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What is Panning in Music?

by Chris Wainwright, iZotope Contributor May 13, 2022

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You’ve probably heard the term panning used in regards to mixing music, and whether or not you can define it, if you have been listening to music since or anytime after the 1960s, you certainly have heard it. 

In this article, we will discuss panning in music by breaking down some fundamental concepts, adding a dash of historical context, and doing a bit of listening and panning practice with Visual Mixer. You can follow along by trying a free demo of Neutron, which includes Visual Mixer. 

Learn about panning: 

What is panning in music?

Panning is the act of placing or moving a sound anywhere in the stereo field of a stereo playback system. Before we can discuss panning further, we must first understand a few basic principles of multichannel audio and psycho-acoustics, which is what makes panning possible in the first place!

Mono playback system: A system which produces sound using a single channel (one speaker).

Stereo playback system: A system which produces sound using two channels (two speakers).

Mono Mix: A mix in which all sounds are panned to the center. Mono mixes can be reproduced on mono playback systems as well as stereo playback systems.

Stereo Mix: A mix in which sounds are placed in various locations across the stereo field of a stereo playback system. Stereo mixes cannot be reproduced on mono playback systems.

Stereo Field: In a stereo playback system, sound sources can be placed in a way that they are perceived as coming from the left speaker, the right speaker, or from anywhere in between. This available area of sound placement, spanning from left to right, is known as the stereo field.

Phantom Image: What we refer to in stereo mixing as the phantom image is the psychoacoustic phenomenon that causes us to perceive a sound as coming from a single location even though in reality it is coming from two separate locations. In our case, the two seperate locations are the left and right speakers.

For example, a single sound that is coming from both left and right speakers at exactly the same volume will be perceived as coming from the center, directly in between the two speakers. As the volume of the signal is increased in the left speaker while simultaneously being reduced in the right speaker, the signal will be perceived as moving from right to left, as such, if the signal is increased in the right speaker while simultaneously being reduced in the left speaker, it will be perceived as moving from left to right.

Pan Pot: A pan pot, short for panoramic potentiometer, is the physical knob (or graphic representation of a knob in a DAW) that we use to place or move (pan) a sound within the stereo field. When you turn this knob to the left, the level in the right speaker is reduced as level in the left speaker is increased. When you run this knob to the right, the level in the right speaker is increased as level in the left speaker is reduced.

How to pan instruments with Visual Mixer 

In addition to a pan pot in a DAW, you can intuitively pan your tracks with iZotope's Visual Mixer. Using iZotope’s IPC (inter-plugin communication) technology, you can adjust pan, volume, and the stereo width of any track in your session containing an instance of Neutron.

iZotope Visual Mixer
iZotope Visual Mixer

Here is a mix that I have created of the song "Overconscious" by Tall Buildings with instances of Neutron on drums, moog bass, guitar, wurlitzer, organ, and vocals. Using Visual Mixer I have created both a mono mix as well as a stereo mix. 

"Overconscious" by Tall Buildings, Panned Mono

Take a look at how instruments are placed across the Visual Mixer. In mono, the instruments are lined up from front to back, as the mix is the same coming out of the left and right speakers. 

"Overconscious" by Tall Buildings in mono
"Overconscious" by Tall Buildings in mono

In a stereo mix, the Visual Mixer allows you to place instruments like you would in a concert hall, as the left and right speakers can convey different information across the space. 

"Overconscious" by Tall Buildings, Panned Stereo

"Overconscious" by Tall Buildings in stereo
"Overconscious" by Tall Buildings in stereo

Adjusting stereo width

In addition to adjusting levels and panning, you can also widen the stereo image of any track.  Here I have an example of a mono drum loop panned center as well as an example of the same drum loop panned center, but widened with Visual Mixer.

Drum Sample, Narrow Width

Drum sample, centered with a narrow width
Drum sample, centered with a narrow width

And here's what it sounds like centered, but widened. If you're listening on headphones, note the difference in the stereo placement on both audio examples. The widened drum sample sounds louder, more "up front" than the narrow width example. 

Drum Loop Centered, Wide Width

Drum sample, centered with a wide width
Drum sample, centered with a wide width

Why is panning important?

Panning is important because ever since the late 1960s, the vast majority of the music we listen to has been mixed and reproduced on stereo systems. Whether we listen on our mobile phones, laptops, televisions, headphones, or in our cars, most everything is in stereo. In fact, a fair amount of music that was originally mixed in mono, has since been remixed in stereo.

Here are two examples of the Beach Boys song, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” from the album Pet Sounds; the original mono version, released in 1966, and the remixed stereo version, released in 1997.

Note that the mono version of the song can still be recreated as such even though we are listening on a stereo playback system. This is due to the phantom image phenomena discussed earlier. The signal coming from our left speaker is identical to the signal coming from our right speaker, therefore we perceive it as coming from a single location centered between our two speakers.

Note that the remixed stereo version creates a much wider image. All of the instruments are separated across the stereo field and more clearly discerned. This is not to say that it is any better than the mono version as that is subjective to the listener. While it is true that the stereo version is wider, clearer and more immersive, the mono version is a throwback to the earlier years of pop music and evokes a feeling of nostalgia.

LCR Panning (Left, Center, Right)

Aside from mono and stereo, there is another approach known as LCR, or ‘cardinal points panning,’ which is a hybrid of mono and stereo. The concept here is that everything in the mix is panned hard left, hard right, or center, and avoids using any intermediate panning positions. It is as if you are creating 3 mono mixes in a single stereo mix; a left mono mix, a center mono mix, and a right mono mix.

Traditionally (not always, but most often) the bass, kick, snare, and vocal are panned to the center. Adhering to this, while panning all other elements like piano, keys, guitars, percussion, background vocals, etc. hard left and hard right can help to provide the lead vocal more room to shine with less elements to crowd it or fight for the same place in the mix. This is not to say that this technique is the answer for all mixes, but it is something to be aware of and to experiment with as it can be rather effective.

Here are two song examples that were both mixed using the LCR approach.

It is interesting to note that in the 1960s, during the transition from mono to stereo, stereo mixing consoles were not equipped with continuous pan pots, but rather 3-position pan switches. In this configuration, the only panning options at the engineer's disposal were left, center, or right. 

It is true that the full stereo field could have been utilized had the engineers duplicated tracks, panned them hard left and right and moved them across the stereo field by changing their relative volume levels, utilizing the phantom image phenomenon as mentioned earlier, however this was not practical as track counts were often limited to 4 channels. The 8-track was not widely available until the late 1960s, and synchronizing two tape machines together to increase track count was not so easily accomplished until the early 1970s.

Here are a few song examples that were mixed in LCR on consoles with only 3-position pan switches. Not only is the placement of the instruments a creative decision, but also a byproduct of the technical limitations of the equipment at that time.

Start panning your mix

In this article we have only just scratched the surface of panning, what it is, and how it can be implemented. There are multiple panning techniques, philosophies, and common practices in the world of mixing. None better or worse, but each with their own purpose. As every song is different, there is no one-size-fits-all.

As you listen to your favorite music from various decades, across genres, including live albums and studio albums, pay attention to where the instruments are placed in each mix. Reference different panning schemes and experiment by applying them to your own productions.

For more on panning and how it can be used effectively, check out other Learn articles about panning music with intention as well as iZotope's YouTube series, Are You Listening? that covers panning in a mixing session as well as advanced stereo imaging techniques in mastering. And don't forget to play around with panning techniques with a free trial of Neutron, iZotope's intuitive mixing plug-in. 

Learn more about mixing

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