What is Panning and Stereo Width in Music?

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

What is panning and stereo width in music production and sound engineering?

In this article, we are going to cover two of the most important topics in mixing music — panning and stereo width, and how you can do them properly.

How do you know what to pan and where to pan it?

But first, what is panning?

What is Panning?

Pan is actually short for panoramic — a wide view of something.

Panning is making some sounds go to the left, right and center of an audio landscape in a mix. This is done using the “PAN” controls on a mixer to vary the volume of a sound between two output channels. As the pan control is turned left to right, the volume changes correspondingly to the output channels.

Which output channel the sound goes to depends on the routing switches on the mixer.

The panning controls on the stereo channels on your mixer work in a different way though, they work like the balance control on your home stereo.

You have two channels and then panning controls how much is in the left and how much is in the right to create the illusion on of audiotory space.

A “BAL” control only varies the level of each of the two sides.

So if you are trying to control all the way to the left, you don’t hear both channels coming out of the left side, you only hear the left side of the stereo sound recording.

It basically turns the right side off.

There is no middle channel. There is no middle speaker (unless you’re in a surround sound). There’s only a right and a left. The illusion of a middle channel is created with balance.

Finding the right balance is the key to panning correctly.

There’s more to it than this because there is stereo width as well.

What is Stereo Width?

In 1881 Paris, Clément Ader demonstrated the illusion that sound takes a special auditory perspective and character when listening to two telephone with both ears.

Sometime in the 1930s, a British engineer patented stereo records, stereo films, and also surround sound.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Out of this bit of history, it had been discovered that 2 speakers with varying information sounded way better than a single speaker.

What is stereo?

Stereo simply means everything is either left or right — anything other than hard left or right is panning. Mono means everything everything is in the center.

If you record a vocal (one mic, one cable plugging into one preamp), it going to be mono signal. If you record a guitar track, its going to be mono, if you record a bass track, it’s going to be mono…

…unless you’re using something mixed, such as samples. A sample is a stereo track.

The norm these days is using stereo tracks from samplers and virtual instruments.

What is the stereo field?

The stereo field is simply the size of auditory landscape.

In the regard stereo widening is making the stereo field as big as possible to make the mix sound as big as possible.

When stereo was first invented, a lot of music creators went crazy with it and did things you would never be caught doing today if you wanted to have something commercially viable.

It’s just not what radio is used to anymore.

Why Pan Music?

Why pan?

Well, you don’t have to.

If fact, you shouldn’t even rely on panning, you should use EQ to get the clarity and separation in a mix so you can hear everything just right EQ and volume, those are your big things.

Even compression comes in higher on the totem pole. That will help too.

You really should think of panning as icing on the cake. We already listen to music in stereo, so it makes sense to take advantage of it.

How to Pan Music — A Few Rules of Thumbs

First of all, I will prefix this by saying that there is no right or wrong way to pan. Panning, like everything else in music is an artform only bounded by your creativity.

You really can do anything you want with your panning but there is a method to the madness.

When is comes to creatively panning.

Let’s look at a couple of rules of thumb—

Rule #1 — Kick and Snare in the Middle

The kick and snare always go in the middle, there is no reason to put them anywhere else.

In most cases this will be mono signals, there won’t be any panning on them. So even though its stereo, it up in the middle.

You can either leave the kick and snares truly in the middle by taking both pan controls to the middle or just leave them.

It’s going to sound the same if there was no stereo width to start with.

Rule #2 — Bass in the Middle

The bass always goes in the middle so it locks in with the kick and snare drums.

This would also apply to a bass synth. A lot of time, bass synths are very wide. But, this depends on your style of course.

Rule #3 — Lead Vocal in the Middle

The lead vocals are placed in the middle.

Rule #4 — Drum Overheads are Panned Left and Right

In most cases, you’ll get drum overheads panned left and right by default. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to leave them there.

It’s also common to get cymbals that ride on the left and crush on the right.

But be careful with this, is the drums are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, that can work too but it’s jarring sometimes.

If you want as much width and clarity as possible, pick a place for your drums and drum overheads.

In Conclusion

There is a concept called LCR (Left-Center-Right) Panning that simplifies the panning process. You work with only there places. But ultimately everything is up to you.

If you are looking to get started, the rules of thumbs are particularly handy. That should serve as a good reference point.

Of course this article is introductory, there are way more techniques to look at to really get a good grasps of panning.

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That’s it for this article.


I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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