I am fascinated with the evolution of the sound of popular music. In my early studio days, there was a push to make recordings that sounded enhanced, but still adhered to a sense of reality.

The focus seemed to be on creating an end result that felt almost live, as though we were front-row spectators of a stage performance, and our decisions as engineers worked to achieve that.

But the sound of music and recordings shifted. They became more compressed, and arrangements became denser, and as a result mixes were pushed wider to create space in the all-important centre.

It was around this time that more and more mixing engineers subscribed to LCR mixing techniques, which is also called LCR panning. The ‘LCR’ stands for ‘Left-Centre-Right’, which refers to the mixing process of panning to only those three positions.

Interestingly enough, early mixing consoles often didn’t even have pan pots, but rather just had LCR switches. Mono was still the format of choice at the time so having only three positions for stereo recordings likely even seemed excessive. So even though LCR mixing might seem like an innovation, we are in a sense mimicking the past. That said, LCR mixing has evolved from a necessity into a technique.

On the surface, the technique is quite simple: LCR mixing purists commit to never using any other position on the pan pot other than hard left, centre or hard right. In this, vocals, solos, snare, kick, and bass occupy the centre and everything else gets placed either hard left or hard right. On occasion something like a high harmony might find its way into the centre as well, but usually that defeats the point of the technique: to clear space for the lead vocal or focal instrument.

There are also residual benefits of the LCR mixing technique, though. The biggest one is that elements like guitars and synths can be really pushed out front without sacrificing vocal clarity or power in the kick and snare. Those side elements can also extend slightly more into the lower frequencies because there isn’t the same fight for space with the kick and bass.

Problems do arise, however, when LCR mixing is treated like gospel. It’s difficult to balance a mix that hasn’t been arranged to have mirroring elements in the stereo field. A musical part on one side of the mix really needs a counterpart on the other side of the mix so as to not feel like the song is pulling your head completely to one side. For this reason, you’ll often have to put elements like percussion, toms, overheads, etc. into the ‘in-between’ panning positions.

Other than those elements, LCR doctrine states that you stick to LCR panning. So how do you deal with arrangements that don’t have mirroring elements?

Here are a few tactics:

  • Add a delay to an instrument then pan the delay to the opposite side of the instrument itself
  • Coupled with the delay trick above, pitch-shift the delay for added variation. Plug-ins like Waves Doubler, SoundToys MicroShift, or any other emulation of the Eventide H3000 will do both the delay and pitch-shifting in one plug-in
  • Also coupled with the delay technique, try EQing, compressing, or distorting the delayed track differently than the source itself
  • If the song calls for it, you can even go so far as to take an element from another section of the song and move it over to the ‘unbalanced section’, panning the new element opposite, as per usual

My personal LCR mixing approach begins by mixing the mono centre elements in true mono, if possible (so not via a phantom centre). This allows me to get the focal elements in place before moving to the sides. I mostly use mono reverbs in the centre, which helps glue the mix together, but I’ll throw in variations on this for interest. A lot of these sorts of decisions tend to depend on how dense a mix is.

All that said, I don’t exclusively mix LCR, but it certainly helps with music that is trying to sound modern. Critics of the LCR mixing technique say that it’s too limiting or too dramatic, and perhaps it is in some cases, but it’s used so often that it’s become the sound of popular music. Besides, I tend to favour the dramatic when I mix. I suppose the only thing that is really debatable is whether this technique is the evolution of the sound of popular music or just reinventing the past.

What do you think?

Ryan’s website: www.bitcrushing.com

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