How to Pan Drums

Drum kits include a variety of drums and cymbals that create a wide, open sound. Unfortunately, I’ve found that it’s not always easy to capture the live sound of drums.

So, how do you create stereo sound in a mix? This is where drum panning comes in.

Learning how to pan drums in a mix opens the doors to a wider range of sounds, as you can play with the entire sound field. Let’s see how it works…

What Is Panning in Music?

Panning refers to the distribution of sound when editing stereo or multi-channel audio tracks. Sound engineers and musicians can control panning when recording or mixing.

For example, most physical audio mixers include pan control settings for each audio input. You can adjust the pan setting by turning a panning potentiometer (pan pot). 

Panning to the left sends more of the audio signal to the left audio channels. Panning to the right sends the audio signal to the right channels. 

Before the use of panning, engineers used a three-way switch to assign audio signals to the left, right, or center (both left and right). Panning allows for more control.

Instead of sending the signal entirely to the left, right, or center, you can adjust the level sent to each channel. This made it easier for engineers to let the sound taper or create a fuller stereo sound.

Panning allows you to place sounds in the left or right range of a stereo image. The stereo field covers a range from 0 degrees (dead center) to 90 degrees in either direction. Sending sound 90 degrees to the left sends it entirely to the left channel. When you pan 30 degrees to the left, the audio signal is still sent to the right channel, but at a lower level.

Digital audio workstations provide many of the same features found on physical audio mixers. You can edit multiple tracks and use panning to control the distribution of sound. DAWs include virtual knobs or sliders to represent the pan pots.

How to Pan Drums in a Mix

Using panning with samples in audio mixer software is completely different from panning during live recording. You have a library of percussion samples, which allows you to build a dynamic drum track layer by layer.

When recording a live drum performance, the sound engineer isolates parts of the drum set and applies panning techniques to recreate the live sound. This typically involves placing several microphones near the set. One may capture the middle tom and high tom while others capture the cymbals and snares. 

The engineer may keep the core elements, such as the snares, in the center and not apply any panning. The hi-hat and cymbals may be panned to the right or left, creating a surround sound. You can produce the same effect using samples in a DAW. 

Send Central Elements to the Center

The snare drums and kick pedals often produce the core percussion sounds in a drum set. As these sounds carry the beat, they are central elements. To ensure that they deliver the right impact, send central elements to the center channels.

The audio signals that you send to the center receive the most emphasis. In a 2.1 speaker setup, the center channel goes to both the right and left speakers. In a surround sound setup, the center channel mostly goes to the center speaker. 

Along with drums, any other sounds that you want to be present throughout the mix should be left dead center. Looking at a panning instruments chart can help determine which direction to send various elements.

For example, lead vocals tend to go to the center channel while backing vocals are separated to the far left and right. Panning charts also typically illustrate the position of the typical drum kit, with the kick drum and bass drum in the center and the cymbals panned to the sides.

Build Out Your Sound with Panning

After building the core, start adding more elements to your beat by panning additional percussion sounds to the left or right. Sending samples to the left or right can create a fuller sound. You can take full advantage of surround sound stereo to deliver a more dynamic beat.

The hi-hats, cymbals, and toms are typically panned to the left or right to recreate the layout of a typical drum kit. The arrangement may be based on the drummer’s point of view (POV) or the audience’s POV.

From the drummer’s POV, the hi-hat, crash, and tom would likely be sent to the left. The other cymbals would then go to the right. From the audience’s perspective, the cymbals would be reversed.

Many music producers only use three settings when panning. Each sound is either sent dead center, hard left, or hard right. A hard left or hard right is when you pan 50 to 90 degrees to the left or right. This sends the audio signal to just one channel, which can create a wider sound.

Along with drum panning, producers often use hard pans when mixing doubled vocals or instruments. Separating the sounds keeps them from getting stacked in the center channel.

Separating the Kick and Bass Drum

As mentioned, sending the core elements to the center helps carry the beat and drive the song forward. However, slightly separating the high and low sounds can create more of a “live” sound. Instead of blending the sounds, the sounds become more distinct.

The kick pedal, bass drum, and snare drum are often sent to the center channel instead of panning them to the left or right. Using a small adjustment to one direction or another separates these elements enough to make them stand apart.

If you spread these elements too far across the left and right channels, the low frequency sounds produced by the bass drum may become muddled. The key is to start panning in small increments. Try panning just five degrees to the left or right.

When Should You Use Drum Panning?

Drum panning is useful when mixing live recordings in a studio, mixing live performances, or creating a beat on a DAW. It helps instruments and individual elements stand out by spreading the sounds across the entire stereo field instead of grouping them in a monospace.

Panning can mimic the sound of a live performance. Performers are often spread across a stage. The vocalist may be slightly off-center, with the drummer in the rear and a bassist off to the side. Panning allows sound mixers to recreate this arrangement.

Panning can be used for any element, including each individual drum and cymbal in a drum kit. If you want the sound to remain constant, send it to the center channel with no panning. To separate sounds, send them to the left or right channels.

You should always apply panning before applying any other settings. The equalizer (EQ) settings, signal levels, and additional effects are all affected by panning. 

Summary

Panning is used by professional mixers to faithfully recreate the surround sound of live music or enhance the dramatic elements of a song. It involves sending more or less of an audio signal to the left or right channels instead of sending the audio evenly across all channels.

Practice drum panning using audio mixer software to add depth to your beats but remember to start with the core elements in the center and build the sound out with the hi-hats, cymbals, and other smaller sounds. 

Drum panning is not the most complex technique, but it requires practice. If you have any other questions related to this topic, take a moment to leave a comment below.



Michael Southard

Michael is a multi-instrumentalist with extensive knowledge of audio production. He loves trying new gear to discover gems to create unique sound.