LCR panning isn’t so much a technique as a mindset that can lead you to more satisfying mixes.
There can be a huge gulf between what trained and untrained ears hear when they listen to a track. Your average listener isn’t thinking “That guitar’s a bit edgy” or “Isn’t the conga fighting a bit with the floor tom?” Their reactions are much more instinctual and basic. Music either provokes an emotional response in people, or it doesn’t. It’s all too easy to lose sight of that basic fact when you’re mixing. Yes, a focus on detail can be important, but if you focus on the wrong details you’ll end up making the track sound fussy and confused, rather than clear and powerful.
LCR (Left-Centre-Right) panning can help you avoid falling into that trap. It isn’t a recipe that you can follow to make any track sound good, or a tool that you can use to correct problems. Rather, it’s a discipline that can help you to really focus on what matters in an arrangement and a mix.
The idea is simple: don’t use intermediate pan positions. Any given mono source can be panned hard left, hard right or straight down the middle. Nowhere else. Of course, at one time, engineers had no other option: early stereo consoles had three‑position switches to route signals to the left channel, the right channel or both channels of the master stereo bus.
But today, pretty much anyone using a mixer or DAW software has access to continuous pan controls. If you have a lot of sources and you mix in stereo, then, there can be a strong temptation to use intermediate pan positions to make them all audible. Yet, a likely consequence of doing that is that you end up overloading the listener’s perception. On a good day, all those sources might lock together to create an impressive wall of sound, but often it just ends up sounding like a directionless mess.
Technically, a mono mix is an LCR mix, and in many ways LCR can be considered an extension of the idea of mixing in mono: it’s almost like treating the left speaker, the right speaker and the phantom centre as three semi‑independent mono mixes. Mixing in mono forces you to make a decision as to which of the sources you think are really important, simply because there is no way that all of them can be equally prominent in a mono mix. It forces you to treat those key sources in such a way that they fit around each other, whether that’s through fader moves to bring them in and out, arrangement tweaks, dynamic variation or ensuring that they all occupy different frequency ranges.
Although mixing in mono is a fantastic discipline, few of us would actually want to submit mono masters unless specifically requested by the artist or label. Mono‑compatibility remains important, but most people are listening in stereo, so naturally we want to take advantage of the additional possibilities offered by two speakers. LCR panning is a way of doing this whilst still adhering to the core disciplines associated with mixing in mono.
LCR panning is sometimes called ‘cardinal points panning’, the inference being that the extremes and the centre of the mix are the points that really matter. Rather than thinking of the stereo field as a huge playground in which your sources can frolic at will, the idea is that if you get the balance right at those three points, the spaces in between them should take care of themselves.
Is it easier to mix in LCR? Not necessarily. The same limitations and the same considerations apply as usual, and the whole mix still needs to work when it’s auditioned in mono. In fact, when you first try it, it can seem harder. But in my experience that’s generally because LCR is an excellent tool for revealing more fundamental problems on the project: if a track is difficult to mix in LCR, that’s very often because the underlying arrangement or tracking is flawed in some way. Perhaps the greatest strength of LCR panning is that it guides you to make the kinds of decisions that matter to untrained ears — to your audience, in other words. Thus, it can increase your chances of crafting a successful and satisfying mix.
Before you fire up your DAW and get going, though, it’s worth running through some issues that might lead to confusion or, potentially, disappointment for people mixing in LCR for the first time. Happily, they’re not so much problems as characteristics: the idea of exploring them here is that if you encounter them you’ll know what’s going on and be able to make the appropriate decisions.
I don’t want to give you the impression that all sounds in a mix inherently need to be perceived as separate — sometimes the magic lies precisely in those moments when sounds combine to create an intriguing texture that the listener can’t pinpoint. But, typically, in every mix we want to prevent certain sounds obscuring or changing the tonality of others.
One charge sometimes laid against LCR panning is that the hard panning creates a false sense of separation that can cause problems when you hear the mix in mono. But while there can be no doubt that LCR panning contributes to a sense of spaciousness in a stereo mix — there is literally more space in the phantom centre, and width of the mix emphasises that even more — it’s a false charge, since it assumes that the whole point of LCR panning is that it creates separation through panning. That’s not the aim, and neither would it be a good tactic.
Here’s a common example that explains why: the big, wide wall of distorted guitars you hear in so many modern rock and metal tracks. It can sound truly impressive when monitoring in stereo if you simply bring up the faders and opposition‑pan (hard‑left and hard‑right) your double‑ or quad‑tracked guitar parts, and leave the electric bass in the centre. But the wide‑panned guitars and centrally panned bass will always have overlapping frequencies, and if you listen in mono you’ll almost certainly find that you want to high‑pass filter the guitar parts to prevent their low end from smearing the bass (it needn’t be aggressive: a 12dB per octave filter at around 140‑150 Hz usually works fine). You might also want to investigate higher up the spectrum, to see if the guitars compromise the note definition in the bass part, particularly if they do so intermittently, which can serve to make the bass level appear inconsistent.
To avoid falling into this trap when you adopt an LCR approach to panning, you just need to resist the temptation to use panning for separation. Check mono playback from time to time, and listen to how the sources panned to the edges relate to each other and to those in the middle. Separation, where desired, might best be achieved using EQ, or perhaps ducking, sample replacement, level automation, mutes or even rewriting some parts. Just not by panning. Attending to such issues in this way won’t rob the stereo mix of impact at all, and that sense of width inherent in LCR panning will remain, but it will improve the mono listening experience.
We should also consider the idea of ‘balance’, in a couple of senses of the word: the balance between the left and right stereo channels, and a change in the overall mix balance that always occurs when you switch to listening in mono.
Especially where you have very few elements in a production, there’s a risk with purist LCR panning decisions that the mix can feel a little off‑balance at times. Personally, I quite like bold stereo moves, where one part comes in very obviously on one side and another might join in on the opposite ‘wing’ a few bars later. But it doesn’t always work, and you’ll rarely want the overall left‑right balance to be skewed for the full duration of a song, so sometimes when LCR panning you’ll want to find a way to counterbalance a hard‑panned part.
When you want a part to be on one side but doing so creates a sense of imbalance that you find annoying, you’d usually pan something else opposite to counterbalance it. In that situation, if there are no other parts available then it’s really an arrangement issue: you could probably solve it by writing a new part for the other side or perhaps having a new instrument double the existing part there. But, assuming that’s not an option, there are also viable mixing techniques.
For example, you could try creating a fake double‑track and use that on the other side; you’ll lose the sense of the part being panned one side or the other that way, but you’ll still retain the sense of width and space around the centrally panned sounds. Often better, if you want to retain the sense of the sound being on one side, is to send the sound to a mono reverb or delay effect, whose return channel is panned opposite: you’ll still perceive the sound as emanating from the point at which you hear it first, but the dry source will seem less like a sore thumb.
Whenever you sum a stereo mix to mono, even if you’ve created perfect separation between the various sources, the overall mix balance changes. Specifically, when you switch from stereo to mono, sounds panned to one side or the other become quieter relative to those in the centre. It’s a phenomenon that affects every stereo mix, but can be more noticeable in LCR mixes because the harder sounds are panned the greater the difference in level.
Why? Well, the centrally panned sounds are contained equally in both the left and right channels, by definition. So the summing process doesn’t simply combine the hard‑left and hard‑right elements; it adds two lots of the centrally panned sounds too. Consequently, anything in the centre will be doubled in level (+6dB) compared with anything hard‑panned to one side or the other. Put another way, anything panned hard‑left or hard‑right in a stereo mix will measure 6dB lower in the mono sum, relative to sounds panned to the centre. And a 6dB amplitude difference is audible not just to golden‑eared professionals but pretty much every listener...
“Can I counter that by using a different stereo pan law?” I hear you ask. No, it’s purely a result of the maths of summing a stereo mix to mono: the stereo pan law makes absolutely no difference in this context. The pan law is just about compensating for the change in the perceived level if you move a sound source across the panorama, by introducing a level drop in the centre to compensate for the electrical or acoustical boost when the sound appears in both channels. It’s relevant if automating pan positions or using an autopanner plug‑in, but for fixed pan placements you’ll inherently compensate for any change in level due to the pan law when you’re setting the channel faders.
So what are the implications of this balance change? First notice that I described it earlier as a ‘phenomenon’, not a ‘problem’. There’s nothing wrong with the mono mix sounding different from the stereo one. As long as they both work, that’s fine, and I would always urge you to focus primarily on making a great stereo mix.
Happily, the change in mix balance will usually work in your favour, because it will slightly emphasise the vocals and any other mission‑critical sounds, such as lead instruments, the bass, kick and snare. So everything you need to get the listener tapping their feet, nodding to the beat and singing along should still work well.
That said, there are a few things to listen out for, especially if you’re inexperienced at mixing. First, note that stereo reverb or room ambience tends to dry up noticeably in mono, and that can often change the character of a mix quite significantly. But, given the smaller mix real estate in mono, that can often be helpful.
Another thing I commonly observe is that wide opposition‑panned distorted guitars can seem to sound that bit duller in mono. While that’s partly due to the drop in level, where it’s too much I usually take that as a sign that I’ve not got their relationship with the bass quite right, or that perhaps I should have had another guitar double in the centre. In this scenario, you might consider a touch of parallel distortion on the centrally panned bass, to inject useful energy in the centre to compensate for the drop in energy of the guitars (you also might revisit your guitar EQ settings in light of that). Or perhaps you could route your guitars to a stereo group bus and use mid‑sides EQ to shift some of their energy to the centre, without compromising their sense of width.
You should also pay close attention in mono to the levels of differently panned sounds that have an important relationship. For instance, if you have two fairly exposed acoustic guitar parts playing picked counterpoint, panning them hard‑left and hard‑right would probably work well: there’d be no change in their level relative to each other, even though they’d be quieter relative to the lead vocal. Panning one to the centre and the other hard‑left, on the other hand, would result in a 6dB change in the level of one part’s notes relative to those of the other, and that might (it’s not guaranteed to) have an audible effect on any rhythmic interplay between them. Similarly, if you pan multiple percussion or rhythmic parts to different places, you’ll want to listen for changes to accents in the overall rhythm.
If you notice any such issues and feel they constitute a genuine problem in a mix when heard in mono, you should start to counter that by changing your panning decisions: opposition‑pan those two guitars, rather than placing one in the centre, for example.
Another option I’d like to suggest, which risks offending LCR purists, is to consider straying in a controlled way from your LCR principles as you near the end of the mix, because bringing a hard‑panned part closer to the centre will obviously reduce the part’s level drop relative to the centre. I’d urge caution, though: if you were to go through your mix and revise all the parts’ pan positions in this manner, there’d have been little point treading the LCR path in the first place, so don’t sacrifice the impact of your stereo mix if your mono mix works. Rather, I have in mind that sometimes this is the easiest way to tackle specific balance problems: listen first, and take action only if necessary.
It might be, for example, that panning an offending part to 75 or 50 percent instead of 100 will solve the problem acceptably in mono without reducing the overall impact of the stereo mix. If you have quad‑tracked guitars or backing vocals, you might try bringing two doubles closer to the centre while leaving the other pair panned wide, and then experiment with the balance between the two pairs using their faders and maybe EQ. Again, if such moves do the trick and don’t have a negative impact in stereo, you’re good.
If the mono mix sounds unacceptably dry, then while you could obviously try adding more reverb in the centre, you might also try narrowing some stereo reverb channels a bit, or panning some mono ones in a touch. You might also experiment with your reverb decisions more generally: maybe move a part to the centre but send it to a wider‑panned mono reverb or delay, or to another stereo effect such as a harmoniser. Or vice‑versa: leave the mono part out wide, but send it to an ambience reverb patch, and pan the reverb return somewhere in the natural ‘pockets’ between the LCR panning points.
I love LCR panning in many ways and would encourage everyone to try it at least a couple of times. As I said at the outset, it doesn’t always make mixing easier, but I reckon it does encourage you to make better mixing decisions and often to make them more quickly too. Some will find that they like working this way, while others might not — but even if you don’t I’m willing to bet that the experience will help you get better at mixing.
It’s often pointed out by critics of LCR that any instrument that’s been recorded using a stereo mic technique, or the output of a genuinely stereo effect, can’t possibly conform to LCR ‘rules’: unless everything’s in the centre then whatever your pan pots are doing the source will appear somewhere between the speakers. Well, that might be true in theory, but it’s not a problem in practice. You just need to decide whether these parts should be treated as stereo (pan the channels left and right) or mono (pan both channels to the same point or, depending on the source, ditch one channel). In the former case, where you LCR‑pan everything else, there’ll be more space in the stereo mix to accommodate these parts. In the latter, you still gain the benefit of fast decision making.
There’s nothing wrong with the mono mix sounding different from the stereo one. As long as they both work, that’s fine.