Ever write a song with 17 simultaneous guitar lines? Layer upon layer of guitardome (bassdome? keyboardome?) played over the same spot of time can make a real sonic mess. How 'bout those big fat rhythm guitars... want to get them fatter? Mo' bass, please?
Before we begin, let's take some time to do a little analog to digital conversion, shall we? We're going to convert pan knob positions (from a mixing console.. the real kind you can turn, tweak, fondle, etc.) with numeric values from 0-127: zero being hard left, 127 hard right, 64 being dead center. This is for DAW, sequencer, and anyone who is mixing in the digital/virtual realm. If you've got a trusty ol' Mackie 1604, then you can skip the number mumbo jumbo. Either way, I'll be referring pan positions via the trusty "o'clock" method: 12 Noon is center/64; 8 o'clock is 0; 4 o'clock is 127... geddit? Got it? Good.
Stereo drum kits are an easy way to spread out your mix. Your best bet is to leave the kick and snare centered. Try panning your hat @ 11 o'clock, and your ride @ 1 o'clock. Multiple crashes can be spread around the same area (11 thru 2). You probably don't want to pan your toms TOO much, as this may take away from the fill making it sound like it's played sloppily. Numerically, I space my toms (I've use 5) 60, 62, 64, 66, and 68. Not much, but keeps the tom fills from sitting on each other. Besides... your stereo drum reverb should cover the hard left/right portion of the spectrum. Actually, check out Sonic Foundry's Acoustic Mirror for some bad-ass realistic rooms.
Here's one for ya.... (works exceptionally well if you've got a 5 string) Record your bass track, then double track it playing it up 1 octave, or down 1 octave (low D, C, B...etc). Now pan both tracks @ 11:45 and 12:15 (60 & 68 numerically). If you've got a "swiss army bass preamp" (a la Line 6 Bass Pod), use 2 different patches as well: their "1B Dr. Dre" patch is AWESOME for low frequency stuff.
The easiest way to get big phat rhythm guitar tracks is to double track your part, and pan each hard left & hard right. For even bigger tones, record a third track (use a different amp model/tone), and place it @ noon in your mix, but not as loud as the L/R tracks. If you've ever had 2 riffs to play simultaneously (the main riff, and an accent/syncopated track), place the main @ 8 & 4 o'clock, and the accent track @ 9 and 3 o'clock (16 & 111). This will keep the riff from becoming too muddy.
So, we've talked about rhythm tracks, but what happens if you have too many ideas going on in the song? Too many layered tracks? Carefully placing the licks/melody lines within the stereo field (maybe with a bit of creative eq as well) will keep the instruments from stepping on each other. This really doesn't happen often if you're just doing drums, 1 bass, 1 rhythm guitar, and 1 solo (that situation is prime for freaky whacked-out panning/spacial effects, though!), but if you're double tracking rhythms, adding sub-harmonic bass lines, keyboards, melodies and guitar solos, AND vocals... it can be mud city.
Remember that just slightly altering the pan position of a track can help isolate it from the mix. If you mix everything hard left, hard right, and center, then you are not utilizing the entire stereo spread... but letting the tracks play on top of each other, kinda like making a sonic sandwich. Spread 'em out a bit.
Experiment. Be creative. Think outside the box.
Joe Bochar is an original guitarist originally from Rhode Island. When he's not playing with his guitar or Lego's, Joe can be found wandering the streets of Los Angeles, pedaling crack to lonesome, down and out 3-legged mice who suffer from fromagaphobia.
His latest project is "X", a self-produced instrumental guitar CD release.
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