Drum Panning: A Beginner's Guide

Drum Panning: A Beginner's Guide Drum Panning: A Beginner's Guide

Though we tend to focus heavily on tools like EQ and compression, one of the most important tools for getting a great drum mix is also one of the simplest. I'm talking about the pan pot .

Drum panning is a fundamental skill that can dramatically shape the sound of your tracks, though it can change drastically based on the genre and style you're working in.

For that reason, we've made this beginner's guide to drum panning to demystify the process and give you the knowledge to confidently lock down your drum spacing!

What Is Panning?

Panning refers to the distribution of sound within the stereo or surround sound field.

We use panning to position the elements in the mix, such as drums in this case, to create a sense of spatial location and depth and emulate how sounds are perceived in a natural setting.

By adjusting the pan control in your DAW, you can move sounds from the center to the left or right speakers, or anywhere in between, effectively placing instruments within the stereo field.

When it comes to panning, understanding pan law is key.

This principle dictates how signal levels are managed when audio is panned between two channels. The pan law compensates for the increase in perceived loudness that occurs when a sound is positioned centrally (mono) compared to when it is panned to one side.

Different DAWs and mixing consoles may apply different pan law settings, which typically range from -3dB to -6dB. This adjustment ensures that as a sound is moved across the stereo field, its overall level in the mix remains consistent, so that the center positions don't sound disproportionately loud.

Choosing a Perspective

One of the first decisions you'll want to make when panning drums is choosing between the drummer perspective and the audience perspective .

In essence, you want to determine the directional placement of your drums right off the bat.

This will shape how listeners perceive the drum kit's spatial orientation.

From the drummer's perspective, you'll pan the drums as if you're sitting behind the drum set, with the hi-hat typically on the left, the floor tom on the right, and other elements distributed accordingly.

On the other hand, if you pan from the audience perspective, it'll reverse this arrangement, mirroring what an audience would hear during a live performance, with the hi-hat on the right and the floor tom on the left, for example.

Keeping the Kick Drum Centered

Keeping the kick drum centered is a pretty widely adopted practice (and low-end in general).

Think of the kick drum as the heartbeat of your track. It should be there to provide the foundation and drive the rhythm forward. By positioning it in the center, you make sure the power and impact of the kick are evenly distributed across both speakers or headphones, delivering a cohesive and forceful presence that anchors the entire mix.

This is also crucial for preventing phase issues and keeping a punchy, strong low-end in genres where it matters most, like rock, pop, hip-hop, and EDM.

Panning the Snare

While I usually keep my snares relatively centered to keep things impactful, there is more room for creative decisions in a mix with snare than kick drum.

For example, you might place the snare slightly off-center to add a natural sense of width. I like to do this with acoustic drums, as it gives the drums a more dynamic feel. Even 3L or 3R can make a big difference.

Just don't go too far off the center, or you might lose impact.

Panning Toms and Overheads

Next, I'll move onto panning the toms and overheads. The method you choose here can completely alter the sound of your drums and take you either closer to or further away from a realistic stereo image.

From a natural standpoint, toms are typically panned according to their physical placement around the drum kit, from left to right, mimicking how they would be heard in a live performance. Think of an 80s drum mix with massive tom fills that sweep from the left to right speaker. It's great to add a three-dimensional quality to drum rolls and fills!

You also have to pay attention to the overheads in this case.

In modern mixes, overheads are often panned wide to reflect the actual spread of the drum set. This is a great method if you want a spacious, airy drum sound that captures the shimmering highs of cymbals but also assists in gluing together the individual drum parts to deliver a realistic representation of the acoustic environment.

Panning Hi-Hats and Cymbals

Last, I'll approach the close mics for my hi-hats and cymbals, if I have any.

If I'm going for a realistic stereo image, I'll often pan my hi-hats slightly to the left or right, depending on the chosen perspective (drummer or audience perspective). This panning emulates their natural placement on a physical drum kit to add a sense of realism. Plus, it slightly separates the hats from the centered elements, like the kick and snare.

Similarly, close-miked cymbals, like rides or crashes, are panned to reflect their actual positions relative to the rest of the kit. The best way to determine where to pan these elements is by listening to where they are in the stereo image of the overhead mics.

Panning Drums for Different Genres

Of course, panning drums isn't just a technical thing. You have to make creative decisions based on the style of the track you're working on.

Panning for Rock and Metal

In rock and metal, you want your drum kit to be the backbone of your mix.

When it comes to panning drums in these genres, you want to emphasize a powerful, upfront drum sound. In this case, you might keep the kick and snare positioned in the center to keep them sounding as dominant as possible.

In modern rock or metal, it's good to pan toms across the stereo field to get that live feel. As for hi-hats and cymbals, you can either keep them relatively centered to keep them out of the way of your stereo spread guitars or take them outside to give your mix more breadth.

Panning for Jazz or Acoustic Genres

In jazz or other natural acoustic genres, you want an organic sound.

Drum panning can play a significant role here. In these genres, it's a good idea to take a more nuanced approach to panning. While the kick may still hold a central position, the snare, hi-hats, toms, and cymbals should pan out in the stereo field to reflect their live arrangement and give the listener a realistic sense of space.

Overheads should be your main focus here, as they'll capture the overall atmosphere of the kit and allow you to pan every individual element underneath.

If you want to go for a more vintage sound, you can keep your drums slightly narrowed.

Panning for Electronic Music

While there are certainly standards for more traditional genres like the two above, when it comes to electronic music, you have more of an opportunity to break barriers. In many ways, you can get away with just about any form of panning. The only key here is to make sure that your drums sound balanced in a way that doesn't feel lopsided.

I like to use automation in electronic music as well. In a jazz or folk track, you might keep your hi-hat panned to one place the entire time to keep everything sounding as natural as possible. However, in an electronic mix, you can experiment with auto-panning to create movement between the left and right channels. You can also experiment with stacking elements on top of one another and panning them in different directions.

For example, you might have your main snare drum in the center and two different snare drums panned off to the left and right.

Final Thoughts - Learning How to Pan Drums Like a Pro

Regardless of what kind of genre you're working in, keeping your stereo image interesting will help your listeners stay engaged. Beyond volume control (making sure your volume level remains constant), panning should be one of your main focuses when mixing drums.

Listen to references to see how some of your favorite mix engineers pan drums and go from there.

Bring your songs to life with professional quality mastering, in seconds!