Getting It Right
Suppose you have a vocal lead track, three vocal harmonies, an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, a snare, a mandolin and a banjo.
You'd probably start by placing the lead vocal and the bass both near the centre, and you'd be off to a good start if you did. But then what?
Do you want your vocal harmonies to be panned as a group, close to each other, all off to the left or right, or do you want to spread them all the way across? What about your three stringed instruments? How do you want to balance that? Then that single percussive instrument, the snare. That's just sitting there itching to cause you trouble.
As a general rule in this sort of situation, try starting with the instrument that you are most worried about - in this case the snare. Experiment until you get it sounding about right. Then your stringed instruments and finally your harmonies. Keep in mind that there is seldom a single simple solution. Before you get carried away with reverb, compression or anything else, try saving two or three versions of your mix, each with its own panning arrangements. Shown on the left is REAPER's Snapshots View, a simple but useful tool that lets you save many different mixes for the one project and to easily switch between them.
After that you can figure out which one works best, and concentrate on working with that.
One more point. If you think that that's all there is to panning then you're in for a shock. Our next two articles will explore further aspects of panning and how you can exploit these aspects to help you to produce great mixes.