Friday, April 13, 2012

Karl Maciag: Stereo Panning In A Live Mix

Karl Maciag is a regular contributor at SNR.  He put in his time in the trenches mixing in clubs and on tour and now lives the good life as a system design engineer. You can check out his personal blog at Karl's Empty Space. Click on the Contributors link above to see his other posts on this blog. 
Devilicus Handsomicus
My buddy Alfred asked Jon the question about using stereo imaging in a live mix. (Dear SNR Post) This is something that I pay attention to,  and can sometimes drive me nuts if an engineer takes it too far.  I loved Jon's response, and he does things that I never even thought of trying...I have something cool to try next time I have the toys to do it.

Anyway, here's my take:  I think a stereo image can help an engineer place all of his inputs in the mix easier.  That being said, your priority needs to be that all instruments are heard over the entire listening area.  You have to take into account where people are, and to almost treat their ears as two different listening zones.  I remember reading about a concept called "Zoned Dual Mono",  and while I know I'm not nailing this concept here, it does influence my thought process.  I've tried to find a link to the article that explains it, but luck would not have me find it tonight.

Basically, a stereo image is an image that gives you a perception of things that are either placed, or moving from left to right, or right to left.  If the source is equal between the two sides, you have the image that it is directly in front of you (this is why our ears are on the sides of our heads).  This is effective for recording, and listening with headphones or a nicely placed pair of stereo speakers.  In live sound,  our goal is not so much to create an image, but rather to recreate what is happening on stage to every seat in the house.

That doesn't mean to me that panning is out of the question, but I do think that creating a stereo image can be a problem though.  I hate when engineers have two guitar players, and hard pan both of them.  Effectively up to 2/3 of the audience could be robbed of what is happening on stage.  If I'm going pan something important, like a guitar or keyboard, I'm going to have two inputs feeding the console for that instrument.  

I might do something like have a SM57, and a E609 on each guitar, and put the 57 left and the 609 right for one guitar, and do the opposite on the other guitar.  Keys will get two DI's, and panned hard left and right.  What happens is, those inputs are heard equally in the venue, but for those at or near the center of the mix,  they hear the two inputs of one source (the 57 and 609) panned hard left and right.  The mics have different frequency responses (and maybe slightly different timing with the source), so we can assume that both inputs sound a little different. Hearing the difference, one in the right ear, the other in the left,  makes the brain think we are hearing two different things, and only in one ear.  The image is the guitar sound is to the sides.  That leaves us "room" in the center for more important sources, like the vocals.  Mixing like this gives people that hear both speakers a sense of space,  without robbing people that only hear one speaker every instrument on stage.

I'll close this post by talking about something loosely related to panning in a mix.  Left/Center/Right systems.  I get asked a lot when designing audio systems how I feel about a LCR system.  Lots of spaces, especially churches employ a speaker system that contains a LCR cluster system.  The subject of panning will come up.  Lots of consoles these days have LCR busses, as opposed to a L/R and MONO bus.  I'll contend that in most cases, LCR panning is not feasible.  The reason being,  in order for LCR panning to be effective,  every seat in the house has to be in the coverage of all 3 clusters, otherwise we are back to where we were with the stereo mix - you're missing out on information somewhere.  Typically these systems were designed to provide even horizontal coverage across a wide listening area,  and should be treated as a mono mix covering different zones.

The moral of the story...pan as much as you want...but make sure everyone can hear it all.  Have fun, stay classy.


  1. I like to keep this philosophy even when mixing a recording. You never know what setup people will be listening on. If they're not sitting in the sweet spot, the stage image you created at mixdown will be lost. Trying to create an idea of space rather than specifically placing each instrument can work out a lot better for all listeners and can also really save your but if the mix ever gets presented in mono.

    1. I respectfully disagree partially. In studio recording my philosophy is, anything goes; with the following qualifying statement. Make sure you sum your completed stereo mix to mono to make sure there are no phase problems. This can be done via a button on some consoles or some sort of ancillary monitoring control system such as the "Big Knob". You can also route the stereo buss or two mono sticks or whatever to a mono buss or use the patch bay to accomplish this. Whatever, you get it. If you don't notice any phase problems then you can be confident there won't be any phase weirdness. I work at a studio where I do a ton of mono mixes because the stuff I record is commercials that mostly play in stores. The speakers in stores are placed on the ceiling and there are a bunch of them placed throughout one very large room. So stereo mixing makes no sense in this situation as this is the only way the recordings will ever be heard.

      Other than that, especially when it comes to music, I frankly don't care what setup someone is listening on. I'm going to town in the stereo field. People listen to music in so many different ways under so many different circumstances and music has such a variety of applications that to say you want to accommodate one specific situation is arbitrary. It's true that almost no one listens to recorded music anymore in a setting where they are paying 100% (or close to it) attention to the music. People listen to music while exercising, working, studying, cleaning, driving, shopping at Target with their totally lame and boring parents with only one earbud in and the other ear being used to listen to their friend with whom they are simultaneously having a phone conversation. But I still consider studio mixing to be an art form, and one where the mixer has artistic license. Sure, there is a mechanical, utilitarian aspect to it. Sure, you have to be considerate of the listener to some degree. Sure, getting real avant garde while mixing an otherwise straight-forward rock song can just be distracting. Sure there are many standard practices that should be adhered to. But if it's the opinion of an FOH engineer that a stereo mix for pre-event recorded music isn't working, that engineer can sum it to mono for that application. Thoughts?

  2. I'm not saying you shouldn't get crazy with the image, but like you say, if you know it's heading for mono playback then you need to check the mix. Take for example old Van Halen stuff where it's Eddie's guitar on one side and just the guitar reverb on the other. Sounds awesome even if you're not in the sweet spot, or if it's summed to mono, but have you ever heard it where you didn't have access to both speakers?

    1. It's interesting you bring that up. I also deal with delivery of music via in-store "broadcast" in my job. the music player we use has three outputs; left, right, mono. These devices play stereo audio files in WMA format, but the outputs are not treated as left/right in practice. Left Out goes to the shopping area and Right Out goes to an on-hold system. Usually this isn't a big deal, but when we're testing stuff here in the studio we'll every now and then hear an older song where it's very obvious that there is information missing. The best example I've encountered is with "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas. You'll hear the backup singers repeat what the lead vocalist sings, but you won't really hear the lead vocalist, just as you mentioned with your example, some of the reverb. It's mostly just comical, though.


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