means: I have a channel which I use for the master channel and route it to the output channel which only has the StereoEnhancer on it.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Hey Phil. Great tip. Just a week ago someone showed me that in Pro Tools. There’s a stereo widener plugin that you can set to mono. Then you just bypass the plugin to hear in stereo again. Cool stuff.

  • http://kimlajoie.com Kim Lajoie

    By the way, Cubase 5 has a mono button in the ‘control room’ section. I thought most DAWs had similar features?

    -Kim.

  • http://kimlajoie.com Kim Lajoie

    “If you can get it rocking in mono, you’ll be blown away by how huge it will sound in stereo.”

    True words here, and this is exactly what I do. Almost all my production work is done in mono, leaving the final panning and reverb (and more recently, mix bus sweetening) to the final stages of the mix.

    Not only does it mean that things suddenly get bigger when I start working in stereo, but I also find that I can put together a cleaner and tighter mix by working in mono for most of the process.

    I’ve written a bit more about my approach here:

    http://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/2009/06/02/mixing-in-mono/

    And a few more articles about stereo widening here:

    http://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/tag/stereo/

    -Kim.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      You have to be careful though that you don’t wait TOO long to switch to stereo. If you just flip it to stereo, give it a quick listen, and bounce down, you might not have to to address a few issues that may be there in the stereo mix.

  • http://www.audiogeekzine.com @theaudiogeek

    I use either TT Dynamics meter for my mono maker.
    Other options: BX Solo, Flux Stereo Tool.

    All 3 are free and should be Mac/PC VST/RTAS/AU

  • http://http.//usoproject.blogspot.com U.S.O. Project

    :-)

    Keep up the good work,

    Matteo M.
    http://twitter.com/usoproject

  • http://http.//usoproject.blogspot.com U.S.O. Project

    DFX Monomaker: VST, AU – Windows, Mac OS X (UB)
    http://www.kvraudio.com/get/665.html

    Terry West PanBundle: VST – Windows
    http://www.terrywest.nl/utils.html

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      You are the man (or woman). Thanks!

  • http://www.intheboxproduction.com/ Heath Close

    If I understand what your asking, most DAWs come with a “utility” plug-in that usually can achieve this on the master channel. For example I use the utility plug-in to do A-B listening and mono listening on the master channel.

  • Joe R.

    Thanks Joe, The two pan sliders were the answer. By default the DAW has a single pan slider… I just right clicked in the pan area and it gave me an option….. I knew it would be simple once it was figured out…. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction

  • Joe R.

    I have yet to find a MONO button to sum up the output in Cubase 5… Got the manual out though….Any Ideas?

    If I center all the tracks, I will be listening in Mono. But how do I mix the panning and maintain Mono?

    I tried using a Mono output but I loose the panning ability … and the right speaker (but thats mono for you)

    • Panos

      I am using hardware (Big Knob) to do MONO summing. Before I installed my extra single speaker I used the MONO button of my Big Knob with two speakers just like Joe describes it.
      Trying to do this in software may be tricky. In Logic Pro (which I use) you can turn the output to mono (so it will send the same signal to left and right) . Don’t know how to do this in Cubase though, sorry

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Hey Joe, I don’t know of any DAWs that have a “mono” button, but all you need to do is simply pan the two pan sliders on your master output to center. Done. Also, I’d be willing to bet you could find a free VST plug-in that does simply mono summing, so you can quickly flip back and forth between stereo and mono. Anybody know of one?

  • Al

    This topic just reminded me of Porcupine Tree’s Fear Of A Blank Planet .
    that’s an awesome example of mixing an album in 5.1 sorround.
    Steven Wolson is one of the few who can do that perfectly.
    any ideas?

  • Panos

    Great post Joe. Very good tips. Another very good method to listen and mix in Mono is to have 1 speaker to do so. Connect one speaker to one of the outputs of your mixer/speaker-controller (I use a MACKIE BIG KNOB so it’s output C for me) and turn this output on together with the Mono button. TRUE MONO™ 😉
    It’d be easier of the Big Know would offer a mono out… but it works anyways.

  • TOMMY

    JOE,
    Would the ezz’st way,[ mono check ] would be to just un-hook 1 speaker? If so , then what if 1 guitar was panned to the right and that was the one you unplugged?
    Take Care,
    TOMMY??////&^%$#

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Unplugging one speaker doesn’t make your mix mono. That just means you’re only listening to the left (or right) side of the mix.

      Listening in mono means you pan everything to the center. The “mono” button on my 003 actually “sums” the left and right signals together, and outputs the exact same signal to both the left and right speakers.

      • http://www.recordmixandmaster.com Simon Duggal

        pressing the mono switch in and listening on both left and right speakers is actually multi-mono and not true mono. pressing the mono switch in and switching one speaker off – so you’re listening from a single source point – is true mono.

        • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

          Good point, but listening in “multi-mono” still accomplishes what you’re going for.

          • http://www.recordmixandmaster.com Simon Duggal

            Indeed, monitoring in either form of mono is more accurate for balancing instrument, voice and effect levels than monitoring in stereo … but true mono has an advantage in that It is much easier to judge relative levels when they are superimposed on top of each other rather than when they are spread between your speakers. An important point for monitoring in mono, either multi or true … is too listen quietly!

            Great site by the way. really informative. Cheers.

  • Ryan

    I think its always good to have a couple mixes anyway. Bass heavy/low, hard panned/mono. There are tons of applications for multiple mixes. You wouldnt want to get a gig mixing for a local artist and have your nice, full, hard panned mix played on the radio though.

    A great tip Joe.

    Good for practicing finding out the fundamental frequencies of instruments too.