Creating Realistic Stereo Image with Panning

Panning is how the instruments are arranged within the stereo image. By properly using this mixing feature, you can create a very realistic mix. Mixing engineer should mix tracks with a live sound stage/concert stage perspective. A vocal is always in the center because the band lead singer is the star of the show. At the back of the vocals is the bass player. Typically at the back of the bass player is the drummer. The band’s guitarists are on the left and the right. Bear in mind that different panning arrangement are possible for additional instruments (such a band with piano or others). But this concept illustrates the basic things on how to do panning in audio mixing to create a very realistic stereo image such as the diagram shown below:

Location of instruments in stereo field

Location of instruments in stereo field

Live sound monitors for vocals and bass are placed up front facing the audience, so that fans can get a great feel of the vocals and the bass groove. On the left and right loud sound monitors are the guitars.

In the commercial audio production and using a recording software, panning can be controlled between -100 to +100. Where mostly -100 is the leftmost part of the stage and +100 is the rightmost part of the stage. Mixing from the real live stage perspective, a mixer can set:

a. Vocals to panning= 0 (center)
b. Kick drums = 0 (center)
c. Bass guitar= 0 (center)
d. 1st guitarist=75 (hard right)
e. 2nd guitarist= -75 (hard left)
f. Whole drum set (crash cymbals to ride cymbals)= -12.5 to 12.5 (this is the correct one)

Using ratio and proportion, typical sound stage width is about 40 feet wide. Using recording software, this whole panning width is 200 panning units. (Length of -100 to +100).

Therefore the ratio of panning units to feet is:
200 panning units/ 40 feet = 5 panning units/feet (For a 40 feet sound stage)

To check how realistic is this conversion, we will use the width of the real drum set.
Real drum set needs 5 feet width space when fully set-up. Converting 5 feet to panning units in recording software is about :

5 feet x 5 panning units/feet = 25 panning units, so our panning specifications are correct.

This means that for a 40 feet sound stage, to create a real stereo image of drums, it should be panned between -12.5 to 12.5 (this is the correct specification).

Guitarist are placed +75 to -75 respectively. This means they are both located :

1st guitarist: -75 panning units/ 5 panning units= 15 feet from the left of the vocals.
2nd guitarist: +75 panning units/5 panning units= 15 feet from the right of the vocals.

One important thing to take note on panning is the energy level with respect to panning distance. Rule of thumb is that, the lowest frequencies should be pan on the center except for the vocals. And the higher the frequencies, the farther you can place them away from the center. It is because, low frequencies such as bass occupies massive energies and needs to placed at the center for maximum volume.

The following are advantages of proper panning in mixing :
a. Create a real stereo image of an actual live sound stage.
b. Avoid battling the same frequencies in the same location of the stereo image.

By placing the vocals in the center of the mix, means not in conflict in low frequencies and those guitars that occupy the same frequencies as the vocals are placed away from the center. Thus panning improves the clarity of the mix.

For details about panning settings for different musical instruments, you can refer to the following tutorials:

1.) Mixing and panning bass guitar in the stereo mix
2.) Panning for symphony orchestra instruments
3.) How to pan guitar?
4.) Mixing and panning piano