Crafting an ear-xperience
What do our ears want? A pro-level pan (beyond what most tutorials go into) isn't about instrument placement. It's about perspective and boredom. The art of panning—done well—will step up your music game. We'll cover some basics, then go pro. First, consider some simple physics. Vast halls need sound systems for everyone to hear clearly. The first version of the bass clarinet didn't have a bell. The bell was added later for more volume. Our tech changes to influence physics.
A Clear Mix
We want to hear a cello solo as well as the player, not like a bad recording or washy reverb like we're in a foyer. We want clarity. An ultra high res audio file doesn't impress most people. Perceived fidelity has more to do with how close a mic is to an instrument. Bringing the sound source closer = clearer sound. A room's color matters, but the more you add, the more perceived audio fidelity you lose.
Pan with your ears, not your eyes.
Computers don't sum audio the same way players and buildings do. We listen and balance. Rooms color large ensembles differently than a solo. While a solo horn sounds great in a big room, if every instrument sounds that lush, mixing them mushes the mix. A fast violin or percussion part scrambles in a big room. I prefer to start close (dry) and add only enough distance to sound bearable. We can add more room later while writing.
The more you can point to each instrument, the clearer your sound.
In acoustics, rooms that sound the widest for orchestras have measurably more side reflections (Lateral Fraction). Size, shape, carpet, wood— it all changes the amount of treble and bass detail is reflected. The simple gist: timing is what convinces our ear that space exists. Sound waves from the instrument (and room) reach your left and right ear at different times. Width = giving each ear a unique sound (timing, color, etc). How can we wield such power?
Timing Each Ear
Apart from simple instrument placement, here's a few extras options.
- The Haas Effect
- Place a mono recording on both ears. Delay one by between 1-18ms. This creates an ultra wide artificial stereo effect.
- Haas-like Stereo
- Alter an ear. Add a filter to one side, use a different mic for one ear at a different volume and panned hard to the side. Give each ear a different version of the same sound.
- Instrument Designing
- Panning a trumpet all the way to the left and a trombone all the way right (or two different violinists playing the same thing). Each ear gets a different version of a similar sound.
- Using a multiband panner for precise control over each part of the sound. Keep the bass in the center and move the treble left.
- FX Plugins
- Delay, Chorus, and other FX add perception of width by calling attention to each ear's difference in timing and timbre.
Don't Write Boring Music
Our ears get bored. Sometimes a new vantage point on an instrument is better than changing what the instrument is doing. Centuries before Hans Zimmer, instrument perspective was being experimented with. Off-stage brass, seating layouts, etc. Computers merely add options. Try moving around or shifting techniques like camera shots in a scene. Don't move just to move. Move to entertain our ears. Music shouldn't sit still. Panning starts with balance and clarity; it ends with painting a moving picture.
A new vantage point can bring more to your music.
"All the ear wants is a different perspective."
"The relationship of the player to the microphone is absolutely key."