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7.5.3. Set Initial Panning

Setting up the initial panning takes quite a bit more thought than setting the initial levels. Different music will have different requirements, but the main purpose of adjusting the panning for this sort of recorded acoustic music is to ensure that each performer has a unique and unchanging position in the stereo image. When humans are listening to music, they implicitly ascribe a "location" to the sound - where their brain thinks it should be coming from. When listening to recorded music, we understand that the sound is actually coming from speakers or a set of headphones, and that the performers are not actually there. Even so, it can be difficult, tiring, and unpleasant to listen to music where the imagined position of a performer or sound is constantly changing - just as it's difficult and tiring to listen to music which is has poorly balanced levels.
As if it weren't already difficult enough, the stereo image is created in our minds as a complex combination of many factors: quieter sounds and later sounds seem to be farther away than louder and earlier sounds. Although the DAW's panner can only put the signal somewhere in a straight line between "all the way left" and "all the way right," our brains process sound as existing in a three-dimensional world. A master audio engineer will be able to control these factors with relative ease, but for us it's going to involve much more trial and error.
A particular obstacle with this session is that the regions with the soloist put her in a different imagined position than the regions where the soloist is singing with other singers. Because these happen in the same tracks, we'll use automated panner and fader tracks to help solve this problem. Listen for yourself: start at about 00:02:40.000, and pay attention to where the soloist seems to be standing in the "Voice_4" regions and the "ens-Create_the_Inconceivable" regions. It seems to me like she moves from nearby on the right to a farther distance just to the left; somehow without bumping into the other people in the vocal ensemble, or the strings, which also seem to be in the way! You might argue that most listeners would not pick this up, and that's probably the case. Even so, I would counter that the drastic change of level and panning would be passively detected by those same people, even if they only consciously perceive it as being "not quite right."
Here's one way to start:
  1. Listen to the session as needed, and see if you can place the location of the instruments/singers throughout most of the session. You'll need to remember this, so consider writing it down, or drawing a map.
  2. Now, draw a map of where you think everything should be. Especially in non-standard ensembles like this, there is no pre-defined seating or standing arrangement. Some tracks will need very little adjustment, but others may need extensive adjustment. In general, the less tweaking required, the better the session will sound - so if something seems like a track already has a consistent location, and it doesn't conflict with other tracks, then it's probably better to leave it alone.
  3. Here's what I hear. It may be different from what you hear, especially if you happened to do your initial level-setting differently:
    • Both of the marimba tracks are consistent throughout. The "marimba1" tracks seem to be about 5 metres in front of me, of to the left a bit. The "marimba2" tracks seem to be about the same distance away, but almost directly to my right.
    • All of the strings regions seem to be consistent, with the violin placed just left-of-centre, and the 'cello just right-of-centre. They seem to be a bit closer than the marimbas.
    • The clarinet seems to be on the opposite side of the higher marimba; about 5 metres away, half-way between in front and to the left.
    • The vocal ensemble seems to be standing in the same place as the strings, but extending a bit more to the right.
    • The solo vocalist seems to be standing in the same place as the male singers in the vocal ensemble.
  4. Here's how I plan to fix it; directions are given assuming the listener is looking north:
    • Establish two rows of performers, surrounding the listener in a semi-circle.
    • The strings will be in the closer row, to the north-west. This requires moving them to the left a bit.
    • The vocal soloist will be in the closer row, just east of north (the middle). This requires moving her to the left just a little bit.
    • The vocal ensemble will be in the closer row, spread from north to north-east, allowing the soloist to remain in the same place. This will mostly require fader adjustment, to make the ensemble seem closer.
    • The lower marimba will be in the outer row, to the north-west. This may not require any adjustment, but perhaps a slight move to the left.
    • The higher marimba will be in the outer row, to the north-east. This requires a slight move to the left.
    • The clarinet will be in the outer row, to the north. This will require significant adjustment to the right.
I chose that particular layout because it requires relatively minimal adjustment, and it makes a certain amount of sense in terms of traditional instrumental ensemble seating patterns. Also, the notes played by the clarinet in this song seem suitable to appear as if from far away, and the passages are played with good expression, so I think it will be relatively easy for me to acheive that effect. The most important consideration was the placement of the vocal ensemble and the solo vocalist within it. Although the solo vocalist sings the highest part in the ensemble ("soprano"), the stereo recording seems to indicate that she was not standing at the left-most position in the ensemble (I also know this because I was present during the recording). This adds an extra difficulty, in that the fader and panner settings for the whole voice track must be based on the moment in the "ens-Create_the_Inconceivable" region where the second-highest singer ("alto") sings just after the highest singer, who is the soloist.
Make rought adjustments to most of the tracks, to place them in approximately the right space in the stereo image. You may wish to adjust an individual track's panner setting, in addition to the busses' panner settings; they will have a slightly different effect. For the marimba tracks, you may wish to fine-tune things now, adjusting the fader settings. Because these tracks are so consistent, they will require relatively little automation, and therefore will benefit more from a more thorough initial set-up procedure. Remember that it's better to be turning down the fader than turning it up!
It's probably easier to avoid working with the voice tracks for now.