Pan: The secret to a natural and big sounding beat is that of sound placement.
I am confronted more and more with demos that have the snare panned to one side of the stereo field. I cannot for the life of me begin to understand why anyone would pan a snare sound hard right or left bearing in mind that all the ‘drive’ sounds are centrally placed. The bass is always central, the kick is always central and so is the snare. Some very subtle variances in placement can take place for the snare depending on what effect is being applied but even taking this into account the snare is never panned either side of the stereo field by much.
The general rules governing drum sound placements are quite simple. You have either the stage field view of the drum kit or the audience view. Either way, the drum kit has the kick placed centrally, the hi hats and pedal hats just off centre and the snare central. Percussive sounds can be placed anywhere in the field as long as they sound balanced and are not biased by too much. Balance is achieved by spreading frequencies across the field so as to achieve a natural sounding spectral field. Otherwise, the brain starts to bias it’s listening and there is no quicker way to throw a track into imbalance than by badly panning opposing and complimentary frequencies. There is no point in placing all the tom drums on one side of the field, same as you would not put all the hi hats, crashes and high frequencies on one side. You need to spread frequencies so the brain enjoys the experience and does not compartmentalise the individual sounds.
Extreme panning does not help either. Having a hi hat panned hard right not only sounds wrong but will play havoc with the gains of the other sounds.
A sound that is panned centrally will always sound quieter than the same sound panned hard right or left. So, bear that in mind when moving low or high frequency sounds around in the field. However, this can change depending on what settings you have adopted in your DAW's pan-law.
We producers have loads of other nice little tricks to make sounds sound bigger without having to compromise their field positioning. By using certain effects and dynamics, we can emphasise spread (width) and depth. Delays, gated reverbs, Middle and Side (M/s), side-chained compressors etc can all be used to great effect in accomplishing a desired outcome.
Understanding how a drum kit is set up on stage is the first step in understanding where to pan certain sounds. The rest is down to how the brain perceives sound and throwing low frequencies to one side and high frequencies to the other side is a sure fire way of imbalancing a mix. Experiment but keep it sensible. Think from a drummer’s perceptive and then wear the engineers hat and make the sounds form a fluid soundscape that is both natural and pleasing.
Today, we have some excellent tools to both shape and move sound across the axis. Having a crash pan from left to right is a great effect that sits well in the stereo field. Having that same crash sound sitting hard right is not.
Panning drum sounds is science but only to a degree. The rest comes down to subjective decision making and how you preceive your mix.
Be the listener and work from that perspective.