In music production, panning is how far to the left or right an instrument sits when someone listens to it in stereo. Put another way, it’s how much volume comes out of the right or left speaker.
Use panning to add “space” to your mix, giving your songs a professional sound that your listeners will appreciate.
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When panning music, your goal is to ensure that your songs have a well-developed stereo field, so you’ll want to keep some instruments in the center and move others off to the left and right sides. It’s important that you don’t put too many instruments on one side as that creates an imbalance in your track – always remember to keep your mix balanced.
Let’s dive in.
We can divide vocals into two distinct groups: lead vocals, which sit at the forefront of your sound, and backup vocals which by definition are less important. Generally speaking, the more important an instrument is the closer you’ll want it to the center position.
Lead vocals should be the highlight of your mix and therefore should sit right in the center where they’ll get the most attention.
Feel free to give your background vocals some spread in the stereo field. They can be placed reasonably far to the left and right, typically around 75%.
Electric, bass, and acoustic guitars should each be panned differently to get the best result.
Place the lead guitar between 25% and 50%. If it’s a rhythm guitar you can pan it all the way to the left or right. If the guitar is a solo instrument, put it in the center.
With few exceptions, a bass guitar should always go in the center to balance the weight of the low-end. This keeps it aligned with the kick drum and any other basslines in a song.
This is an excellent instrument to add depth to the stereo field and you won’t want to miss the opportunity to do so. Unless the acoustic guitar is a solo instrument, pan it fairly wide (about 50%).
Synths are less flexible than you might think they’d be. A lead synth is typically the focus of a song and therefore should sit in the center. Likewise, bass synths – which makeup the baseline – should be treated like every other instrument that’s heavy in the low end and also be placed in the center.
As a general rule you should keep your lead synths in the center so they sit at the forefront (this is especially true with EDM).
Most of the time you’ll want to keep your bassline in the center. Treat this exactly the way you would treat a bass guitar and keep your sound balanced.
Keep your kick and snare in the center position, but the other components of the drum kit can be opened up. Feel free to experiment until you get the best results.
99.99% of the time you’ll want to pan the kick dead center in your mix. If you were to try putting it off to one side it would be exhausting to listen to. Your bass needs to be balanced.
The snare drum cuts through everything and drives the rhythm of your song forward. Place this in the center for the best results.
Put your toms around 50%, but be warned that if they’re too wide it can be very distracting. Build separation, but keep it moderate. Multiple toms can be placed on opposite sides for a cool stereo effect.
Place your cymbals slightly off to the side, but not too far (25% is about right). Like toms, this is an excellent way to build depth in your mix.
Your high-hats can be panned approximately 25% to the left or right. This is generally a pretty light sounding instrument so there’s an opportunity to add depth without unbalancing your mix.
Panning Other Instruments
Here are some commonly used instruments that frequently pop up in modern music:
The piano is very versatile in the stereo field and can sit in a number of places. If it’s a solo or lead instrument it should be placed in the center. Otherwise pan it between 25% and 50%.
Strings can be placed very wide. Start at 75% and experiment moving all the way to 100% to really add some space to your mix.