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Tips on Clarifying your
Sonic Imagery

Using Pan, Volume and effects

by Rich the Tweak
Image:Orquesta Filarmonica de Jalisco.jpg

Full resolution  

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico)  Author:  Pedro Sanchez, GNU Free Documentation License,

You have probably noticed on your mixer there is a "pan" control on nearly every channel.  No, this does not refer to the frying pan the significant other menaced you with after your last trip to the gear store.  Pan is short for "pan pot".  And Pan Pot is short for Panoramic Potentiometer.  (A potentiometer, by the way, is a fancy word for "knob".) 

Panning is critical to the makeup of your stereo imageA stereo image has two basic perspectives, left to right and front to back. Pan pots control the left and right axis.  Volume, reverb, delay, filtering and ambience create the front and back.


Orchestra layout

source: Wikipedia Image is in the public domain


Simple Panning Tricks for Licks

In this day of totally staggering possibilities with plugins we often forget how powerful, and critical, the pan knob is to attaining an excellent stereo image.  The main thing here is to keep instruments out of the way of each other so the listener can hear them clearly. Perhaps the most obvious example of this problem is with 2 electric guitars, particularly if distortion is used. Even using one will fill the audio bandwidth significantly, but two turns it quickly into a metal junkyard of cacophony.  It will help immeasurably to pan these two so they are out of each other's way.  Also make them take turns sometimes.  But you'll see, if you try this, that panning about 30% will really help things.

The Image of the Band

Pretend you are in the audience.  Where's the keyboard player? Always on the right.  Or extreme left and right if there are two of them.  The Drummer?  Dead center.  The Guitarists are usually at 10 and 2 o'clock, and the vocalist is dead center, in front of the drummer.  Of course you have seen that a million and a half times.  So set up your classic rock mix with that as a guide.  Center the kick and snare, let the cymbals go a little to the side.  If their is a conga player, put them on the left end.  Use the pan controls to bring a focus to the perspective from the audience. 

Front and Back

It may seem obvious, but we need to say it anyway.  Instruments that we perceive to be closer are louder and have more of a direct, rather than reflected, sound.  The elements of the mix that are important are up front and we hear them most clearly.  Those in the back may have more early  reflections infused into the main sound of the instrument.  In your mix, you might create a reverb just for these early reflections that is separate from the main, hall reverb.  Why is that? Consider being at a concert hall.  The loud elements may bounce off the back wall and ceiling even though they are up front.  Yet the softer instruments in the back may be imbued with reflections but very little of the sound energy may actually bounce off the back wall.  Using 2 reverbs helps in this situation. 

Creating a "longer" reverb

An old trick is to first run signals through a digital delay, then to the reverb.  We used to have to do this because digital reverb times were shorter than they are today, but the trick still works.  In fact, it has been done on so many recordings that it is a bit of a standard.  Its just the thing for ambient type soundcapes and may be used to mask imperfect vocal performances, as the delay tends to help mask off pitch notes. 

Advanced Texture Mix Tip

Ever wonder why some mixes just jump out at you? It seems like the sound is deep and wide and almost 3 dimensional.  There's a number of ways to achieve that, some good, some bad.  The most dramatic is reversing the phase on one channel of a stereo mix.  Sound just leaps out, but there is a problem.  Sum to mono and the whole image disappears, what we know as phase cancellation.  Another way to do this is with a combination of a delay and pan controls.  You hard pan the mix left and right and add a tiny, infinitesimal delay to one channel.  I mean really tiny or the mix will get lopsided.  Our ears, conditioned by thousands of years warding off wild animals, can appreciate subtle shifts in the direction a sound comes from.  As you add the delay, listen for the sound to "open up". It will if you do this right.  Just another thing you can do with simple pan controls.


Tascam Gigastudio 3 Orchestra Sampling Software (Windows)


Panning the Orchestra

There is no absolute way to create a sonic image of an orchestra, but it does make sense to follow a classic seating chart which helps create a balanced, uniform sonic image.  Note in the example below, how frequency ranges of the instruments (i.e., how bassy, mid range or treble-like the instruments are) tend to avoid conflict.  The Bass Drum is far from the double basses.  Also note how they reinforce each other.  The Cellos and Violas can play one part distinctly on the right while the violins play a different part of the left.  When they all play together there is a pleasing wash of sound, sometimes called a "pad" in electronic lingo.  Note that the woodwinds, perhaps the most melodic of the orchestra, are centered.  As you go to the right, the sound goes from soft to hard, from sweetness to bratty trumpets and tubby tubas.  As you go left, it gets more delicate, with soft horns, piano or harp.  In the back, you have your short and louds, like Piatti (cymbal) Snare, Bass Drum and Timpani.  In the front, you have the long and softs, the strings. 

To pan your MIDI orchestra, 0 should be far left and 127 is far right.  You rarely want to set any instrument to an extreme value.  For example, Harp, might be set to 20, French Horn to 40, Flute to 60, Oboe to 70 and double basses to 110.  The Front strings might be at 40 and the Celli at 89.  Don't read these numbers as absolutes, they are just an estimate.  Every piece of gear sounds a little different. While all synths have 128 theoretical pan values, many of these values do not do anything to the sound.  Some only change the actual sonic position every 3,  7, 15 values, some even 31 values. So experiment, move things around "a little" and hopefully the sounds will fall into their pocket.   

Less is Often More

Effects should be used minimally.  If a stereo effect is so great that you can no longer pinpoint  the instrument, you used too much. Another tip here is doubling and detuning.  You can make any instrument dramatically wide, yet centered, by putting the same instrument far right (127) and far left (0) and slightly detuning them by about 5-7 cents.  This is a great technique for "wall of sound" like mixes that has strings that appear to "float" on the mix.   Use it sparingly though, as hard panned doubles can easily take up sonic space where other instruments need to go. 

Its good advice to work up a mix without any effects and apply them sparingly in the final stages.  After your ears become accustomed to hearing the "in your face" mix, you will notice that as you add effects the mix will become darker, muddier, and less defined.  Again that is a sign that you are going overboard. 

A Final Point

What i have hoped to show in this article is simply that conservative settings often play a role in strengthening a mix.  You rarely have to pan anything 100%, you rarely have to max any one fader or effects send out.  Just little bits of signal going to alternate audio paths goes along way towards giving you a breathtaking sonic image. 

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Cool Quote

"Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale"

Hans Christian Anderson (1805-1875)

Danish Author

More Articles by Tweak on Mixing and Mixers

Mixing and Mastering
Choosing a Mixer for your Studio
Understanding your Mixer
Digital Mixers
Classic Analog Mixers
How to Hookup a Mixer
Guide to Control Surfaces
How to use EQ
How to Use a Compressor
Using Pan Controls
The Perfect Mix
Review of the UAD 4k Processors
Mixing on a Virtual Console
Tascam DM3200 Resource
Mackie 8 bus Console Resources
Elements of Mastering
Mixer catalog List

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