If you've been into music production for a while, you've probably heard of LCR panning and how much some people love it. While the concept is fairly straightforward, there are a few interesting points I'd like to share in regard to LCR, so if you want to dive deep, you've come to the right place!
What is LCR panning? LCR stands for Left Centre Right, and LCR panning is a framework for panning tracks within our mixes where we can choose to pan our tracks hard left, centre or hard right. In theory, LCR gives us maximum contrast for stereo width while maintaining strong mono compatibility.
In this article, we'll dive deep into LCR panning, its benefits, and whether or not you should be utilizing it in your mixes.
I also have a video explaining LCR panning if you'd prefer video content:
What Is LCR Panning?
As I stated earlier, LCR stands for Left Centre Right.
LCR panning is a framework for panning in which we can pan our tracks hard left (only in the left channel), centre (equal in both channels) or hard right (only in the right channel).
The idea with LCR panning is that we can create maximum separation in the stereo field, thereby creating greater contrast and perceived width in the mix while also maintaining adequate mono compatibility.
We'll touch on width and mono compatibility shortly, but for now, let's discuss the simple basis of LCR panning.
Starting with mono tracks, we can pan them all the way to the left, to the centre or all the way to the right.
Moving on to stereo tracks, these tracks have two channels (a left and right) and naturally have hard-left and hard-right panning. Although we could technically collapse these tracks to mono, remove a channel (thereby leaving only the left or right channel) or pan one channel to the opposite side (to collapse everything to one side), it's generally best to leave stereo tracks alone.
The thing about stereo tracks, however, is that there are typically a lot of similarities between the left and right channels. This is fine, as the goal of LCR panning isn't to absolutely maximize the differences between the left and right channels — having “in-between” information is important as well.
So far, we have our mono tracks panned either left, centre or right, and our stereo tracks covering their natural width in the mix. Next, we need to consider our effects.
Like our mono audio tracks, our mono effects return channels ought to be panned left, centre or right. Same-side or opposite-side reverbs and delays sound great and can help solidify a track's directionality or add a greater sense of space, respectively.
Stereo effects, particularly reverb, can be used in LCR to help fill out the stereo spectrum in the “in-between”. In fact, stereo effects are an important part of LCR mixing for this very reason.
So that's what LCR panning is. Now before we move on to its benefits and how we may want to go about using it, let's consider the alternative: what I call “intermediate panning”.
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What Is Intermediate Panning?
Intermediate panning is a strategy where we can pan our tracks wherever we'd like across the stereo panorama. Elements can be panned anywhere from hard left to hard right, giving us many more options for directionality.
If we want to get technical, it also means that we can narrow the stereo image of stereo tracks to bring certain elements inward toward the centre.
As we pan a track from the centre to one side or the other, the ratio of that signal being sent to each channel changes. It's still the same information, but more of it is being sent to one channel than the other.
I'll be discussing the practical differences between LCR and intermediate panning as I make my way through the rest of the sections in this article.
LCR Panning And Its Effect On Width
LCR panning is often preferred thanks to its ability to create strong, wide mixes.
Width is made possible in stereo mixes thanks to the left and right channels, which coincide with our left and right ears. We can naturally detect the direction of a sound in real-world environments, and stereo mixes tap into that.
As a caveat here, I should mention that I'll be assuming that the listener is in an “ideal” location to listen to the stereo mix. That is, he or she is equidistant from the left and right channel playback sources (speakers or headphones) and can, therefore, hear both channels equally well. And even then, with speakers and real environments, the right ear will hear what's coming out of the left speaker just like the left ear will hear what's coming out of the right speaker. In closed-back headphones, we can get much closer to actually separating the two stereo channels, which is why headphones tend to make mixes sound wider, but I digress.
With that out of the way, width is essentially caused by the differences between the left and right channels. However, we still need a strong centre image (elements that are equal in both channels) in order to have a mix worth listening to — to achieve the maximum difference between the left and right channels, we would need the same waveform only with the polarity flipped, which is a recipe for disaster in terms of phase cancellation.
And so we find ourselves in a spot where we need enough difference between the stereo channels without too much difference. LCR can help us with that, and to understand what we need a bit better, let's consider phase correlation meters.
Your digital audio workstation should come with a stock phase correlation meter that you can insert of your mix bus to better understand the phase relationship between the left and right stereo channels of the mix.
A phase correlation meter's scale spans continuously from -1 to +1 (or from 180º to 0º).
At +1, we have 100% correlation between the channels (they are exactly the same).
At 0, we have the “widest permissible left/right divergence” or the widest permissible stereo image.
At -1, our left and right channels are completely out of phase and will completely cancel each other out.
So to get a nice, wide mix, we want our correlation meter to read between 0 and +1, and the closer we can hover around 0, the wider the mix will be.
With LCR panning, we get the benefit of a strong centre thanks to the inability to pan things “just off-centre”, along with the width that comes from hard-panning to the left and right.
With nothing panned intermediately, we won't have any tracks that have different amounts being sent to each of the stereo channels. This is a major benefit in achieving width as we get more contrast between the mix channels and the mix elements themselves.
We might intuit that intermediate panning would give us wider mixes, and we can pan each element to a specific location and effectively fill up the stereo spectrum with information.
However, width is really about contrast, and so having several elements hard-panned left, several elements hard-panned right, and a majority (in most cases) panned to the centre is a better bet.
I discuss width in greater detail in my article How To Make Your Mixes More Dimensional (3 D’s Of Mixing).
LCR Panning And Its Effect On Mono Compatibility
Mono compatibility is the ability for a stereo mix to hold together and still sound good when it's summed to mono for mono playback (common on PA systems, Bluetooth speakers, smartphone speakers, and other playback systems).
When we sum a stereo mix together, we combine the left and right channels and divide the output level by two. That's simple enough.
But what ends up happening is the centre energy remains at the same level while the differences in the left and right channels drop in level. This drop is caused primarily by the halving of the output but also because any information that between the left and right that is completely out of phase will be completely cancelled out in the summing process.
So how does LCR panning help with mono compatibility? Well, let's compare it, once again, to intermediate panning.
With intermediate panning, we'll often pan tracks “slightly” off-centre or anywhere else between the centre and the extremes. This helps us get a bit of separation in the stereo mix by reducing the competition in a given “direction”.
However, it also changes the level balance of the panned track between the left and right channels, so when we sum the mix to mono, the output of a panned track will now effectively by the average of its levels in the two channels divided by two.
I hope that makes sense. Remember that we're adding the left and right channels together and then halving their output.
So everything that's panned off-centre by a varying amount will have its level come down by a varying amount. This means that the alteration to the balance of tracks will be greater than if the off-centre-panned tracks were simply kept in the centre, to begin with (a major benefit of LCR).
In general, the less the mix balance is altered when played back in mono, the better the mono compatibility.
To learn more about the importance of mono compatibility, check out my articles Mixing: What Is Mono Compatibility & Why Is It Important? and What Does Summing To Mono Mean? (Audio & Mixing).
Should You Be Using LCR Panning In Your Mixes?
Now that we understand what LCR panning is and what its benefits are, we need to ask ourselves the question, “Should we be using LCR panning?”
Well, it's great for contrast, width and mono compatibility, so if you're interested in those qualities, it's a great option.
I personally like LCR because it makes the panning decision process nice and easy. If it's a critical element for the energy of the song, it goes in the centre. If it's something I want wide, it's either hard left or hard right.
We can spend a lot of time trying to tweak the exact pan positions of our tracks with intermediate panning, only to have the balance fall apart in mono, so LCR is a massive time and energy saver there.
When using LCR panning, we need to be aware of the amount of energy we're panning to each side and to keep the energy levels balanced. Failing to do so will lead to a lopsided mix, which is never a good thing, holistically speaking.
In sparse mixes, LCR panning can give us a massive amount of contrast and width. A record that stands out to me is Machine Head by Deep Purple, where the rhythm guitar and keyboard are hard-panned to opposite sides for much of the album.
In dense mixes, LCR panning can help give us some much-needed separation and contrast for width and clarity.
However, we may not want to use LCR panning, and that's fine, too. There's nothing inherently wrong with a more intermediate approach, though I did want to discuss a few of the benefits of LCR in this article.
A Hybrid Panning Approach
Personally, I generally apply a hybrid approach when mixing in stereo. I really dig the concept of LCR panning, but sometimes I want elements panned a bit narrowed or even just off-centre.
I'll often think of the mix in terms of width ranges, where I have the extreme hard left/hard right width, a semi-wide width (may panning 50% either way) and, of course, the centre image. I always do my best to balance the energy in each of these width ranges to avoid a lopsided mix.
In doing so, I can have most of my elements holding a strong centre, some elements mixed wide and then some other elements mixed really wide. I also only have to really worry about 2 level changes when summing to mono (the halving of the hard-panned elements and the roughly 1/4 reduction of the 50% panned elements).
And in some cases, I'll choose to pan certain elements slightly off-centre, like the hi-hats, for example, just to get them off the centre line, since I'm not overly concerned with any small changes that happen to them in the balance when the mix is summed to mono.
So to recap, I like the hybrid approach where the concepts of LCR panning guide my decisions, but I afford myself the creativity to pan intermediately if I feel the need to in the mix.
I encourage you to try out LCR panning for yourself and, as always, to experiment with a variety of ideas to find what's best for you and the mixes you work on!
How do I get more clarity in my mix? Here are 10 tips for greater clarity in your mixes:
- Get the balance right
- Keep spatial effects relatively quiet
- Reduce frequency masking
- Use panning for separation
- Clean up the low end
- Pay special attention to the “muddy” low-mid frequencies
- Maintain transients (don't over-compress)
- Add presence with saturation
- Boost a little bit of brilliance or air
- Consider sidechain compression
To learn more about improving the clarity of your mix, check out my article Top 10 Tips For Greater Clarity In Your Mixes.
How do I get more depth in my mix? Here are a few strategies to help get more depth in your mixes:
- Levels balance (louder is closer)
- Top-end boosts/cuts (brighter is closer)
- Reverb (drier is closer)
- Compressor attack times (more transient is closer)
- Automating the depth of tracks and the mix as a whole
I talk about depth in much more detail in my article How To Make Your Mixes More Dimensional (3 D’s Of Mixing).