Well for one, sound systems at concerts sometimes are in mono, as well as ones in churches and auditoriums. If you're worried about the music you're recording you should also take into account piped in audio in stores and phone hold systems. Even if none of this applies to you, you should still take a listen to stuff you record in mono because it can easily reveal phase issues. If something disappears when you hit that mono check button, you need to look deeper into your mix.
Let's take a look at live first. You may find yourself in between two stacks of speakers that are each receiving the same signal. Now you're in a tight spot. It's not just obvious tricks like panning drums that go out the window. You've got zero options to place things in your mix. The only thing you can do is try to line everything up so you can hear everything on stage. I liken it to getting all the actors on the down stage edge like in A Chorus Line. There, now you can see everybody.
It's an incredibly difficult situation to mix in and not many people realize it. Sure there are trade offs. You can't run away with the panning and cheat one side out of something that the other side is getting. But you also can't clear out the middle to make room for vocals and lead instruments and that's where the real heartache begins.
It takes a huge amount of skill to get all the players lined up because more often than not, there's exactly one place for each fader to go in order for everything to be heard. Then you've likely got a hectic night of mixing ahead of you because as things change, those spots move around on you. And as for clearing out the middle, the best you can do is judiciously apply a little reverb so you can at lease tell some of the "actors" to take a step or two toward the back.
How does this affect you in the studio? Well, it doesn't. But you can build this as a skill for getting mixes dialed in. I'm guilty myself of going into a session and starting to pan before I even get anything up. I just assumed that I was going to want my drums panned all around and a few other things as well. But now that I've really gotten a handle on mixing mono panning has become about the last thing I do.
When I put up a mix, I work toward that point where I've got all my "actors" lined up. The song should just about work before I do any panning or turn any automation on. When everything is able to be heard, then I can make decisions about where to put them. I'll do a few quick bullet points to show you what I mean.
Maybe I've got a huge set of chromatic toms that are just begging to be massively panned and dripping with reverb. On the other hand I might have just one rack tom and one floor. If they're hard panned and the drummer does a quick fill, they don't make that trip around the block quite so nicely. It's more of a ping-pong effect. So maybe they'll be panned just a little instead.
I like to double mic guitars when I'm working gigs. It lets me pan them out without cheating one side or the other. When recording I don't always use multiple mics although if I do it makes the panning a little easier. You can take guitar panning to crazy places, like early Van Halen recordings where the clean guitar is all the way to one side and just the reverb is on the other. Again, I might go with a more subtle effect for most of a song and maybe automate some heavier panning in for an effect. Those guitars do need to be panned though, to make room in the critical mid range for the vocals.
Secondary vocals are just begging to be panned. That's one of the things I always listen for when I have headphones on or I'm sitting in front of a nice stereo setup. It can really add that extra dimension of sound that totally makes a song. It can also be manipulated to take a song from being a mile wide to up close and intimate.
Keyboards with stereo outs are also just begging to be hard panned. Even something like a solo piano that's meant to be right up front can do that with the inputs hard panned. If you're only taking a mono input from some lush string pad or crazy analog patch, you're missing out on a world of space and beauty. Once again, you can twist it back and forth for effect or even push the panning further with subtle delays and make those synth sounds come from somewhere beyond where the speakers are placed.
Those are just a few examples and the techniques for using panning are many and varied. It's a topic well worth discussing further and hopefully we'll get to it soon on our weekly podcast. So till next time Brethren of the Knob and Fader. Keep a close eye on those pan knobs.