Part of effective recording is getting your panned stereo image to sound good. Proper positioning of sound sources is necessary to do that. If the sound sources are positioned in the wrong places, the recording sounds strange. The listener hears a strange placement of the musicians in the stereo image.

Here are some suggestions to getting a good mix:

Diagram of possible pan locations:

Pan controls diagram

The controls you have available to work with are:

Now let's look at some principles that can make sounds "pan out" in your mix:

  1. Try to balance the mix left to right. An unbalanced mix can sound lopsided, and create unresolved tension.
  2. Also try to balance the mix acoustically, so that the lows or highs don't dominate on either side.
  3. Mix to create a stage full of spread out performers, not two or three tightly bunched groups of performers fighting for breathing space.
  4. Because deep bass is reinforced when in phase in all speakers, the kick drum and the bass are stronger in the center front of the mix (point F on the diagrams).
  5. The lead vocal works best in the center front, because it is the focus of the piece (Point F). If there are no vocals, then the main melody instrument is most effective there.
  6. One exception is if there are two lead vocalists who alternate parts. Then it is best to pan them to the subsidiary center on opposite sides (points 1 and 2 on the diagrams).
  7. Because the snare drum is a major timekeeping element, it also works well in the center front (Point F). It should also be close, with very little depth (if any) placed on it with reverb.
  8. Backup vocals work well at the sides (Points L and R), or spread out across the front if there are many (in the area of points 1 and 2).
  9. In surround sound, some of a large number of backups can even be wrapped around the listener (from point 1 to point 3, and from point 2 to point 4).
  10. Melody instruments panned close to center keep the focus on the tune (between points 1 and 2). The lead guitar belongs there.
  11. Instruments with solos definitely should be placed near the center (between points 1 and 2).
  12. Instruments playing in alternating counterpoint (one plays, then the other responds -- like in "Dueling Banjos") should be panned to opposite sides equally (points 1 and 2 at the closest, points L and R at the widest).
  13. Harmony and rhythm instruments placed at the sides lend support without dominating (points L and R, or even 3 and 4).
  14. Try to avoid using an acoustic guitar with a piano (real or synthesized). They tend to blend into a "guiano" (or is "puitar" a better word?). If you must have them both, they should never both be playing chords at the same time. Here are some tips on how to keep them separated:
  15. Avoid panning vocals or primary instruments to center back in surround sound (point S). In matrix surround, they disappear entirely in mono playback. But that is the perfect place for reverb and other space-expanding effects that would be overpowering in mono playback.
  16. In a live concert, pan any audience pickup mics equally about point S. Using a stereo pickup with additional surround mics gives an audience pickup pattern similar to P in the diagram.
  17. My advice on fake-stereo synthesizing is: Don't! Most people really don't want to hear a 12-foot-wide guitar.
  18. When using reverb to create the illusion of distance, pan it in nearly the same direction as the source. When using reverb to simulate a reflective space, pan it to the rear. More than one reverb channel, panned differently, helps with creating a space.
  19. Stereo delays and chorus effects should be panned wide to avoid cancellation effects between the two outputs (Points L and R, or near points 3 and 4). But don't pan the effect opposite the source instrument.
  20. Watch overdoing the effects, especially delays and chorus effects. They can cause unwanted comb-filter effects, image shifting, and strange sensations of motion.
  21. Note that running the same source through two different channels or tracks does not double the image. The two sum together into one pan position between them.
  22. When you play back your mix, if the parts are not panned where you put them, look for the following causes:
  23. Avoid the temptation to cram too much into the mix. (I tend to think of all of the singing department-store Santas in the world, all trying to go down the same chimney at the same time. That is usually enough to stop me.)

These suggestions are not requirements, but they are a good place to start. Always feel free to experiment, especially if you can do so in a way that you can recover from easily if the experiment fails.