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How to Pan a Mix

When panning a mix, you don’t need to stick to your channel strip’s panpot - instead try delay-based panning, spectral panning, phase panning, or a combination of these to create complex stereo placement. Some plugins like binaural panning plugins, rotary plugins, and sample delay plugins will come in handy.


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Panning Using Delay

For this video, we’ll discuss 4 different types of panning, and some applications for each.

If a stereo signal’s left and right channels are identical and we delay 1 of them, even slightly, we’ll perceive the signal as coming from the non-delayed channel, since it arrives at our ear prior to the other channel. With a sample delay, we can create this effect in a mix.

Let’s affect our high hat and notice how delaying the right channel makes it sound like it’s on the left and vice versa. Also, notice if we set too long of a delay time, it’ll sound like 2 separate signals.

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How to Create Spectral Panning

If a stereo signal’s left and right channels are identical, and we attenuate the high frequencies of one of them, we’ll perceive the signal as coming from the full frequency range or non-attenuated channel. The reason is, that our heads block high frequencies if our ear is turned away from a sound source.

When can recreate this effect by duplicating a signal, and with an EQ on one of them, attenuating the highs to make it seem like the right or left ear is turned away.

Let’s take a listen to it, and keep in mind how you could use this in a mix to create more interesting and realistic panning.

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Pan Using Binaural Effect

Some DAWs come with a binaural processor, which lets you place your signal within a 360-degree field, and even change the perceived elevation, tilt, and more. These filters are using delay-based panning, spectral panning, and other tricks to recreate this type of spatial environment.

If your mix is using pads to fill the sound, I’d recommend using binaural panning and sending it behind the listener. It has a pleasant effect and clears space in the mix while keeping the sound full.

That said, I really wouldn’t recommend this on any signals that are vital to the mix like the lead vocal, kick, and so on.

Let’s take a listen to it used on a pad.

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Difference Between Panning and Widening

Before we continue, let’s get a better understanding of panning and widening, and their differences. Traditional panning will reorient the level or amplitude of the signal within a 90-degree stereo field, which we can observe when I alter the pan pot in my track’s channel fader.

Widening occurs when a signal is expanded into the 180-degree stereo field, typically by some form of delay processing that causes phase cancellation - like in chapter one when we used a sample delay.

To understand the sonic differences let’s listen to a signal panned left, and then one delayed to be perceived as coming from the left.

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Understanding Routing when Panning

In the last chapter we covered the differences between panning and widening, but let’s look at combining the 2. If we use a delay plugin in our channel strip for widening, this will occur before reaching the traditional panpot - meaning we can widen, and then reorient that widened signal.

If we want to do the opposite, we could use a traditional panning plugin as an insert, then insert our sample delay or other stereo widening tool.

Although this might not be the most interesting topic,I find I use the first combo a lot to first widen and expand, and then move that widened signal around until I find the right spot for it in the mix.

Let’s take a listen to a signal routed into widening and then panning.

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Introduce Rotary Plugin

If you don’t have a binaural pan plugin built into your DAW you can use a plugin like this rotary one to reorient the perceived placement of the signal. Additionally, effects like tremolo and chorusing will cause phase cancellation that will add to the complexity of the stereo widening.

This Rotary plugin by UVI works well, or the S1 imager from waves is somewhat similar, although getting the signal to the desired spot is a little more challenging.

Let’s take a listen to panning and widening introduced with the Rotary plugin.

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Unique Panpot Plugin

There’s one plugin by Goodhertz called Panpot that combines a lot of what we’ve discussed so far, and conveniently, separates each type into easy-to-understand sections. We can introduce traditional level panning, delay panning, spectral panning like from chapter 2, and phase panning which is similar to delay but with tonal differences.

I think this is an older version of the plugin as well, so it’s worth looking into more if you’re interested in quickly cycling through these different panning types in a mix.

Let’s listen to how combining multiple panning types sounds on a signal.

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How to Quickly Center Lows

If your lows have been panned or widened, it can negatively impact the mono compatibility of your mix or even make the mix just sound unfocused. Although ensuring individual signals are mono is somewhat simple but observing the level meter, temporal effects like reverb or delay may have affected your imaging.

An example of this would be if your vocal is reverberated around 150Hz and some of the kick's frequencies are interacting with that, causing mild expansion.

With that said, it helps to use a mid-side EQ later in your routing like on your stereo output to cut any lows from the side image.

Let’s see what, if any, low-frequency signal made its way to the side image of this mix.

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Panning and Widening with EQ

If our EQ allows for left and right channel filters, we can use these to widen and even pan our signal. For example, if I create 2 bell filters, one on the left and one on the right, then vary their frequencies slightly and amplify - we’ll notice the signal widens.

Furthermore,if we amplify one bell more than the other, we can change the panning in a frequency-specific way. Let’s try this on the drum bus and notice how we can achieve a wider sound that’s panned at specific frequencies.

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Panning Between Inserts

This last one is a little uncommon, but if our plugins allow for it, we can pan in between inserts which can be helpful in certain situations. For example, if I’m running an EQ into a saturator, and I know eventually I want the signal to lean to one side or the other, I could pan the signal into saturation.

This will both change the panning, and alter the behavior of the saturator by changing the level and orientation of the incoming signal.

It makes a small difference panning this one, but it’s one of those things that can add up and help create a unique sound in your mix.

Let’s take a listen.

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