Mix Tips From Your Mastering Engineer #4, Going Wide: Panning to Leave an Impression

Tips and Techniques | Posted On: 07.31.15

(This is part 6 of a 6-part series by staff engineer Justin Colletti. Check out part 1 on bass management, part 2 on high frequencies, part 3 on bus compression, part 4 on panning for widthpart 5 on depth, and part 6 on getting better balances.)

A great mastering engineer will often enhance the sense of “height”, “depth” and “width” in your mix.

But the very best ones aren’t simply slopping on an extra layer of artificial gloss. Instead, they’re working to coax out more what’s already there.

This means that if you want your masters to sound authentically “tall, deep and wide”, the best place to start is in the mix itself.

In parts 1 & 2 we focused on EQ choices, which can contribute a lot to height, and a bit to depth as well. In part 3, we looked at your compression settings, which can also have a real impact on perceived depth, among other things.

This time, we’ll explore your panning choices, which are easily the most dominant contributor to the sense of “width” in any mix.

Going Wide in the Mix

In recent years, stereo widening tools have become more popular than ever at the mastering stage.

Every tool is subject to changing trends in taste and fashion. Referring to the degree to which stereo wideners are used and sometimes abused today, a friend and client of mine recently joked that stereo wideners are “the new limiters.” (Which in turn, could have been considered “the new gated reverb” for the past decade or so!)

Admittedly, stereo wideners can be very fun and satisfying to use, and I love the sound of the one in the Maselec mastering console here at JLM. But there’s only so far you can push them before they sound a bit phony and you start losing the power, detail and intimacy in the central elements of your mix.

The real way to get a master to sound truly and impressively wide—without sacrifice—is to make sure that width is baked into you mix. After all, you’re never going to wind up with a truly amazing cake simply by adding great icing at the end. So with that in mind, here are 5 ways to get width that really work.

1) Think “L-C-R”

The “LCR” or “Left-Center-Right” approach stems from a inadvertently wonderful limitation of the earliest mixing consoles.

In the beginning, most stereo mixing boards didn’t have any pan pots. Instead, you would just have a couple of simple switches to assign elements to the left channel, to the right channel, or to both.

When pan pots were finally introduced to analog consoles, engaging the pan circuit would often subtlety color or degrade the signal. Because of this, some discerning mixers would try to avoid the pan pot when they could, just using the switches unless absolutely necessary.

It’s true that mixers did some very silly and odd things with these switches early on, like panning drum kits or basses all to one side or the other. But this archaic limitation still informs the way many top mixers work today. Some of the biggest and best among them are unabashed and unafraid of “going for the edges” in a mix.

Experiment with it: If you’re panning a sound most of the way left, why not go all the way left? Be bold and give it a try! First go wide, and then use your faders, EQs and other tools to strike the right balance.

You may also want to rethink whether it’s necessarily wise to make fine little panning adjustments, moving sounds slightly off-center in hopes of giving certain elements a little bit of separation without resorting to EQ.

While this approach sounds like a clever idea and definitely can work, there’s a problem with it: Do you really believe that most end listeners are going to experience these subtle tweaks the way you intended them to? Or, will this trick prove counter-productive when your mix is ultimately played back in less-than-ideal listening environments?

Some great mixers argue that you can get more consistent and predictable results—and a wider-seeming spread—by keeping your centered elements fully in the center, and then using other techniques to make sure they have the desired separation. (Starting out by mixing entirely in mono can really help here as well.)

With this “LCR” approach, the balance you set among the most important elements should work as intended regardless of whether your end listeners’ speakers—or ears!—are perfectly placed and calibrated. (Hint: They’re probably not).

Plus, if you can avoid cluttering up the midpoints in the stereo field, the far left and right points may sound even more dramatic and further out.

You don’t need to be dogmatic with this LCR technique, or use it at all. But adopting it, even for a little while, can be a great way to mix up your style, refresh your approach, and encourage you to put out some truly impressive and wide-sounding mixes. Indeed, the mixers I know who love this LCR technique tend to end up with some of the widest and most detailed-sounding mixes I’ve ever heard.

2. Hard Pan Your Rhythmically-Opposed Instruments

There’s a less-than-ideal approach that many new mixers start with. I’m guilty of doing it myself.

Many new mixers will start out by panning similar instruments hard left and right in an effort to give that mix element an impressive sense of width.

For instance, a beginning mixer might take a doubled rhythm guitar part and pan both tracks hard left and right in order to give that one element a sense of spread. Then, he or she will do the same with the keyboards and then the pads and then the vocals and so on.

It’s true that this beginner’s approach can make the part in question sound a bit more “lush” and interesting with very little work. But it’s also small-picture thinking. That instrument may sound wider, but your mix doesn’t!

If you’re aiming for real width, it’s far better to find two instruments that play opposing rhythms and pan them hard left and right instead. These could be guitars, keyboards, string stabs, percussion instruments or voices.

Within reason, it’s even better when the the two opposing instruments slightly contrasting tones. For instance, if one is more dominant in the 400Hz-1kHz range and the other is more dominant around 1kHz-2.5kHz, all the better.

Taking this “contrapuntal” approach to panning can help ensure your mixes have real spread, power, intrigue  and articulation.

Meanwhile, if your mix is instead comprised of a whole bunch of wide-sounding instrument groups, you don’t end up with a wide-sounding mix. You end up with a monotonous and amorphous blob—aka “Big Mono Syndrome”.

3. Get Rid of “Fake Stereo” Clutter

Another great way to make sure your mix doesn’t turn into an unimpressive and amorphous stereo blob is to get rid of as many of you stereo sources to mono as possible. This sounds counter-intuitive at first, but it works.

The #1 offender here are stereo keyboard tracks and virtual instruments. They’ll often include some kind of subtle stereo reverb or chorusing effect which can make them sound more interesting when solo’d, but can make them sound less noteworthy in the context of a full mix.

As much as possible, take your stereo sources and just throw away one side. Then, decide on a good panning position for this new mono source. (Better yet if you use the LCR approach when doing this part.)

Three vaguely “stereo-ish” keyboards all stacked on top of eachother can sound somewhat innocuous and atmospheric, and will take up a ton of space in the mix doing it.

On the other hand, three mono keyboards boldly panned in different directions can sound wide as hell and leave lots more space for the rest of your instruments.

A good rule of thumb here is: “Unless a stereo track has a decisively ‘stereo’ effect on it, make it into a mono track instead.”

4. Use Contrast

The more you mix and the better you get at it, the more you will realize that mixing is not about finding one static setting that works for the whole song, and then leaving everything alone.

Great mixes are built on movement, dynamism and contrast. And in music, as in life, nothing attracts attention so much as change and difference.

Because of this, one of the best ways to ensure a compelling sense of width is to make it so that your mix does not sound equally wide at all times.

One common and effective way of doing this is to have verses that sound just slightly narrower than your choruses. Achieving this is pretty simple: When a chorus drops, some sounds might want to go from relatively-centered to hard-panned. These could be your drum overheads or background vocals or guitars or supporting percussion tracks.

A riskier, but sometimes even more impressive trick, takes a bit of the opposite approach: You can allow some of your quieter sections to have a more uneven and tenuous stereo balance. Then, when the more intense sections kick in, you provide a more conventionally-balanced stereo spread.

Thinking back on some recent and very effective examples, I’ve heard sparse sections with guitars on the hard left and vocals on the hard right, and I’ve heard a midrangey bass part playing against a heavily distorted drum loop, both on opposite sides.

These shocking contrasts often work best they are dramatic but short-lived. As soon as the listener might start to take notice of what’s going on, 4 or 8 or 16 bars have passed, and the whole stereo spectrum has been filled up with a more centered and evenly-spread balance.

Overdo it and this could feel like a bit of a gimmick or parlor trick. But applied with taste—and on rare occasion—it can really add to the emotional impact of the right kind of production.

5. Use References

How wide is wide enough? How far is too far?

As always, one of the the best things you can do to find out is to compare your panning approach to that on some of your favorite commercial releases.

Don’t be afraid of referencing. If you’re just starting out, I know it can be a bit depressing when you first begin doing it and hear how far your mixes could come. But it’s far better to get yourself slightly depressed (and impressed!) early on that to spend hours, and even years, swimming in uncertainty.

The goal here is not to imitate or emulate, but to be informed: What does “great” really sound like in your room? How far can you push things and still get away with it? How does this song and mix fit into the larger literature of recorded music? What can you learn from others, and where can you “go left” and invent a new approach?

If you’re going to compare the impact of your mix to others—and let’s face it, you’re secretly going to do no matter what—it’s far better to do so at the beginning of a project than after you’re done and can no longer use that information in a productive way.

So when it comes to panning or anything else, it can be a good idea to listen to a few relevant recordings in your room before every new mix project to help find where the limits are, and to give yourself a target to surpass.

Whatever tricks work for you, there’s one thing I wouldn’t recommend: Don’t use stereo wideners in the mixing phase unless it’s being used as a special effect. The best way to get a great, wide-sounding mix is to be creative and to mix wide. Resting on a crutch isn’t going to help you do that. That’s one of those few jobs best left to the mastering stage.

(This is part 6 of a 6-part series by staff engineer Justin Colletti. Check out part 1 on bass management, part 2 on high frequencies, part 3 on bus compression, part 4 on panning for widthpart 5 on depth, and part 6 on getting better balances.)

About Justin Colletti

Justin Colletti is a mastering engineer who is happy to call Joe Lambert Mastering his home away from home. To book time with Joe, Justin or Roman, call or email.

Comments are closed.