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garageband

The Soft Tyranny of Modern Panning Expectations

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
by , 08-30-2012 at 07:31 PM (1924 Views)
There are times when you look around and wonder aloud, "When in the world did this happen?!", followed by, "Why?"

The modern orthodoxy for panning expectations of other folks who record music seems to have the following rules... Stop right there. No nonsense about "breaking rules is what I'm about, man" and "I'm too rock-and-roll for any of that 'rules' jive." I hear this from virtually everyone's mouth and a vast majority of the rock records made in the last twenty years. I've heard the comment, "Things aren't panned the way I'm used to" many times.

Anyhow, the rules as I understand them, are these.

The following instruments will be panned to the center:
Bass Guitar
Bass Drum
Snare Drum
Lead Vocal
Solo Instrument (not always)
*Notice that these are predominating elements of a rock song.

Hard panning is discouraged except for reverb returns and the following -

Toms are individually panned across the stereo field. Sometimes the high and low tom are outside the rest of the resultant drum kit image.

Guitars and other instruments are panned to one side or the other but never all the way.

This results in records that are very mono-sounding. So much so, I can sum them to mono and sometimes can tell almost no difference. Even worse, when you're listening to a song and it strikes you as "not very stereo", you check it and find it's not. You can tell how this sounds. It's a very predictable sound we've all heard. I like the people who say, "I'm not going to check my mixes in mono." I don't know why the hell not. You're probably making stuff that's mostly mono to being with. You might catch some phase issues or something else stupid gone wrong.

Think about (and listen to) some records that actually are stereo and maybe have really weird panning assignments. Start with any of the Hendrix records. I have a Temptations song in my head that's real stereo.

So much of what I hear is just wide mono. Stereo is a powerful psychoacoustic effect. It's a shame to make music that's indifferent to it.
paul999, m24p, irawan gani and 3 others like this.

Comments

  1. bozmillar's Avatar
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    I think the reason this exists is because of headphones. On speakers, having the snare drum panned 100% to one side and the bass to the other doesn't hurt your ears. On headphones, it sounds very awkward. Unfortunately, the music industry missed the boat on standardizing different mixes for different playback systems. The movie industry does it. You pop in a DVD and it looks at your speaker setup and plays a different mix depending on what you have. There are even settings for full range speakers or small speakers. There is a standard with how the DVD audio is played back depending on your settings.

    Back when music was made and distrubuted in a more controlled environment, the music industry could have had a similar sort of standardization. It wouldn't have been trivial, but it wouldn't have been impossible. Now with music being mixed by everybody and being distributed by a million different means, I think it's pretty much impossible. They missed the boat, and I don't see crazy panning ever being used outside of vinyl for a long time unless headphone technology drastically changes.
    m24p likes this.
  2. m24p's Avatar
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    Of course, you're allowed to double rhythm guitar and hard pan it. But you're not allowed to double lead vocals and hard pan it anymore.

    I think Boz is right on the headphone thing. DanTheMan has done some experimenting with doing headphone mixes.
  3. garageband's Avatar
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    I think the reason this exists is because of headphones.
    I just bought a set of phones for drums because of their wicked amount of isolation: Koss Pro 4As from about 1971. Awesome green/bronze plastic coconut shells with little drivers inside clamped to your head by a pretty thick piece of chromed spring steel. As hard as it is for younger people to envision, people used to put headphones and listen to a whole side of these flat black plastic things called "LPs" and listen to a whole side at one sitting. For enjoyment! Imagine. One side of an LP has a playing time of around 17 minutes. Sometimes one would walk over to the turntable, while still wearing the headphones, and flip the LP over to play the other side because they were enjoying it so much. What were they listening to in 1971? Stereo records not made with that wide mono perspective.
    Back when music was made and distrubuted in a more controlled environment, the music industry could have had a similar sort of standardization.
    This is a fanciful re-imagining of history. The variety of engineering approaches and equipment available dictated you'd get all kinds of different results. Grab a stack of vinyl with different labels and they are all over the ballpark in terms of timbre, production, engineering and mastering (buzzword alert!). The variance in how things from the top level of record-making sound, from one to another, was much wider than today. I can reel off a half dozen heavy bands making records today that are virtually interchangeable in terms of general sound and timbre.
  4. bozmillar's Avatar
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    Originally Posted by garageband
    I just bought a set of phones for drums because of their wicked amount of isolation: Koss Pro 4As from about 1971. Awesome green/bronze plastic coconut shells with little drivers inside clamped to your head by a pretty thick piece of chromed spring steel. As hard as it is for younger people to envision, people used to put headphones and listen to a whole side of these flat black plastic things called "LPs" and listen to a whole side at one sitting. For enjoyment! Imagine. One side of an LP has a playing time of around 17 minutes. Sometimes one would walk over to the turntable, while still wearing the headphones, and flip the LP over to play the other side because they were enjoying it so much. What were they listening to in 1971? Stereo records not made with that wide mono perspective. .
    It's not that headphones didn't exist, it's that they have now become pretty much the standard way for people to listen to music. It was far less common before the walkman was invented, even if it did exist for that guy who listened to his vinyl on headphones.
  5. garageband's Avatar
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    ... even if it did exist for that guy who listened to his vinyl on headphones.
    You make it sound like only one or two guys. It was a common way music was consumed. If you have a hi-fi of any quality, you owned a set of headphones also. You're not differentiating between headphone and earbuds. The listening experience isn't the same. Can you imagine listening to all of "Wish You Were Here" on earbuds? It used to be only Q-tips you shoved that far in your ear.
    It was far less common before the walkman was invented,
    You're just guessing here and that's not great. Cassettes are interesting in that they don't preserve the stereo image very well. Compare a commercially-recorded cassette against the same on LP and you'll hear it.

    The Walkman replaced the pocket 5-transistor radio, not the home stereo.
    irawan gani likes this.
  6. the evil's Avatar
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    i think the stereo spectrum is more about how live music is on stage. the bass consumes everything the drums are centered and the guitars are either left, right or both. the singer is usually in the center or at lest heard through the center. Im not talking about hige venues, but more of the small halls and clubs. If im in the audience that is pretty much the soundstage. I think when i listen to music i want that to be the same. obviously the interpretation is slightly skewed as in modern recordings its supposed to sound like im front stage enter with the amps pointed at me head and the singer on my shoulder screaming at me with face staring in to the kick drum... but its all just to super impose the feeling of the live concert. i think thats why its called soundstage and we want to see everything laid out on the stereo spectrum in that manner.

    could we use different pannings? sure, but i think i would be confused if i was listening to a recording from the perspective of stage hand right...

    when you put on your headphones and actually listen to music do you get the same feeling of being at the center show perrspective? i think so, its not as good when the speakers are in front of you but its basically there.

    I was a kid that listened to LPs for hours on end with huge headphones with a cord that never quite was long enough for me to be as comfortable as i wanted. My brother and i used to fight for who was going to listen to records as we only had one system stereo system in our house... What? Only one stereo? yeah we only had one TV for a long time too... sounds crazy.
  7. irawan gani's Avatar
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    I did a mix on the Clockwork song with the bass panned left and all drum tracks to the right. The reaction I got was mostly 'interesting' aka 'I dont like it'. There were some who were 'enraged' (grossly exaggerated) that the bass isnt at the centre.
    aditejada and brandondrury like this.
  8. PunkGuy's Avatar
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    Weird panning for me is a good way to separate things. However I've got to say that hearing a drummer go to town on one crash cymbal and have that incessantly buzzing in one ear can be extremely annoying. I remember listening to older records with headphones only to go crazy with the ride all the way in my right ear and the high hat not quite center. Sometimes weird panning can be good, but if that part isn't brief there needs to be something to counterbalance it. But weird can be good every so often; I think I need to experiment with unconventional panning more.
  9. brandondrury's Avatar
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    Can you imagine listening to all of "Wish You Were Here" on earbuds? It used to be only Q-tips you shoved that far in your ear.
    I can think of worse things to expose my temple to.

    I double my high gain guitars 99.9% of the time and I hard pan them. Some call this sound "big mono". It doesn't have the stereo separation/width I've gotten from a piano on one side and a guitar on the other. That doesn't bother me. It's a given that a mix appears much wider when the two hard panned things differ greatly. However, I'm not adding supersaw synth to Motorhead simply because it would be wider. There is a strategy of crushing all that impact a great rock/metal band has in the room onto a bunch of 1s and 0s. For me, the closest I've ever gotten or heard is by the hard panned, doubled guitars. It sounds more like one real amp cranked up in the room than one guitar track does 99% of the time to my ears and based on my tracking methods (which are limited). It is, however, big mono, but I have have to say that hitting the mono button on the console is devastating to such a production in my view. (A worthwhile hurdle to leap in the mix, but not something I'd want to repeat for listening pleasure.)

    Mixerman wrote about big mono extensively in one of his books. I bit it hook line n sinker in regard to what he suggested with synths. I've decided that this is the other thing I don't necessarily agree with. Going with the big mono on synths has been very, very good to me. When I've recorded just one mono side of a synth (as I believe was recommended by Mixerman) and then recorded some other synth on the other side (for presumably much wide mixes) I didn't get what I was looking for. A JP8080 supersaw in big mono is "the sound" when you want that sound and all I felt when I had two different tracks was my mixes were distractingly out of balance and contained additional unnecessary clutter. Moving back to big mono has been very good to me. I also want to add that not all "big mono" is created equal.

    As a person who often takes advice to my detriment frequently I've learned that width ain't the most important thing for most of the work I do even if Pink Floyd was really damn good at pulling it off. It's certainly not worth making arrangement changes simply to appease the width gods.

    As for unconventional panning, it was necessary in the late 60s to dabble with this new stereo thing back when they had few tracks. I always found it distracting in my teens when I first discovered it and never really went back. Now I feel it's a gimmick most of the time. I'm not against gimmicks (hot ass naked girls in the video is respectable, for example). If it's a good gimmick I'm in. It's just an easy way of setting yourself from the pack. So is shitting and wiping it on your own face. It's up to you to figure out if that's the path you want to take. Follow your gut.

    Brandon
    irawan gani and garageband like this.
  10. tooold's Avatar
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    Remember that the bass/kick in the center thing was because of vinyl mastering. Remember also that a lot of the strange/extreme panning you hear on 60's records is because they were recorded 4-track and then remastered, with the tracks split arbitrarily, or in a way that seemed to be the best they could do.

    But if you listen to Time Out (Brubeck Quartet), for example, one of the best-sounding recordings from Columbia's 30th St. studio, drums are in mono, panned over to one side.

    One of the problems with unusual panning schemes is that the mix sounds lopsided - weird on speakers, weirder on headphones.

    More random thoughts - this isn't exactly a great era for risk-taking in music or music production. What producer is going to spend time defending a mix that, for no other reason than "we thought it would be cool", sounds different than all the other mixes their A&R guy has heard that day?

    And for the guy who bought a pair of Koss headphones - be careful, you can get cauliflower ear from those things.
  11. dudermn's Avatar
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    Black Sabbath-Wizard - YouTube - Sabbath kept the drums off-center for their first two albums. Now the first time around.... it sounded really $ucked up to me. But given about 2 years and it finally sunk in as comforting.

    And than....Blues traveler came around and every-one else copied
    Blues Traveler The hook - YouTube -Here they dedicate the whole right channel to some acoustic guitar. And just as all blues traveler songs the guitars are spread apart as if to no boundaries. They kept the drums centered but the bass always plays around...The guys mixing these albums had a hard time placing the bass it seems. Even if it always sits snuggely between the kick snare and low tail of the guitar it varies from tone of "acoustic" bass.

    It is a little sad to read that future generations (my generation and up) screwed over the whole aspect of paying attention to a bloody thing. Partly due to bath salts drying up brain cells.
    Anyways... I usually listen to things and wonder... why does it sound like the singer is right in front of my left head-light? Did I run some-one over and their stuck in the under-carriage... but they happen to be from the twilight zone and their way of screaming is to sing ?
    It could be my hard-pressed imagination livening boring songs or it could be extra-ordinarily good mixing. What-ever it is. You can find it here.... In the twilight zone.

    I always though mono was a disease you get from kissing a girl
  12. jp2121's Avatar
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    The Who did that on the song Sally Simpson. Drums on one side, bass on the other...very interesting.
  13. garageband's Avatar
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    And for the guy who bought a pair of Koss headphones - be careful, you can get cauliflower ear from those things.
    You have to fix the cushions. I cut the back open and stuffed them with foam to replace the long-absent gel. Now, pretty comfy (still heavy, though).
    Remember that the bass/kick in the center thing was because of vinyl mastering.
    I know about all that, but how much sense does that make now? My biggest practical objection is the demand that both kick and snare be centered. That's just silly. There are no drum sets in the world set up where they sound like that. None. It's not what a drum set sounds like. It's a pointless hurdle to attempt to convey that audio image - of something that doesn't exist as if it does - for no net musical gain. By this pervasive tyranny, any natural presentation of a drum set is automatically "wrong." BTW, I can't count the number of recently-recorded jazz records I've heard where this is just one of the things today's engineers do that make them sound stiff, forced and stilted.
  14. brandondrury's Avatar
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    My biggest practical objection is the demand that both kick and snare be centered. That's just silly. There are no drum sets in the world set up where they sound like that. None.
    That's just an issue of perspective.

    I always view the drum set as at least a good 20' away...maybe more like 30'-100' depending on the band in question. At those distances, the kick and snare are essentially 0 panned.

    Of course, that doesn't explain why I have guitar cabs on the sides of me at this distance, but I never said any of this made sense.
  15. cporro's Avatar
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    i pretty much follow rules 1 and 2. the bass and kick. this has an old history in cutting vinyl i believe. if the bass wasn't balanced left/right the vinyl could get wrecked. but no similar reason to do it today. i remember the day i noticed some flaming lips was running 2 hard panned bass tracks. whoa. and it worked.

    checking in mono is mostly about phase imo. your mix is going to end up in mono somewhere...PA system, single speaker system. and you don't want the very cool hard panned bass tracks to do some awful phase cancellation. i figure if you mix in mono and it sounds good then it's going to work in stereo.

    andy wallace's smell like teen spirit is a mix that sounds very different in mono. but there is no over the top obvious panning.
  16. jrod9900's Avatar
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    Listen to the first Tonic record "Lemon Parade" by JJP. I pulled that up on my rig on a cd a while back, and boy was I shocked.

    JROD
  17. dudermn's Avatar
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    I found some good examples of good tuning...err ... I mean panning. (I got confused because back in the day of early early vynal needle recorded songs there was a guy in charge of place-ment).
    Now when you talk about modern day peeps such as Jakk Johnson or Tom Waits...every-one has made room for heavy panning it is not limited to a pretty sounding mono.
    At the moment I am looking for a piece of song that has the panning your looking for in modern music to calm your soul....the only problem is that the disc had no case.... and the print on the disc just had the copy-right info....and the registration number. And one word on the disc (It is a spanish singer who seems to be french).

    Anyways.... I cant say that I am hearing the whole limited use of stereo thing. I have been listening to music with the notation that people just dont spread so much ever since I read this and only found standing examples of the contrey.
  18. fretbone's Avatar
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    my views on panning seem to be skewed by my perception of reality. Depending on how I'm listening, in the car, and ipod, I don't really notice where things are panned, but monitors, speakers, and headphones throw things in all directions.

    I especially love Eddie Kramer but have never understood why he puts the hi-hat and ride cymbals on the same side. I've heard this on his work with Hendrix and Zeppelin. I am also a drummer (out of home studio necessity) and have never seen a drummer who sets up their kit in this manner. Also the hi-hat hard panned left or right seems totally unnatural to me.

    Then you add in the confusion of audience perspective or drummer's perspective, if the drummer is never in front of the singer then there must be a good reason for this.

    For me, I pan the drums the way they are set up as I'm playing them by getting each drum to sit right in the mix where it is in reality when I wear headphones.

    According to greats like Bruce Swedien, this is not his approach (he claims to abandon all reality whatsoever).

    I guess we all do what we want in the end anyway, but this still baffles me to this day.

    I would imagine the safest bet is to treat the whole kit as one instrument and have no panning which is what I hear a lot now in modern recordings.

    My new mindset is to produce as if it's going to end up a Vinyl record and follow those rules closer than the way I would if there were no rules like for mp3 and cd production.