The 10 rules of pan

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of

Thursday February 21, 2019

An Audio Masterclass visitor wants to pan, but doesn't know the rules. Do you have to know the rules before you break them?

A question from an Audio Masterclass website visitor...

"Hi David, today I have a question to ask. If a person needs to pan instruments what rule do you use?"

I'm inclined to say that there should be no rules. I find panning in modern music totally, absolutely, mind-numbingly boring. I much prefer the interesting ways pan was used before the so-called 'rules' were invented.

But if you want to earn a living from your music, you have to work within the bounds of what is commercially acceptable. In effect, you have to follow the rules, or starve.

So here are the rules of pan (so you know what to break, if you want)...

1. Always pan the lead vocal center

This is something of a no-brainer. When is the last time you heard a lead vocal that was not panned center? Not in this decade, nor the last one, nor the one before that, and not even the one before that. Just pan it center and don't bother thinking about it.

2. Always pan the bass center

There is a reason behind this. If the bass comes from both stereo speakers, it can be louder than if it only comes from one. Also, in the days of vinyl records, there could be problems with mistracking on playback if the bass was panned all the way to one side. Loud bass frequencies panned hard left or right can cause the groove to become shallow, and the stylus may jump out.

3. Balance the channels equally

A mix can sound odd if one channel seems to have a greater weight of sound than the other. In general, the channels will sound balanced if both left and right meters are mostly at the same level. This doesn't always apply however, so balance should be judged subjectively.

4. If you have two similar-sounding instruments, pan one left and the other right

If you have two guitars strumming away throughout the course of a song, then if they are panned to the same location in the stereo image they will sound confused, almost as though just one instrument is playing. And any lack of synchronicity might make it sound as though the instrument is being played badly. Panning half-left and half-right is often a good solution. Bear in mind however that you should always check that a mix sounds good in mono.

5. A stereo pair of microphones should be panned hard left and hard right

If you have used any of the common stereo microphone configurations where the microphones are balanced across the stereo sound stage, then they should normally be panned hard left and hard right.

6. Check your pans on headphones

What sounds good on loudspeakers doesn't always sound good on headphones or earbuds, particularly hard pans. There is no reason why you shouldn't ever hard pan, but do check it on headphones.

7. Pan individual drum mics so that each drum matches its location in the overheads

You don't have to do this, but if you don't consider it then you are not mixing drums properly. The low rack tom for instance might be half-left in the stereo image of the overhead. It normally wouldn't make sense to pan the individual mic on that drum to any other position.

8. Don't make a single instrument three meters wide

This can easily happen with asymmetric miking. For example, if you aim two microphones from different positions at an acoustic guitar, one towards the fingerboard and the other towards the belly, then pan hard left and right, the result can often span the entire width between the speakers. In some cases, it can sound like two guitars are playing in exact synchronicity. It is completely different to anything you could possibly hear in real life.

9. After you pan an instrument, reconsider its level

This is connected with the 'law' of your pan control. A pan control can be designed so that when a mix is played in mono, the positions of the pans are irrelevant. You can turn any pan control and the level of that instrument will not change. OR... it can be designed so that wherever you position the pan, the level of the instrument in the stereo mix stays the same. OR... the pan law can be a compromise between these two options. So unless your pan law is correct for stereo mixing, the level will change when you pan.

But it's a subjective thing too. If say you have several instruments panned center, then you pan one mid-left, it will suddenly stand out more in the mix. You might therefore want to lower its level.

10. If you want to fit in with the audio community, follow these rules

But if you want to stand out, then BREAK THEM, BREAK THEM, BREAK THEM!

P.S. If you have made a recording with interesting pans, we would love to feature it in an article in Adventures In Audio. Leave a comment and we'll take a look.

Added June 23, 2020

Audio Masterclass website visitor Gary Cuellar has a track with interesting pans...

In this track I’m working on I’ve done some basic pans for the majority of the song but I use automation to move the pans for backup vocals and some of the layered effect sounds. Thought you guys might find it interesting.

Wild Like Wolves · Control of Perception

Like, follow, and comment on this article at Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram or the social network of your choice.

Come on the Audio Masterclass Pro Home Studio MiniCourse - 60 great hints and tips to get your home recording studio MOVING

It's FREE!

Get It Now >>

An interesting microphone setup for violinist Nigel Kennedy

Are you compressing too much? Here's how to tell...

If setting the gain correctly is so important, why don't mic preamplifiers have meters?

The Internet goes analogue!

How to choose an audio interface

Audio left-right test. Does it matter?

Electric guitar - compress before the amp, or after?

What is comb filtering? What does it sound like?

NEW: Audio crossfades come to Final Cut Pro X 10.4.9!

What is the difference between EQ and filters? *With Audio*

What difference will a preamp make to your recording?

Watch our video on linear phase filters and frequency response with the FabFilter Pro Q 2

Read our post on linear phase filters and frequency response with the Fabfilter Pro Q 2

Harmonic distortion with the Soundtoys Decapitator

What's the best height for studio monitors? Answer - Not too low!

What is the Red Book standard? Do I need to use it? Why?

Will floating point change the way we record?

Mixing: What is the 'Pedalboard Exception'?

The difference between mic level and line level

The problem with parallel compression that you didn't know you had. What it sounds like and how to fix it.

Compressing a snare drum to even out the level

What does parallel compression on vocals sound like?

How to automate tracks that have parallel compression

Why mono is better than stereo for recording vocals and dialogue