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When to pan left, when to pan right

There are few 'rules' in recording. But sometimes you just have to know where to set the pan control.

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Question from a Audio Masterclass visitor...

"When I use a pan knob on FL Studio or any other software program and I pan it to the left, sitting facing my speakers, should the music then come out of my left or right side speaker?"

This might seem like an obvious question, but I'm a firm believer in having the obvious well under control before progressing to more advanced issues.

So if you pan to the left, the sound should come out of your left speaker. Pan to the right and it comes out of the right speaker. If it doesn't, swap your speaker cables round.

OK that's basic. But there are other basics too. One common error in recording is swapping the channels unintentionally.

The effects of this could be...

  • In an orchestral recording, the violins are on the right rather than the left. (If the conductor has chosen to put the second violin section on the right, then the first violin section, which generally plays all the tunes, should be on the left.)
  • In a film or TV soundtrack, the character on the left of the screen speaks and their voice comes out of the speaker on the right.

Clearly either of these would be major errors, and you probably wouldn't work again in this town! It's an easy mistake to make though, so you have to be sure.

Sometimes where you pan is open to interpretation.

Take the example of a recording of a grand piano...

You might say that the low notes should come mostly from the left speaker, and the high notes mostly from the right. That's how the piano keyboard is laid out.

But that's not the way the audience hears it...

The grand piano is always positioned on stage with the keyboard on the left. So the low-pitched strings, which are longer, extend further to the right than the high pitched strings.

So by this logic, the high notes should mostly come from the left and the low notes mostly from the right.

It's up to you! There's no right or wrong. It's either the pianist's perspective or the audience's perspective. Either is equally valid.

If anyone has any other interesting examples of right/wrong/up-to-you panning, we would love to hear.

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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