Soft panning – is it really useful or not?
Soft panning is usually the great divider, when it comes to mixing. Some mixing engineers love to really go into details. They just love to play around and tinker with the exact positions of the tracks. Others prefer the simplicity and clarity of the LCR (left-center-right) and LCR+half left and half right mixing styles. So anyway, is panning anywhere but the extremes really all that useful? Let’s check into this question.
While some people say that soft panning is downright useless and lame, it’s got its uses. For example, if you have a lot of stereo elements and you want as little overlap as possible, you can pan them gradually around a certain point – preferably the center. So it will look like guitars 100L(eft) and 100R(ight), backing vocals 75L and 75R, piano 50L and 50R. This will sound somewhat different than a pure LCR mix with the guitars, backing vocals and the piano all panned hard left and hard right. If you go this way, you can get away with leaving the elements slightly fuller, because their position separates them already. In the LCR version, you will immediately hear how much you need to roll off and cut from the tracks with EQ to avoid frequency buildup.
If we hit the mono button for both, well… in the mix that used soft panning, there will be a higher level of buildup, and there’s a higher chance for getting mud in the low mids, and harshness in the high mids. So if we catch that happening, we’re going to EQ that out, just like we did already in the LCR mix. And then we get two very similar sounding mixes when listening to them in mono.
Narrow it down
Another situation where soft panning might be useful is when we want to avoid a too wide stereo image. Why would we want to avoid such thing? Because if you listen to only one half of stereo recording, the other half will be completely missing. Pan a mono guitar track hard left and a piano hard right. No problem there, until some n00b puts the left speaker above you in the mall, and the right one in the corner, about 40 meters away from you. Will you hear the piano? Nope. If you created a narrow stereo image however, most of the elements will be audible in both speakers. No matter where Mr. N0b0 placed them. Hehe. The mix that utilized soft panning might not sound that exciting when listening to it at home in your favorite chair, in front of your well placed speakers. But it will sound fairly big and give you this safety in less carefully setup places.