Panning – don’t be light handed
There’s a common problem among amateur mixers – but even some pros fall into this trap sometimes – that they pan things way too safely. There’s a reason why LCR style mixing works so good, and part of it is that you can make bold decisions easily without getting tangled up in the miniscule details. And many times, the unnecessary care one puts into handling the stereo positions of all the elements shows a good amount of insecurity.
Panning those double tracked rhythm guitars to 46% left and 46% right will get you nothing over what you could achieve with panning them hard left and hard right; actually, making them overlap will rob some of the width and also the impact they have on the mix.
But even if you don’t want to do the strict LCR thing, having 5 positions: hard left, half left, center, half right and hard right – are perfectly enough to do a colorful sounding mix with enough variety to keep up the listener’s interest. Because the trick is not in how original of a position you can come up with. Think about it; there are usually only 100 steps on both sides, so it’s not like you are reinventing the wheel when you do the “46 left 46 right” thing; in fact, it will pretty much sound like 50 left and 50 right, which is the above mentioned half left and half right. And in practice, as long as you don’t also have hard panned elements on the sides playing at the same time, it will sound like a narrow hard left-hard right stereo field, because our brain works by perceiving sounds in relation to others.
Another thing that often comes out sounding insecure or downright boring is meticulously maintaining symmetry. You will earn nothing by double tracking or stereo miking everything just so you can pan them left and right the same amount; quite the contrary. Because having double tracked guitars or keyboards don’t only sound unnatural (nothing like a real band with limited number of members on a certain instrument), doing so will also take a certain surprise factor out of the music. Balance in a mix doesn’t mean you have to do everything twice and put them around the center symmetrically. An interesting, good sounding balance is always dynamic, in the sense that the overall level of the two sides are striving to be the same, but they don’t necessarily move together, nor they are produced by identical elements on both sides. In other words, it’s perfectly okay to bring up a guitar on the left and putting a keyboard or even a reverb or delay of that guitar on the right. For a more dramatic effect, don’t be afraid to let certain elements play only on one side, at least for a limited amount of time. Be bold and creative!