Panning Techniques That Make Your Music Dance

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As mixing engineers, we want to breathe life into our creations. And, ladies, we need to remember how we listened to songs when we were little girls. Did you twirl around and dance to the music? Maybe you still do — and that is fantastic! What if you could achieve those “twirls” and movement in your mix? Well, you can! The movement of your mix is controlled by YOU, and you can bring your mix to life with some small, but very effective panning moves.

Whether you are a fan of the hard-panning techniques of LCR (Left/Center/Right) or you enjoy incorporating soft-panning techniques that employ placing elements of your mix close to the “10:30” and “1:30” positions (as well as LCR), the fact is that WHEREVER you choose to have an element “live” in the mix, it should sound as though it is alive. We sometimes can make the smallest of adjustments to accomplish this goal.

Take for instance this example: The ever-cool tambourine. We know this percussive little instrument is full of personality! Even the person playing it in a live band is having a great time — tapping and smiling — and moving. So it stands to reason that incorporating this movement into the track might be just the key to giving an otherwise static element some pizzazz. Listen to this example, and pay attention to the tambourine on the left:

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Tambourine before…

Now, it’s not to say that sounds bad, but I think that tambourine could use some movement to make it sound as if the person playing it is having fun, and dancing along to the music. This song has a great vibe, and the tambourine is a key element. Automation will make a difference here. Although these next panning moves are small, they put some motion into an otherwise stationary element:

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Tambourine after…

These “mini-panning moves” may be subtle, but it will be these minor changes that add life and interest to your mix. You can use this technique successfully on a variety of percussive elements, as well as on many monophonic instruments (think trumpet, flute, or any instrument that the player’s movement can be represented by creative panning). But there are many other ways to use these short bursts of panning to create life in your mix. Listen, and let the music take you to where it wants to go.

Panning is a subject I could discuss for hours. But I have my own thoughts on this part of mixing music: be bold! Create drama and tension with panning — let the song be your guide. Test your ideas, try unbalanced panning techniques, and learn from practice. Also, when deciding on pan positions for the various tracks in a mix, it’s important to take into account how the arrangement changes throughout the song. Each song will be different, so always be open to trying new techniques. And do not forget: Have fun!!

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What are your thoughts on panning? Do you have any great techniques or frustrations to share? Leave a comment!

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