In the music industry, panning is when you distribute an audio signal into a multi-channel or stereo sound field. Most DAWs (digital audio workstations) nowadays feature a Pan knob that you can manipulate to send the sound hard right, right, center, left, hard left, or anywhere in between.
Panning vocal harmonies can create space and width within your mix, giving the audience a broader listening experience. So, how do you do it? We’ll discuss different panning techniques in this article, as well as have a brief look at panning throughout the history of recorded music.
Panning Back in the Day
Up until the 1960s, a mono approach was prevalent in recorded music. The majority of people listened to record players or radios via a single speaker, and artists recorded and mixed music in a single channel.
During the decade, the concept of producing music and not just recording it went mainstream. A lot of musical innovations emerged at the time such as reverb, guitar amps, wah, distortion, early synthesizers, and more. Also, let’s not forget the appearance and spread of home stereo systems.
Music production witnessed some unusual approaches in the 1960s. For example, panning the piano hard left and panning the bass and drums hard right like in the original stereo version of Lady Madonna.
Although they may seem bizarre now, such decisions were meant to demonstrate the sound separation at the time. Incidentally, most mixing desks back then gave producers only one option for panning, either center, 100% right, or 100% left.
In the 1970s, panning trends became more stable and consistent, and they’ve stayed so for decades. Granted, you’re still free to hard-pan the entire drum and bass tracks, but it’ll be viewed as a strange artistic choice nowadays (despite the Beatles getting away with it!).
That said, here are the standards for modern panning:
- Center — lead vocals, kick drum, bass, and snare drum.
- Natural-sounding “soft” panning — piano, stereo drum kit including cymbals and toms, percussion, and some guitars.
- Hard panning — rhythm guitar and supporting instruments.
When Not to Pan
As per modern panning standards, lead vocals should be center. It’s almost always a mistake to pan them.
Not only should you keep lead vocals central -both literally and artistically-, but many people still listen to music or semi-mono or mono systems to this day.
The majority of computers, smartphones, tablets, and Bluetooth speakers, are mono or may feature little stereo separation. For important musical elements (like lead vocals and snare drum) to translate well to mono playback systems, they must be central.
This, however, doesn’t dismiss the fact that panning vocals can be an excellent choice in many situations. The following section will give you some ideas!
Techniques for Panning Vocal Harmonies
There are quite a few different approaches to panning vocal harmonies. Here are some examples of panning techniques and what you can use them for:
1. To make backup vocals sound wide
If your track contains backup vocals, chances are you’ve got several layers of those embedded into the song. Besides being difficult to separate and count, the layered backup vocals are also spread across the stereo sound field, probably hard center, some hard-panned, and some panned slightly.
This results in backup vocals that sound broad, big, and attention-grabbing. You can hear this in Free Fallin’ around 1:38 when the backup singers sing the phrase “Ventura Boulevard” and the backup vocals sound as if they’ve taken over the entire song for a second.
2. To achieve a unique sound
Another approach to panning vocal harmonies is to help you create a truly unique sound. If you listen to the intro in Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s pretty clear how Queen’s vocal harmonies have a unique sound.
To achieve this effect, an equally unique production process occurs. You see, each “individual” vocal harmony is actually the result of the 4 band members recording it at the same time.
This means that, essentially, a 3-part harmony features all Queen members singing that vocal part in harmony.
Additionally, the lead vocal harmony in the intro to Bohemian Rhapsody is panned center, while the high harmony is panned hard right and the low harmony is panned hard right.
What’s more, panning is applied to boost the artistic effect. For example, it covers the stereo field in “easy come, easy go”, then sends hard left in “little high” and hard right in “little low”.
3. To introduce space and power
Next is a panning technique that’ll help you add more space and power to your vocal harmonies.
Take each vocal harmony and record it 2 or 3 times. With 2 recordings of each part, pan one hard right and the other hard left. With 3 recordings, pan the last one center.
When you record the same vocal harmony twice then hard-pan the parts opposite each other, the minor variations between them result in a wider, powerful feel upon panning across the stereo audio field.
4. To create an illusion of multiple vocalists
To demonstrate this, we’ll jump right into the example: Billy Joel’s For The Longest Time. In this song, you can hear a “doo-wop” send-up that puts most doo-wops out there to shame.
Interestingly enough, most people don’t know that all the sounds you can hear in the song are Billy Joel’s vocals, except for percussion and electric bass. That’s right, a total of 14 vocal tracks exist in the arrangement, which is all Joel himself.
While the lead vocals are dead center, the backups undergo natural-sounding panning. It’s almost as if the production aimed to mimic the experience of being in a room with 14 vocalists singing in harmony.
None of the vocal harmonies underwent hard panning. Instead, they’re all naturally spread across the stereo sound field. You can pick up on this during ad-libs, sometimes concentrated in the left channel and sometimes more in the right.
There you have it, a complete guide on panning vocal harmonies, different panning techniques, and the history of its evolution.