The Beginner’s Guide to Panning Tracks

Panning tracks in a mix can be a daunting task, especially if you’re working with higher track counts and multiple instruments that have been recorded in stereo. Everything needs to have a place to live between your speakers and knowing how each instrument interacts with the rest of your mix is essential to getting a great sound.

A lot of mixers like to visualize their audio from left to right and up and down. This 3D mixing strategy isn’t something new – panning is right at the top of the list next to setting levels when it comes to crafting a basic mix, and the two are really all you need to get a basic static mix set up. Before compression, EQ, or any other dynamic processing, you need to know where you want your instruments to sit.

Let’s take a look at a few quick tips to get the most out of your panning.

Working Backwards from LCR

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, LCR mixing is the concept that everything in your mix can essentially live in three places – Left, Center, or Right. This technique has been widely accepted among several major names in the industry, and for beginners there’s no better place to start. By limiting your options, you don’t have to worry about being precise with your pans – just get them into one of these three positions and keep moving!

Mixers who want (or need) to utilize more precise panning that the three positions allow for shouldn’t write the LCR approach off either. It’s a great way to get organized quickly, and you can work backwards from there to dial in your panning exactly how you want it. When you’ve got hundreds of tracks in your session, this approach is much more effective than starting with everything panned straight down the middle.

Working with Mono Instruments Recorded In Stereo

Often, tracking engineers will take advantage of stereo recording techniques on single instruments to convey more size or dimension to those sounds. There are certain things that require more than one mic to get just the right articulation. Acoustic instruments often benefit the most from this, but I’ve heard everything from electric guitars to vocals being recorded the same way.

When panning these mono sources tracked with multiple microphones, you need to decide first if you want to fold them down to mono (which is often the case with electric guitars) or keep them stereo for more panning flexibility. Some very unique results can be achieved by panning a single instrument “off-center” by keeping one channel in the center and panning the other one out to the left or right.

Check out some of the ways I’m panning instruments in this session walkthrough:

Hear all of the different approaches you can take with a bit of patience and practice? Panning can be used for so much more than just spreading things out in your mix!

Getting Width from Mono Tracks

Mono tracks are more heavily reliant on good panning technique than stereo tracks are if for nothing more than the fact that there's nothing to balance them out if they’re not panned correctly. If your stereo panning isn’t quite the same on both sides, your end listener isn’t really going to notice. But if your mono snare is too far off center? They’ll hear it.

A lot of mixers tend to struggle with the panning of their mono tracks because they’re just too one-dimensional. There’s no real width to them and they feel puny in the mix no matter where they’re panned. Two of the easiest fixes for this include reverb, which will help build a space around the instrument, or mono-compatible widening with a plugin like Sidewidener. Either way, you can build up a small sounding instrument to fill out more space in the stereo field with a little inventiveness and the right tools for the job.

Putting It All Together

At the end of the day, panning and volume are going to go a long way for your mixes. If you can’t get those two right, nothing else is going to matter.

Once you feel confident in your ability to get a good static mix with panning and volume, you can begin to introduce dynamic and time-based processes to make your mixes more consistent and interesting. We’ve got tons of resources on everything from adding production sounds to mixing drums and vocals available to JST VIP members when you’re ready to level up your mixes.

Come check them out!