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]