Each sound in your mix wants to have its own space. By making use of the stereo field you create a bigger sounding mix through the use of width, and you also free up space in the centre for your most important music element (vox/melody). Even if you are writing dance music tracks, where the bass and drums are massively important, you still need something melodic or a hook for listeners to remember. Using the stereo field properly can make space for this key element to cut through your mix.
Your kick, bass, and the main punch of your snare should all be mono. These sounds need to be strong, and panning will make them lopsided. As a general rule, everything below 200-300hz should be mono to ensure your bottom end is focused and powerful. But every other part of your track could benefit from panning to help create space in your mixdown.
Consider: what sounds are in your mix, when do they play (which sections), and what is their significance? Write a plan and consider how to use the stereo field to drive the song along. Decide what is the most important element in your track, and leave it in the centre. Pan the other elements of your track to free space in the centre, then your vocal/hook can cut through easily.
A good mixdown draws the listener’s attention to the important sounds in a track, and this will change in each section of your song. You can manipulate the stereo field to drive the song along and provoke a more powerful emotional response in the listener.
Manipulation of the stereo field
- Central verse / Wide chorus is a commonly used technique in pop music. It gives the listener an emotional payoff when the song appears to get bigger at the chorus.
- Wide breakdown / Central drop is a common dance/bass music technique. A wide breakdown helps build excitement then all the power of the drop is focused centrally for maximum impact.
- LCR technique – all sounds are either hard panned or central. This completely clears the centre of the mix for vocals. Most suited to rock/band mixes, but you can use this method to less extreme settings and clear the centre of your mix for one special element
Make some of your stereo tracks mono before panning (for example Logic orchestral instruments, pads, guitars). It will concentrate each sound in one place, and make better use of the stereo field. You don’t want to fill up the stereo field and leave no spaces for other instruments.
Be very careful when using stereo width plugins. They achieve a false sense of width by manipulating phase relationships – so your mix will possibly collapse in mono. Be particularly careful with drums, vocals, and your master channel. Stereo wideners can ruin all the power of your mix. You don’t need to use a stereo widener on your master channel if your mixdown makes proper use of the stereo field.
Always check your mix in mono to make sure your volume balance is still right – do not rely solely on using the stereo field as many playback devices will convert your mix to mono. Volume balance is still the key, then the stereo field helps to achieve separation.