Once a technique for sifting gold from river dirt, now a standard feature of mixers and DAWS – but what is panning?

What Is Panning?

As a beginner, when you look at a mixing desk, either within your DAW or a hardware mixer, it can be rather intimidating. Aside from all of the controls, there’s the terminology to get your head around, too.

‘Panning’, or ‘Pan’ as it’s often labelled, is one such term. There are a lot of Pan controls on a typical mixer, so you may well wonder ‘what is panning?’

Back in an age of single speakers…

What Is Panning?

In the earliest days of recorded music, everything was recorded in mono. Essentially what this meant was that the finished recording was a single channel of audio, which contained every instrument and performance.

Because of this, playback systems would typically only have one speaker.

Human beings, as you might have noticed, commonly have two ears. In conjunction with the rather remarkable human brain, these are capable of interpreting and processing two separate streams of sound simultaneously- one from the left, and one from the right. By sensing slight level and timing differences between the two, we can discern where a sound is coming from, and place it within a 3d space.

With me so far?

In the 1930s, engineer Alan Blumlein began patenting some of the earliest stereophonic playback and recording technologies. Put simply, these involved using pairs of microphones, arranged such that one would ‘hear’ a left channel, and the other the right.

Then, the two separate recordings were played back simultaneously through a corresponding left and right speaker. The result was that sources that were closer to the left microphone would be louder in the left speaker, and vice versa, thus recreating the effect or hearing the sound with two ears.

Stereo switching

It became clear to engineers that by adjusting which speaker a sound came from artificially, the listener would hear it placed left, right, or, if played through both speakers, as if it came from between the speakers.

This was exploited in recordings with stereo switching, which allowed the three settings described above. These could be very extreme, however (listen to some of The Beatles’ early recordings, and you’ll hear vocals panned hard left or right, with drums sometimes following suit…)

This is where panning steps in (stage left…?)

Essentially, a panning control, or pan pot, adjusts the levels of a particular source that are being played through the left and right speakers, allowing the user to ‘place’ it within a stereo panorama (hence the name).

So, when a pan control is turned all the way to the left, the signal will only be outputted through the left channel, with nothing played through the right. The effect is that it will appear to come from far over to the left of the speaker set-up.

What Is Panning? - Pan Hard Left

As the pan pot is turned over to the right, the left channel begins to get quieter whilst the right gets louder. Thus, the sound will appear to move from left to right.

What Is Panning? - Pan Mid Left

When the volume is equal in both, the sound will appear to come from the ‘phantom centre’ (i.e. from the centre, even though there is no speaker in the centre).

What Is Panning? - Pan Centre

Moving is further across, the right will become louder than the left channel, until there is nothing playing through the left channel at all.

What Is Panning? - Pan Hard Right

Panning is used when mixing to artificially place sounds within a stereo mix, giving them a distinct space (as a band might have if performing on a stage in front of an audience), or to create dramatic effects, of sounds moving from left to right.

Pan pots are found on just about every mixing desk (physical hardware, or virtual within DAWs such as Reason, Ableton, or Cubase.

If you have a home recording set-up, have a play around with pan positions. They provide a great way of creating natural sounding ‘space’ within a mix.