As you set up stereo placement for instruments, think about your listener’s position. For a drummer, the hi-hat is on the left, and the toms on the right. For the audience, however, it’s the reverse. I generally go for the performer’s perspective, unless the object is to emulate a concert experience.
Low frequencies are fairly non-directional, whereas highs are very directional. As a result, pan low frequency sounds (kick drum, bass) toward the center of a mix, and higher frequency instruments (shaker, tambourine) further out to the left and right.
Placing a delay effect in the same spatial location as the sound being delayed may cause an indistinct sound. One fix is to weight your instrument to one side of the stereo spread, and the delayed sound (set to full delay—no dry signal) to the opposite side. If you’re using stereo delay on a lead instrument panned to center, you can get some lovely results by panning one channel of echo toward the left, and one toward the right. If the echoes are polyrhythmic, this can also give some ping-pong type effects. Of course, this can sound gimmicky if you’re not careful, but if the echoes are mixed relatively low, and there’s some stereo reverb going on, the sense of spaciousness can be huge. Another option: Filter the echoes so they have more midrange or highs than the sound being delayed.
Sure, you can just move pan knobs around arbitrarily until things sound good. But consider drawing a diagram of the intended soundstage—much like the way theater people draw marks for where actors are supposed to stand. When it’s time to mix, this diagram can be a helpful map.
Here’s a tip from Spencer Brewer (Laughing Coyote Studios) regarding an effect that Alex de Grassi uses a lot on his guitars to create a wider stereo image with two mics. This effect also works well with piano.
- Pan the right mic full right.
- Pan the left mic track full left.
- Copy the right-mic and left-mic tracks.
- Pan the duplicated tracks to center.
Bring the duplicated tracks down about 5dB to 6dB (or to taste). This stereo strategy fills in the center hole that normally occurs by panning the two main signals to the extreme left and right.
Slippin’ & Slidin’
Many signal sources are still essentially mono (voice, vintage synths, electric guitar, etc.), but there are ways to “stereoize” sounds. The easiest option is to copy a track and slip it ahead or behind the original track to create a slight delay between the two, then pan the two tracks opposite each other (Figure 1). In some cases, it’s most effective to slip the original track ahead of the beat, and the copy a little late, so that the two end up averaging out and hit in the pocket. But you can also use slipping to alter the feel somewhat. To drag the part a bit, keep the original on the beat, and slip the copy a little later. For a more insistent feel, slip the copy ahead.
How much slip to add depends upon the instrument’s frequency range. If the delay is too short, the two signals may cancel to some extent, and create comb-filtering effects. This can result in a thin sound—much like a flanger stuck on a few milliseconds of delay. Lowering the copied signal’s level can reduce these negative effects, but then the stereo image will be correspondingly less dramatic.
If the delay is too long, then you’ll hear an echo effect. This can also be useful in creating a wider stereo image, but then you have to deal with the rhythmic implications—do you really want an audible delay? And if the delay is long enough, the sound will be more like two mono signals than a wide stereo signal.
Thankfully, it’s easy to slide parts around in your DAW and experiment. Just be sure to check the final result in mono. If the sound ends up being thin or resonant, increase the delay time a tiny bit until both the stereo and mono sounds work equally well.