Panning and other positioning tools allow you to place instruments from left to right across the stereo image, effectively determining where the left and right boundaries of your mix are, and how close each instrument is to them. Not sculpting the stereo soundscape, or properly panning your sounds can make the song not reach its full potential and sound dull or unappealing. We will show you how to properly position the instruments in a mix in the following tutorial.

As usual, we prepared a short sequence in our SoundBridge: DAW. It includes most of the elements of a full mix, with no instrument positioning applied.

This a screenshot of my mix before applying positioning techniques.
~Full Mix – Unprocessed

Positioning basics

The sequence sounds fine. However, with panning, we will try to achieve a bigger, wider, and more dynamic sound. More specifically, we want to highlight lead instruments and vocals in the mix. To do so, we’ll need to relocate some instruments and move them away from them.

A general rule of thumb for mixing is to keep low-frequency content, such as kick drum and bass, snare drum, and leads in the center of the stereo image, and pan or spread everything else. This track’s vocal would be the lead. There are a lot of other instruments in conflict with that lead, and we can improve the track’s sound by getting them out of the way.

This a screenshot of the vocal channel on which I will later apply MAutopan plugin.
~Vocal – Solo

Panning and spreading for added interest

This synth arp sequence will be the first instrument we will work on. Since it’s also in the center, its frequency spectrum covers that of the vocal lead. To correct this, we will use a free plugin called Quick Haas and apply some simple stereo spread. We discussed the Haas effect in previous tutorials, but let’s briefly mention that it’s a psychoacoustic effect in which listeners perceive the spatial position of an audio signal based on very small delays between the left and right channels. Let’s hear the difference before and after processing.

This a screenshot of my mix and Quick Haas effect interface which I applied on the synth arp sequence.
~Synth Arp – Unprocessed
~Synth Arp – Processed With Quick Haas Effect

Now we’re going to work on the drums. We’ve already stated that the kick drum, bassline, and snare drum will remain central in our mix, so we’ll move on to the other elements. We can see our clap, drum loop, hi-hat, and shaker channels below. To position these channels, we will simply use the panning knob. The clap and hi-hat, for instance, will be shifted to the left, while the drum loop and shaker will be shifted to the right. Let’s hear how these instruments sound before and after panning.

This a screenshot of my drum channels on which I applied standard left/right positioning.
~Drums – Without Panning
~Drums – With Panning

In this sequence, we have a vocal FX that sounds a bit boring positioned in the center. To make it just a bit more interesting we will process it with a free plugin called MAutopan by MeldaProductions. Since it’s a much longer sound compared to our drums and synths, it would be good to set the long sinewave-based panning curve for it. This will make the sound start on the left and end on the right speaker. Such a move will give us even more sense of space and movement in the overall stereo image. Let’s listen to it before and after processing.

This a screenshot of my mix and Mautopan interface which I applied to the vocal FX.
~Vocal FX – Unprocessed
~Vocal FX – Processed With MAutopan

Finally, let’s hear the full mix with panning and spreading applied.

~Full Mix – Processed

If you liked this article about mixing, here is more on the same subject