I love simple hacks that force me to get a better recording and mix. LCR panning is one of those hacks.
LCR panning (which stands for Left Center Right) is for some reason a hotly debated “method” of placing tracks in the stereo field. Although many of our favorite mixes are panned this way, people (including my friends) bristle at the thought.
But if you can get over the (non existent) reasons to hate on it, LCR panning can actually be a great hack for not just your mixes, but the recording stage.
There Are Only 3 Main Spots In The Stereo Spectrum
When you think about it, a stereo recording or mix has only three spots to place your tracks. The left side, the right side, and up the middle.
This is in fact how our speakers or headphones work. In reality there only two places: the left speaker and the right speaker. The third “middle position” is an auditory illusion where you have the same sound playing equally in the left and the right speaker. This gives us a phantom pan position called center.
Now of course in the modern DAW and console we have a fluid pan pot that allows you to adjust the stereo placement even more precisely than those three positions. But it wasn’t always that way.
Check out this old Universal Audio console. It doesn’t have pan pots. Just a three way panning switch with Left, Middle, and Right.
Big deal Graham. Who cares about the way things were “back in the day”?!
Here’s why I’m pointing all of this out: no matter where you decide to pan things in your mix, at the end of the day there are really only 3 distinct holes you can fill. The left, the middle, and the right. Everything else is simply a shade of those three.
This is critical to understand not just in the mixing phase, but in the recording phase as you build the song. Here’s why.
Good Arranging Is Good Mixing
One of my favorite sayings is that “good arranging is good mixing” – meaning that the song with the better arrangement (well thought out instrument choice, chord progressions, and linear flow) will always produce a better mix.
The mixer has his or her hands tied to what the arrangement gave them.
So if YOU happen to be the person recording and arranging the song yourself, your mixing can start (and should start) long before the mix.
And specifically one way to get a big wide (and full) sounding mix is to have all three key points in the stereo field covered: left, center, and right.
What this looks like in practice is that you have to record not just the parts that you think the song needs, but you must begin thinking about where in the LCR spectrum you will place those tracks.
For example: Will that guitar part be an up the middle part? Or will it be an off to the left part.
If it’s off to the left, what will you have on the right to balance it out? A doubled pass of that same part? Another instrument entirely?
This kind of LCR framework forces you to consider balance in your arrangement and recording – which ultimately leads to a fuller, easier to mix set of tracks.
You’re already hearing the mix from the audience’s perspective, much like a movie director keeps the final edit of a film in mind when she is story boarding (and eventually shooting) scenes.
Some LCR Suggestions
As you begin recording (and eventually mixing) your songs here are some helpful suggestions when trying to leverage the hack of LCR panning:
- Keep lead vocals, bass, kick, and snare up the middle. These are the foundation of your song and they should typically anchor things right up the center. That way they sound balanced on headphones and have equal volume in the left and right speakers.
- Have at least one main midrange instrument (guitar, synth) on the hard left and right. These might be your main double tracked guitar riff, or a pair of synths that work together. Either way, put at least one thing on the far ends of the stereo spectrum – other wise you’re leaving width on the table.
- Experiment with everything else. Sometimes I’ll put the lead instrument right up the middle on top of the vocal. Other times I’ll pan it hard left and leave it’s delay or reverb return hard right. I’ll even put percussion in the “panning pockets” at 50%. The point is, once your main instruments are covered in LCR, the rest really doesn’t matter. So go crazy!
Remember – LCR panning isn’t a restriction as some people say it is.
Rather it is a framework for balance in your mix that frees you up to focus on what really matters – a killer arrangement of a great song with great performances.
With that in mind – what do YOU think about LCR panning? Do you like it or hate it? Why? Leave me a comment below.