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Anyone who has ever been in a band knows that, for better or worse, the vocals are the star the music. Of course there are bona fide rock star guitarists, bassists, drummers. But there’s a reason that John Fogerty has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the rest of Creedence doesn’t. There’s a reason that karaoke bars exist. When it comes down to it, the vocals are the face of the music. They are the element of the music that most people connect with strongly. They present the personality and the “face” of the music. In fact, vocals are so important, that I would argue that music’s genre often depends on vocal style. The same song with the same instrumental could be classified as pop, country, indie, or soul based on the singer’s accent and vocal tone. Case in point, a couple of years ago Kane Brown jumped on the country charts with What’s Mine Is Yours.https://youtu.be/udnGW3E1vxY But without his baritone twang, this instrumental could have appeared on a Savage Garden of Backstreet Boys album circa 1999!
The Importance of Vocals
Producers should remember the importance of vocals if they want to be successful. Of course, producers and instrumentalists are used to listening to all the instruments and thinking about how they work together. But often, it’s when they successfully support vocals that producers really find success. Daft Punk and Pharrell on Get Lucky, Chainsmokers and Halsey on Closer. Hell, most people probably don’t realize that Uptown Funk is technically a Mark Ronson track featuring Bruno Mars and not the other way around. Vocals connect to audiences in exactly the same way actors do in TV and movies.
Producers have a broad range of tools to use vocals effectively. From the vocalists’ perspectives, the producer is the genius who can bring vocals to life. As far as the audience is concerned, the producer is like the Wizard of Oz, the magic behind the curtain, with all sorts of effects at his or her disposal. And one of the simplest but most powerful effects is panning.
Until the 1960s, recorded music tended to take a mono approach. Most people listened to music on radios or record players with a single speaker. Music was recorded and mixed in a single channel. The 1960s was an important decade for music production- I would say it was the first time that the idea of “producing” and not just “recording” music went mainstream (with people like Joe Meek and Phil Spector leading the charge.) Loads of musical innovations became available, like guitar amps, reverb, distortion, wah, early synthesizers, and much more.
One of these changes was the widespread adoption of home stereo systems. Any fan of 1960s music has probably noticed some bizarre approaches throughout the 1960s. Check out the original stereo release of Lady Madonna for instance, with the piano hard-panned left and the bass and drums hard-panned right. Decisions like this seem strange now, but at the time, they were used to show off the sound separation. Incidentally, many early mixing desks also only had an option to pan center, 100% L or 100% R.
By the 1970s, panning trends were stabilizing, and they’ve remained consistent for decades. Sure, you still have the freedom to hard pan the entire bass and drum tracks. But even though the Beatles got away with it, it will be perceived as an unusual artistic choice these days.
Tom Petty tracks are gorgeously mixed for the most part, and they are an excellent reference to learn about mixing. Check out tracks like Mary Jane’s Last Dance and Free Fallin’. Here are the modern panning standards:
- Center: Lead vocals, bass, kick drum, snare drum (almost without fail.)
- Natural-sounding panning: Stereo drum kit (including toms and cymbals), piano, some guitars and percussion
- Hard-panning: Rhythm guitar, some percussion, and other supporting instruments.
As I mentioned above, lead vocals should be front and center. Panning them is almost always a mistake. Not only should they be literally and artistically “central.” But to this day, many people listen to music on mono or semi-mono playback systems. Most smart phones, tablets, and computers, as well as many bluetooth speakers, are either mono, or have very little stereo separation. Important elements such as lead vocals and snare drum are central so they can translate unfailingly to mono systems.
However, there are many situations where panning vocals can be an excellent decision- read on for examples.
Panning Vocal Harmonies
I like to use examples to show off some different approaches. This way you can hear how different approaches to panning backup vocals lead to different effects.
Example: Free Fallin’
Listen again to the backup vocals in Free Fallin’. There are several backup vocal tracks layered there. It’s hard to tell how many. But they are spread across the stereo field- my guess is that some hard center, some panned a little, and some hard-panned. The result is backup vocals that sound wide, “huge” and attention-grabbing. When they sing that single phrase “Ventura Boulevard” around 1:39 the backup vocals seem to take over the entire sound for a moment. And when the backups are added to the chorus later in the song, they provide a huge lift that keeps the song moving forward.
Example: For The Longest Time
Now try Billy Joel’s excellent For The Longest Time, a doo-wop send-up that outdoes most doo-wop. Most people aren’t aware that other than an electric bass and percussion, everything you hear is Billy Joel’s own vocals- there are supposedly 14 vocal tracks in the arrangement, all Billy Joel himself!
The lead vocals in For The Longest Time are dead center, but the backups are spread naturally. I’d wager that the production is meant to imitate the experience of standing in a room facing 14 vocalists singing in harmony. None of the harmonies are panned hard, but they are spread naturally across the stereo field. You can hear this whenever a track ad-libs, sometimes more in the right channel, sometimes more in the left.
Example: Bohemian Rhapsody
For yet another approach, check out the intro in Bohemian Rhapsody. Queen vocal harmonies have a unique sound, and they actually have a unique production process to match. Each vocal “harmony” is actually all four band members recording a vocal part in unison. So essentially, a 3-part Queen harmony involves all four members of Queen singing the 3-part harmony. In the intro to Bohemian Rhapsody, the central vocal harmony is also panned center. The low harmony is hard-panned left, and the high harmony is hard-panned right. Panning is used to further artistic effect: “Easy come, easy go” covers the stereo field, then “little high” goes hard left and “little low” goes hard right. And honestly, just listen to the middle operatic part for yourself- there’s too much vocal panning there to list!
Example: Beach Boys
My personal favorite approach to panning backup vocals gives them a huge sound reminiscent of the Beach Boys. Record each vocal harmony two or three times. If you recorded two takes of each part, pan one hard left and one hard right. If you record three, leave the final one in the center. This is a similar approach that many people use with rhythm acoustic and electric guitar (including the acoustic guitar in Free Fallin.’) Recording the same part twice, and hard panning them opposite each other. The slight variations in each take create a spacious, powerful feeling when panned across the stereo field.
Panning Doubled Lead Vocals
Perhaps you have heard of doubled lead vocals? This has been an extremely popular technique since the 1960s. For a modern example, check out songs from Taylor Swift’s album 1989 like Blank Space. You know, the “Starbucks Lovers” song? (the actual lyric is “got a long list of ex-lovers. My favorite take was my spacey friend, who thought the lyric was “Starbucks lovers” because the barista writes your name in the blank space on the Starbucks cup. That killed me.)
Solo vs Doubled Lead Vocals
Blank Space is an amazing crash course in doubled lead vocals, done effectively. The song alternates between solo lead vocals, doubled lead vocals, and doubled lead vocals with harmony. Although the song’s instrumental is quite minimal, this technique effectively adds loads of expression and life to the arrangement.
The very first lyric “Nice to / Meet you / Where you / Been?” is doubled, with multiple Taylors singing the lyrics in unison, matching timing and pitch as closely as possible. The next line “I could show you incredible things” is suddenly solo. This doubled-versus-singled vocal effect is intentionally contrasted, and the pattern repeats throughout the verse.
Then, in the chorus, even more lead vocal tracks are stacked in unison. Despite the fact that harmonies are minimal or nonexistent, the chorus sounds huge and powerful as a result.
Panning Doubled Lead Vocals
When it comes to doubled lead vocals, panning approaches vary. The most important advice here- whatever you try, check the mono playback! The wrong approach can completely change the character of the lead vocals, making them sound weak or odd, when the entire point is to make them clear and powerful.
If you have recorded three lead vocal takes of a chorus, try putting one center, one left and one right. The center lead should probably be a much higher gain than the two panned doubles. This way, the doubles add, without risking changing character through odd phenomena like phasing and comb filtering issues. With lead vocals, I recommend nailing the timing to the greatest extent possible. You may even try flex-editing the panned doubles to make the timing more precise. The work is worthwhile- precisely-timed vocal doubles seem to explode from the speakers.
When panning vocals doubles, there are as many approaches as the day is long. The only hard and fast rule I recommend is to keep the “true lead” in the center. You can record five takes, and pan them 100% L, 33% L, center, 33% R, and 100% right.
More Lead Vocal Panning Techniques
Here are some other approaches you can try:
After panning vocal doubles, add different levels of effects to the doubles (but not the lead.) For example, shift the pitch up or down slightly. Shift the formant instead, or as well. Delay one side slightly. Try chorus or flanger effects. Put different reverbs on the doubles.
Try raising the volume of the doubles relative to the lead when the instrumental is very loud and saturated (for example, if you are singing over distorted guitars or massive synths.) And then in quiet and minimal sections, have the vocal doubles relatively quieter.
Duplicating Lead Vocals
You actually don’t even need to sing lead vocals more than once to double them. Duplicating a track and making no other alterations sounds identical to the original- it will just be louder. But after duplicating a track, try some of effects I mentioned above- shifting pitch, formant, chorus effect, etc. Or try slamming the double unnaturally through an autotune. By changing the character of the duplicate, it can be used effectively as a vocal double.
As I said, there are so many options here that all I can do is get you started with ideas. There are countless ways to use panning and vocal doubles in your tracks.
The Beatles: One More Don’t
One more note: In the 2009 remaster of A Hard Day’s Night, the lead vocals are doubled, and hard-panned left and right, with no central track. This is yet another example of “panning the Beatles did that you shouldn’t do.” This only works because early Beatles actually has very rough and amateurish vocal doubling throughout. You can go back through their early albums and find dozens of examples where the timing is really off, and even a few examples where there are mistakes, and the singer sings different words in the two lead vocal tracks. Early Beatles tracks have a “charmingly naive” quality, and I’d say lofi genres like garage and psychedelic rock are the only situations where you can get away with this today.
Vocals are important. Very few purely-instrumental tracks are popular on a broad scale. Panning is powerful. Take any modern track and switch it between mono and stereo as it plays back- the difference is shocking, as the stereo version feels 4x the size.
Using these two basic principles, it’s not surprising that effective vocal panning can really do wonders on a track. By learning how to pan backup vocals and doubled lead vocals effectively, you can seriously up your producer game and create professional-sounding tracks. If you are struggling to find the sweet spot, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional mixing and mastering service. These services can be more affordable than you’d expect, while also being a powerful tool to learn by example. Keep working, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.