When it comes to mixing guitars, whether it’s in rock music or some other genre, panning is one of the least discussed mixing techniques for reasons that I don’t understand.
Panning is one of the most useful things a mixer can do, just because the way in which you can position the instruments in the stereo image makes such a big difference in terms of how everything sounds.
When panning guitars in the mix, the best practice is to equally distribute the guitars to the left and right. If you’ve set the panning of one guitar to 9 o’clock, set the other to 3 o’clock. If there is only one guitar, pan it equally in the opposite direction of the primary instrument.
With all that said, how you pan your guitars really depends on a few factors, including how many guitar tracks you’ve recorded, the genre of the song, as well as the effect you’re going for, however, there are a few guidelines one can go by. For example, equal distribution seems to work the best, but how you pan guitars will be different if the instrument serves a complementary rather than a foundational purpose.
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Panning Guitars in The Mix (Rock, Acoustic, Pop, and More)
I’ve experimented with panning a lot over the last year and a half and I’ve found there is a lot that can be done with it, in fact, it’s one of the main ways to improve their sound (my guide). The way you position the guitars in the stereo image makes a tremendous difference in not only the way the guitars sounds but also the way the other instruments sound as well.
During this process, I’ve read a lot on the topic and most recommend panning the guitars in such a way where they’re equally distributed. For example, if you’ve panned one guitar at 9 o’clock, you would do the same thing to the right (3 o’clock). Moreover, many people recommend panning both of them far to the left and right; even all the way to the left and the right.
In case you’ve never panned anything before, it’s as simple as turning the knob to the left and right. Depending on which you’re DAW you’re using, it’s done a bit differently. For instance, in Garageband, you just have to use the panning knob that’s on the software instrument track. There are a couple of effects that you can go for when panning guitars in a mix.
Panning Two Electric Guitars – Rhythm and Lead
10 O’clock (Left) and 2 O’Clock (Right)
If you have two electric guitars that are fairly similar in terms of what you’re playing, for example I use a PRS SE Custom 24 from ZZounds and an ESP guitar (from the same place), and I find it sounds the best to pan both guitars to the left and right to around 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.
This spreads the guitars evenly enough where there is a clear separation between the two, but they’re not so far apart from each other where it sounds like the two guitars are totally opposite from each other. A lot of people recommend panning them hard left and right, but I’ve had good results without panning them so dramatically.
You definitely have to experiment with what you think sounds the best. You’ll find that by panning the guitars in the mix this way, one effect is that the total volume of the guitars will be decreased a bit and you’ll have more room for other instruments in the mix, including for vocals which I have a mixing guide on as well.
The point above can’t be emphasized enough. How you pan the guitars is very important in terms of how the rest of the instruments sound. For instance, if you have a full drum-kit in the recording, you want to keep in mind how you’ll pan each part of the kit when panning the guitars.
Hard Left and Hard Right
This is actually my least favorite way to pan guitars, but many people recommend it. The reason why I don’t like it is that it simply sounds as if they’re too far apart from each other. However, when panning double-tracked guitars, this is one of the most commonly recommended ways of going about it due to it tending to sound more full after you’ve added all of the other instruments.
Why Pan Guitars Hard Left and Hard Right?
1) Guitars Are Typically Heavy in the Mid-Range
One thing that I learned from my favorite guitar lessons platform, JamPlay, is that most audio engineers, especially in the rock genre, recommend panning the guitars hard left and hard right for a couple of reasons. One is that guitars, especially distorted guitars, tend to be quite heavy in the mid-range.
Panning the guitars hard left and right frees up a lot more room in the center of the recording for other instruments, like vocals, drums, piano, and bass (get the first month of JamPlay from their site for $1 using the coupon code, “1buck.”)
2) More Balance and Distinction When There Are Two Guitarists or Double-Tracked Guitars
Another reason is that it’s very common for a band to include more than one guitarist, or, in cases where there is only one guitarist, double-tracked guitars. Put simply, panning the guitars hard left and hard right introduces more balance, and it also ensures that the two parts are clearly distinct from each other.
3) Guitars Panned Hard Left and Hard Right Creates Width
Panning instruments wide gives the mix a very wide and broad feel. Guitars are great for hard panning left and right because they’re usually quite consistent in terms of volume, which means they tend to fill up the mix quite a lot if left in the center of the recording. This is especially pronounced for distorted guitars.
4) Everyone is Used To Hard-Panned Guitars Because It’s So Common
While the aforementioned reasons make a lot of sense, the truth is that panning guitars hard left and right is something we’re all used to. Engineers have been doing it for ages, so if you plan on deviating from this commonly used tactic, you may turn off your listeners who are used to hearing the guitars in a certain way.
One Guitar with Other Instruments
In the case of only having one guitar, I find how you pan it depends on the role of the instrument in the mix. For instance, if the song is more focused on the lead vocals or the piano, you may want to pan the guitar in the opposite direction of the primary instrument.
If the song primarily revolves around the piano and it’s slightly panned to the right, then do the same thing with the guitar and pan it in the same way but in the opposite direction. This tends to create a lot more balance, and then the listener won’t consider it as coming from the exact same position.
When instruments are panned too closely together, it tends to be tiring for the ear because there is no separation and the ear doesn’t know which one to focus on first, unless your melodies are created in such a way where there is room for both of them to exist in the same frequency range. Get PianoForAll (from their website) so you can learn how to use the MIDI keyboard to create cohesive melodies with other instruments.
One Guitar with Delay and One Without
This is a useful trick that some people call the Haas trick. What you want to do is pan one guitar to the left with no delay on it, and then the other one should be set up with delay, usually around 30ms. This tends to widen the guitars and make everything sound a lot more full.
The same trick can be done with other instruments in the performance, including vocals. However, there are definitely some subtle nuances of performing this tactic, as well as some useful things to take into consideration, so it’s best to read more (my guide) on the subject before putting it into practice.
Important Tips for Panning Guitars
Check It in Mono
It’s best to check all of your mixes in mono because this is going to highlight any issues with the way you’ve panned things in the mix. In Bobby Owinski’s book, The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook (on Amazon), he does a number of interviews with successful mixers and this is a common practice among many of them.
When you put the recording into mono – which you can figure out how to do by reading my simple tutorial – it shows the way the music sounds when playing through just one channel, which is typically how sound systems are set up in clubs and other big venues. You’ll find that by checking your mix in mono, interference and competition between instruments will become more apparent, and you can figure out how to pan everything from there.
Some engineers and music producers recommend never listening in stereo, but I find it’s best to use mono intermittently. And by that, I just mean you play the song in mono for a little while, and then go back to stereo whenever you want to hear how it sounds. The way I look at it, it’s best to do this because then you get a full picture.
Reverb and Volume
While reverb and volume aren’t considered as forms of panning, per se, they are useful for adjusting the location of the instruments in the stereo image. Essentially, panning the instruments left and right adjusts them from right to left, rather than back and forth.
However, when you use effects like reverb and volume, it tends to make the sound seem as if it’s coming from further back in the mix (I couldn’t recommend Eventide’s SP2016 reverb for this enough – from Plugin Boutique). For example, if you’ve turned up the reverb knob on the mix, it’s going to push the guitars away from you, rather than bringing them closer. It’s not uncommon for engineers to use this same effect on instruments like the snare drum.
The same effect can be heard when adjusting volume. If you increase the volume of the guitar tracks, it’s going to make it seem as though the guitars are close to your face, whereas if the volume is much lower, it’s going to make it sound as if the guitars are further back.
YouTube Video Tutorial
At the end of the day, panning isn’t that complicated. But it’s easily one of the most important things that a mixer can do, due to the fact that adjusting the positioning of instruments in the stereo image makes such a tremendous difference in how everything sounds including how far back or how close the instruments are to the listener.
Every mix has different needs, but a good rule of thumb for panning guitars is to pan them in the opposite direction of each other if you’re mixing rhythm and lead. If you’re only working with one guitar, pan them while thinking about how the sound will complement other instruments.
You may find that by panning the guitars in a certain way, you’ll open up more space for other instruments, so much to the point that many of them might need to be mixed differently afterward. Regardless, how you pan your guitars is ultimately up to you, and you don’t need to follow a specific guideline if you don’t want to.