LCR mixing, also known as LCR panning is based on the idea of every track in your mix occupying one of three panning positions: left, center, or right, hence the name. I mentioned this when talking about how to use reference tracks yesterday, as many professional engineers use this technique in Grammy winning mixing for a good reason. Let’s talk about how LCR mixing works and more importantly how you can use it to create pro mixes more easily.
As far as the tutorial goes, explaining how to do LCR mixing is very simple. Once again every track will be panned either 100% left, 100% right, or 100% dead center.
LCR mixing is popular because it lends itself to clean, open, and consequently professional sounding mixes by virtue of how it works.
With only three panning positions, tracks are naturally as spread out in the stereo field as possible.
The one obvious drawback is that everything panned in any one of those positions is vying for space alongside the other tracks panned in the same spot.
We can solve this by being mindful of the frequency spectrums of each panning position. In other words, making sure there aren’t instruments competing for the same frequencies occupying the same panning position will completely open up that position.
Doing some EQ sculpting on each to ensure there’s no conflicts and you have a clean, open mix in which all of the tracks fit well together. Speaking of which, check out my recent post on mixing in mono as the best way to hear said conflicts when you don’t have the luxury of panning to create space.
This is the secret of LCR mixing and why so many professional and grammy award winning mixing engineers use it.
Most DAWs have stock plugins which allow you to hear just the mids or sides of your mix.
In LCR mixing, we can use this to isolate one or the other, even just the left or right. With each of the three channeled soloed one at a time, we can set our levels and hear any frequency conflicts which might require attention via EQ or by moving a track from one position to another.
Speaking of where to pan tracks in LCR mixing.
Which Tracks to Pan Center
The four tracks which you should pan center are arguably the four most important tracks in any mix.
There’s no rule that you can’t pan more than these instruments in the middle, but the idea of LCR mixing is that you distribute your tracks evenly across the three positions.
This doesn’t just mean number of tracks themselves but again being mindful of the frequencies involved and distributing them, as well.
The kick is the anchor of your mix. It establishes the tempo, time signature, rhythm, and drives the track forward. In any mix, the kick should be right down the middle (unless you’re going for some aesthetic effect).
The snare is the second most important track to the kick and also helps the listener get their bearings in the track. It brings energy to the mix which is why it’s important that you mix it correctly which includes using effective snare EQ and of course panning it down the middle.
Whether you’re using a bass guitar or a synth bass to represent the low end, 99 times out of 100 you’ll want the bass right in the middle.
The kick and bass occupy neighboring frequencies, so a little complimentary EQ care helps to carve out equal space for both. See my EQ kick drum guide as well as my bass guitar EQ guide to accomplish this.
Otherwise, the kick, snare, and bass should all sit together just fine right up the middle with few conflicts. The same applies to our final mandatorily (recommended) center panned instrument: vocals.
No surprise here, but the final track which you’ll want to pan in the center is your vocal. All lead vocals should be panned directly down the center. Harmonies can also be panned in the center, albeit at a lower level or with some (more) reverb to send them farther back. Doubled vocals, gang/group vocals, and other backing vocals which aren’t harmonies are likely better panned left and right.
Speaking of which…
Which Tracks to Pan Left and Right
Now we move on the the L and R of LCR mixing. These are the tracks you’ll want to pan 100% left or right.
There’s no hard rules on which instruments or tracks to pan left versus right.
Instead try to think of the frequencies associated with them and keep the conflicts to a minimum.
A sample panning for some of the tracks you might have would be:
If you have a doubled guitar, then it makes sense to pan one hard left and one hard right. That said, LCR mixing also encourages you to work with less to get better results. With three panning positions, even with taking EQ and frequencies into account, the mix can get cluttered with too many tracks in each spot.
I’m a fan of scaling down mixes to the bare essentials in terms of tracks in general.
In LCR mixing, you might find that you get better results by eschewing one of your doubled guitars and instead putting a comparable instrument on the other side in its place.
Instead of having two guitars playing the same chords, maybe you keep one and pan it left and instead have a guitar playing a riff and pan that opposite on the right.
Maybe you have the guitar playing chords on the left and pan an acoustic guitar playing the same chords in different positions on the right. Maybe you only eschew a second guitar altogether and instead pan a piano on the other side.
If you have any kind of instrumental solo including guitar, also put this in the middle as this is the focus of the song at that point in place of the vocal.
Piano and guitar are both mid-frequency heavy instruments. Depending on the guitar, they oftentimes fight for the same space. As such, I’ve gotten good results panning a piano opposite a guitar in LCR mixing. Give it a try as a nice compliment to the guitar in the other ear.
The hi-hat is the third most important element in the drum kit and works as a higher frequency snare to drive the mix.
Normally the move is to pan a hi-hat slightly off center to the left or right in the stereo field. In LCR mixing, you have a choice of keeping it in the center or panning it completely left or right. There’s no wrong or right answer here.
The hi-hat may sound odd to you panning it that far wide, in which case you may choose to leave in in the middle. The main frequencies of the hi-hat won’t conflict with anything else already mentioned in the center. Given its important role in driving the song after the kick and snare, this isn’t a bad move.
Cymbals are generally panned wide as it is as this creates air and openness in your mix.
Like the hi-hat, you can either pan these center or left and right. In most songs, the toms are accenting pieces, so they shouldn’t create issues regardless of where you pan them.
Try panning the floor and deepest rack tom on the left and the smallest toms on the right to really take advantage of the space the LCR mixing creates, especially during fills which utilize them all.
I use “synth lead” vaguely here as I’m referring either to an arpeggiated part or a proper lead/solo. For an arpeggiated part, I would pan this hard left or right, perhaps playing opposite a riff the guitar or piano is playing. It’s situational really, depending on what else is happening in the mix at that time.
In the case of a synth solo, similar to the guitar solo you’ll want this track in the middle as it’s acting as the focus in that moment.
Synth pads often operate on a lot of stereo width, but you might find they work just fine when panned hard left or right.
If you’ve got a synth arpeggiated part on the left or right, pan the pad to the opposite side. It’s the same principle as the guitar chord panned opposite the guitar playing a riff.
The tambourine is another instrument like the hi-hat which might sound odd panned hard left or right. Give it a try and if it doesn’t work leave it in the middle. If you have more percussion going on, that’s when you can take advantage of the left and right channels, playing pieces against one another in either side.
Double tracking vocals helps to thicken your main vocal and provide a fullness to it. Whenever possible I like to record my vocal three times. The main track is panned center for emphasis, but the remaining two are panned hard left and right.
If you have any backing vocals, any group/gang vocals, etc. pan these wide to add to that stereo image and keep them as far away from the lead vocal as possible.
LCR Mixing Tips
- LCR mixing refers to setting every track in your mix in one of three positions: 100% left or right, or center.
- Also known as LCR panning, this technique creates open, clean sounding mixes by creating space between tracks.
- By mindful of frequency conflicts in each of the three positions when tracks are panned right on top of one another.
- Resolve frequency conflicts by EQing or moving a track to another position.
- Pan kick, snare, bass, vocals, and sometimes hi-hat to center.
- Pan guitars, piano, cymbals, toms wide/on either side.
- Check each position, left, right, and center in solo to ensure levels are right and frequencies fit.