Panning Your Guitar in the Mix
Universal Audio’s EP-34 Tape Echo plug-in (based on the original Echoplex tape delay units) simulates a vintage tape delay and offers opportunities for creative panning.
If you want your recording to sound professional, it’s essential to create space for your guitar in the mix. One way to achieve this is through creative panning. Well-placed instruments can make the difference between a muddled mix and one where everything is heard clearly. Let’s examine a few panning ideas you can use on your next production.
Think of the stereo mix field as a canvas for sound. And on your mixer— whether it’s a hardware device or a virtual one on your computer screen—that canvas spreads from approximately 7 o’clock (hard left) to 5 o’clock (hard right). That’s all you have to work with—you can’t go outside of that box (unless you’re working in surround sound). When you mix a piece of music, you have to fit every instrument in there.
With that in mind, the vocal, bass, and kick drum usually occupy the 12 o’clock position or thereabouts. You can build the rest of your mix around that core. Let’s say in addition to the vocal, bass, and kick, you have some stereo keyboard pads. Don’t just settle for leaving them hard left and right. Think about moving either the left or right pan position to create some space—to the 9 or 3 o’clock position, for example. I’ll often do the same thing with drum overheads— pan them in tighter to make room for other instruments and sounds.
In that empty space, you can place a reverb signal for your guitar. (Hey, that’s what we really care about—our guitars!) For example, when I’m working with a mono guitar amp plug-in, I’ll start with a pan position of, say, 10 o’clock. Then I’ll take a send from that to a reverb on a stereo auxiliary track. From there, I’ll do one of two things: I’ll either pan the track to the hard right 5 o’clock position, or if the plugin has panning within it, I’ll do it there and leave the stereo panners intact. Either way, this puts the guitar direct sound at 10 o’clock with the reverb at 5 o’clock. This opens up the stereo soundstage and makes for a nice big guitar sound.
Sometimes, however, I’ll do just the opposite. I’ll create a mono auxiliary track for reverb and pan it directly on top of the guitar position (say, 10 o’clock again). I’ll do this primarily when using guitar plugins that have no reverb, such as Amp Farm. Reverb plug-ins like Audio Ease’s Altiverb have samples of real guitar springs in them, and by panning them in mono on top of the plug-in, I’m simulating the sound of a mic’d guitar amp. The same techniques apply to delay or echo, not just reverbs.
Guitar-centric plug-ins such as Universal Audio’s EP-34 Tape Echo or Roland RE-201 Space Echo tape delay both have panning ability built into them. When using the EP-34, I will often take the echo pan knob and twist it to one side or the other. It can create some really cool echo/ delay effects this way and help punch a guitar through a mix.
Offering separate controls for the reverb pan and echo pan, RE-201 Space Echo goes even a step further. When sending guitar tracks to the 201, I’ll often pan both the reverb and echo to the opposite side of my guitar. However, you can generate some cool sounds by panning the reverb and echo to opposite sides of each other. Sometimes, as in the Altiverb example above, I’ll pan them right on top of the guitar track itself, simulating running the guitar through the 201 and then into the amp. Every situation will be different depending on the rest of the instruments in the mix.
When panning a mic’d cabinet or amp, I’ll first solo each mic (usually that’s both a ribbon and a dynamic) and listen for the tonality of each (ribbons are usually warmer and softer, whereas dynamic mics are often edgier). Then I’ll pan them accordingly. With mic’d amps, I find myself panning a bit wider in the stereo field (unlike the 10 o’clock position of the mono guitar plug-in). Sometimes I’ll pan the dynamic mic hard left at 7 o’clock and place the ribbon at around 9 o’clock. If I’ve used a room mic with this combination, I’ll often pan it to the complete opposite side at 5 o’clock. That is my “natural” reverb and it can make for some huge guitar sounds.
When panning electric and acoustic guitars in the same mix, I tend to place them opposite each other. This helps differentiate their tonality and create space for each instrument. Obviously, the more guitars you have layered, the harder it is to cut them through a mix. With densely packed guitar productions, I’ll make more use of panning hard left and right, trying to give myself as much of the stereo field as possible to work with.
Each production will have its own panning needs. But to get that guitar to cut through the mix, try tightening the pans of the other instruments around it, and use the hard left/right positions for effects such as reverb or delay. Take the time to experiment with different pan positions, and make sure that guitar is the loudest thing in the mix. Wait, did I say that?
Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al Di Meola to David Bowie. A life-long guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and composes for the likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, and HBO.