PreSonus Blog

Percussion in Motion

I’m a fan of hand percussion. Tambourines, cowbells, claves, guiros…you name it. But mixing it just right is always tricky. When mixed too high, the percussion becomes a distraction. Too low, and it might as well not be there. The object is to find the sweet spot between those extremes.

My solution is simple: use X-Trem’s Autopan function to give motion to percussion. The following audio example has cowbell (no jokes, please) and tambourine. The cowbell keeps a rock-solid hit on quarter notes, and is panned to an equally rock-solid center. But the tambourine is a different story. I’ve mixed both of them higher than normal, so you can clearly hear how they interact.

In the first half, both the tambourine and cowbell are panned to center. After a brief gap, the section repeats, with X-Trem moving the tambourine back and forth in the stereo field. In a real mix, both percussion parts would be mixed lower, so the tambourine’s motion would be something you sensed rather than heard. The end result is a feeling of more motion with the percussion, because the tambourine’s wanderings keep it from becoming repetitive.

X-Trem Setup

First things first: the track must be stereo. If you recorded it in mono, set the Channel Mode to stereo, select the clip, and type ctrl+B to bounce the clip to itself. This converts it to stereo.

I prefer not to have a regular, detectable panning change. A random LFO waveform would be ideal, but the X-Trem’s 16 Steps waveform is equally good. Slower pan rates are better, because you don’t want the pan position to change so fast that a percussion hit pans while it’s still sustaining or playing. I’d recommend 2 beats (changes every 1/8th note, as in the audio example) or every 4 beats for slower tempos or percussion that sustains.

Draw a pattern that’s as close as possible to seeming random (fig. 1). This prevents the panning from becoming repetitive. 


Figure 1: The 16 Steps option lets you create a custom LFO waveform.


If you want the panning to move around the center, fine—pan the track to center, and you’re done. But if you want the panning to move (for example) between hard left and center, remember that the pan control becomes a balance control in stereo. So if X-Trem pans the audio more toward the right, it will become quieter. To get around this, pan the channel to center, but follow the X-Trem with a Dual Pan that sets the actual panning range. Fig. 2 shows settings for panning between the left and center, while maintaining a constant level. 

Figure 2: Dual Pan settings for varying the auto-panned position between the left and center.

As to the amount of X-Trem modulation depth…it depends. If you’ve been to my seminars where I talk about “the feel factor” with drum parts, you may recall that I like to keep the kick right on the beat, and change timings around it. A similar concept holds true with panning percussion. In the audio example, the cowbell is the anchor, and the tambourine dances around it. If both are moving, the parts can become a distraction rather than an enhancement.

Now you know how to make your percussion parts tickle the listener’s ears just a little bit more…and given the audio example, I’m proud of all of you for not stooping to a “more cowbell” joke!