By Jeff Strong

You adjust each instrument’s position from left to right in a mix with the panning knob. The panning knob is generally located just above each channel’s fader. This can either be a knob that you turn left or right or it can be a slider that you move to the left or right. Panning for most songs is pretty straightforward, and here are some settings in the following list:

  • Lead vocals: Lead vocals are usually panned directly in the center.

  • Backup vocals: Because backup vocals are often recorded in stereo, they are panned hard left and hard right. If you recorded only one track of backup vocals, you can make a duplicate of the track and pan one to each side, just as you can with stereo tracks.

    In addition to tracks panned to each side, some mixing engineers also have a third backup vocal track that’s panned in the center to add more depth. Your choice of doing this depends on how you recorded your backup vocals and how many tracks you have available for them.

  • Guitar: Lead guitar is often panned to the center (or just slightly off-center if the sound in the center of the stereo field is too cluttered). Rhythm guitar, on the other hand, is generally placed somewhere just off-center. Which side doesn’t matter, but it’s usually the opposite side from other background instruments, such as an additional rhythm guitar, synthesizers, organs, or pianos.

  • Bass: Most of the time, the bass guitar is panned in the center, but it’s not uncommon for mixing engineers to create a second track for the bass and pan one to the far left and the other to the far right. This gives the bass a sense of spaciousness and allows more room for both the bass guitar and kick drum in the mix.

  • Drums: As a general rule, most people pan the drums so that they appear in the stereo field much like they would onstage (but this doesn’t mean you have to, too).

    The snare drum and kick drum are typically panned right up the center, and the tom-toms are panned from right to left slightly. Hi-hat cymbals often go just to the right of center, the ride cymbal just left of center, and crash cymbals sit from left to right, much like the tom-toms.

  • Percussion: Percussion instruments tend to be panned just off to the left or right of center. If there is a shaker or triangle part that plays throughout the song, for instance, pan it to the right an equal distance from center as the hi-hat is to the left. This way, you hear the hi-hat and percussion parts playing off one another in the mix.

  • Piano/synthesizers/organs: These instruments are usually placed just off-center. If your song has rhythm guitar parts, the piano or organ usually goes to the opposite side. Synthesizers can be panned all over the place. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the synths to be actively panned throughout the song (that is, they move from place to place).

Some mixing engineers like to keep their instruments toward the center of the mix, while other engineers prefer spreading things way out with instruments on either end of the spectrum. There’s no right or wrong way to pan instruments. In fact, no one says that you have to leave any of your instruments in the same place throughout the entire song.