If the preamp and EQ sections are dedicated to how the raw tone is polished, the faders and pan pots are the tools we rely on to control the relative volume of a sound source and its location within the stereo field. It’s no accident that these controls fall to the bottom of the channel strip, within reach; they are the objects that are prodded, slid, tweaked and swept most often by our fingers.
In our final chapter in the channel strip series, we explore the all important panning controls and faders: the keys tools to create space and dynamics in a mix.
Like the auxiliary section, the pan pots and fader don’t sculpt the tone as such – they are simply ways to route the sound. That’s not to say that they can’t be clever – there is scarcely another facet in the art of mixing that requires the nuance and skill called upon to operate a fader. In this final instalment of our exploration of the channel strip, we’ll look at how panning plays a significant role in creating space in a mix, how faders can be manipulated, subgroups and the all important master fader.
Panorama of Sound
Unless you fundamentally adhere to 1950s recording techniques, or haven’t updated your recorded collection since the middle of the last century, you’re bound to have experienced music in stereo – in headphones, hifi systems, car sound systems, televisions, movie theatres and more. Having a left and right channel working independently means that different sounds can be assigned throughout the field, opening up space within a mix of sounds for exciting elements to shine through.
As the tracks in a session stack up, the options for panning increase and the possibilities become rather mind-boggling. And while there are no unbreakable rules in this field, there are some well-established techniques for sensible panning that translates well in a variety of environments.
In rock and pop mixes it’s safe to assume that the more important the sound is, the more likely it is to find itself in the middle of the stereo field. Imagine how disconcerting it would be to find a lead vocal panned to the right of a mix. It would have less presence and would definitely lose its place atop the hierarchy of sounds working together to capture your attention.
Another accepted rule-of-thumb is to place the bassier, grounding elements in a mix in the middle too. The theory being that the kick drum and the bass guitar for example create a solid foundation on which the mix can be built and thus are apt to perceived right in the middle.
For other more ethereal mix elements, panning preferences tend to be more subjective. Higher pitched and smaller sounds take on intriguing new characters when placed judiciously throughout the stereo spectrum. In DAWs, automating panning is a breeze, so creating movement of differing extremes across the stereo field can build a sense of dynamism in a mix that is thick with sonic layers.
In cinema world, the sonic elements are designed to be even more immersive. With 5.1 surround sound, not only are there the stereo left and right options, there is also middle, back left and right and a subwoofer. Therefore, many more panning options. The Dolby Atmos protocol even incorporates height controls in panning, creating a sonic landscape that is all encompassing for cinematic, gaming and musical experience.
Hands On Mixing With Faders
Faders control the output a channel strip and thus have to be pushed up for a sound to be heard. The fader on the channel usually feeds the master fader by default (this assignment can be changed, more on that later) and the master fader controls the output to the loudspeakers.
Assuming the master fader is at a reasonable level, the mix of sounds you hear is controlled by the relative levels of the channel strip faders (push up the fader on the guitar channel if you want more of that, pull down the fader keyboard if you want less of that). The master fader will then control the level of the overall mix of sounds.
Creating a subgroup of channels is a commonsense approach to creating logical families of sound within a larger mix. On a console, it’s not uncommon to have many channels dedicated to the drum kit for example. So it makes sense to have a subgroup fader that can give an engineer access to the volume of the whole drum kit, instead of having to control ten or more faders at the same time.
Consoles often have numbered assignment buttons that correspond to subgroup faders. If one of the buttons is selected, say number one in this case, it will send the signal to the subgroup one rather than the master fader. This subgroup fader then feeds the master fader.
Subgroups come into their own when dealing with larger mixes. In DAW projects, it’s not uncommon to have upwards of one hundred individual tracks in a commercial pop mix. Grouping tracks into sonically appropriate families (drums, guitars, vocals and synths to name a few examples) becomes essential to create coherence in a complex soundscape.
Stereo Bus Effects
Subgroup faders are also typically stereo. This makes sense because the panning of the individual channels that feed the subgroup maintain their place in the stereo field, just as they would if they were being sent directly to the master fader. Sending channels to stereo groups also offers up the advantage of being able to apply an umbrella effect to the group. This is a favourite technique among mixers – every engineer would be able to list their “go to” stereo bus compressor for example.
“Stereo bus” is the collective term for stereo subgroup channels and master faders, but are usually treated differently in terms of effects. For a subgroup, the effects chain is likely to have a more drastic implications for its tonal character. For example, if a “slamming” sound is wanted for the drum kit, a aggressively set compressor, feeding a saturation plugin might do the trick. If you apply that effect to the master fader, you’ll be slamming the entire mix, which of course is much less desirable.
Master fader, or mix bus effects tend toward subtlety – gentle compression, for “gluing” a mix, or peak limiting for catching nasty transients before they cause distortion.
For such an unassuming presence, pan pots and faders (both physical and virtual) present the mixer with a vast array of options. They control the perceived space and dynamic in a mix and have the power to elicit surprising and compelling emotional response.
The way they are controlled, with a twist from left to right, a push up and pull down are simple and profound. More than any other component of the console, they provide the mix engineer a fluid, dynamic control of a complex mix of sonic elements.