PreSonus Blog

LCR Mixing and Panning Explained

Lately, it seems there’s an increasing buzz about “LCR” mixing. LCR stands for Left, Center, and Right, and it’s a panning technique where all panpots are set to either left, center, or right—nothing in between. Look it up on the internet, and you’ll find polarized opinions that vary from it’s the Holy Grail of mixing, to it’s ridiculous and vaguely idiotic. Well, I’m not polarized, so I’ll give you the bottom line: it can work well in some situations, but not so well in others.

Proponents of this style of mixing claim several advantages:

  • The resulting mixes sound very wide without having to use image processing, because there’s so much energy in the sides.
  • It simplifies mixing decisions, because you don’t have to agonize over stereo placement.
  • Mixes translate well for those not sitting in stereo’s “sweet spot,” because the most important material is panned to the center.
  • It forces you to pay attention to EQ and the arrangement, to make sure there’s good differentiation among instruments panned hard left and hard right.
  • If an LCR mix leaves “holes” in the stereo field, then you can use reverb or other stereo ambience to fill that space. As one example, stereo overhead mics on drums can pan hard left and hard right, yet still fill in a lot of the space in the middle. Or, place reverb in the channel opposite of where a signal is panned.

There are plenty of engineers who prefer LCR mixes for the reasons given above. However, LCR is not a panacea, nor is it necessarily desirable. It also may not fit an artist’s goal. For those who think of music in more symphonic terms—as multiple elements creating a greater whole, to be listened to under optimal conditions—the idea of doing something like panning the woodwinds and brass far left and the violins full right, with orchestral percussion and double bass in the middle, makes no sense. Conversely, if you’re doing a pop mix where you want every element to be distinct, an LCR approach can work well, if done properly.

Then again, some engineers consider a mix to be essentially a variation on mono, because the most important elements are panned to center. They don’t want distractions on the left and right; those elements exist to provide a “frame” around the center.

Another consideration is according to all the stats I’ve seen, these days more people listen on headphones than component system speakers. LCR mixing can sound great at first on headphones due to the novelty, but eventually becomes unnatural and fatiguing. Then again, as depressing a thought as this may be, a disturbingly large part of the population listens to music on computer speakers. Any panning nuances are lost under those conditions, whereas LCR mixing can sound direct and unambiguous.

 

Help Is on the Way!

So what’s a mix engineer to do? Well, a good way to get familiar with LCR is to load up some of your favorite songs into Studio One, and listen to the mid and sides separately. Hearing instruments in the sides tends to imply an LCR mix; Madonna’s “Ray of Light” comes to mind. For a “pure” LCR mix, listen to the original version of Cat Stevens’ “Matthew and Son” on YouTube. It was recorded in 1966 (trivia fans: John Paul Jones, later of Led Zeppelin, played bass). Back then, the limited number of tracks, and mixing console limitations, almost forced engineers into doing LCR. In case you wondered why some songs of that era had the drums in one channel and the bass in the opposite channel…now you know why.

Anyway, it’s easy to do mid-side analysis in Studio One (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Setup for analyzing mid and side components of music.

The Mixtool, with MS Transform selected, encodes a stereo signal into mid (left channel) and sides (right channel). However, it’s difficult to do any meaningful analysis with the mid in one ear and the sides in the other. So, the Dual Pan’s Input Balance control chooses either the mid <L> or sides <R>. The panpots place the chosen audio in the center of the stereo field.

Once you start finding out whether your favorite songs are LCR or mixed more conventionally, it will help you decide what might work best for you. If you decide to experiment with LCR mixing, bear in mind that it kind of lives by its own rules, and it takes some experience to wrap your head around how to get the most out of it.

 

And the Verdict Is…

Well, you can believe whatever you like from what you see on the internet, and more importantly, choose what sounds best to you…but this is my blog post, so here’s what I think 😊. Any and all comments are welcome!

As mentioned in a previous blog post, I always start mixes in mono. I feel this is the best way to find out if sounds mask either other, whether some tracks are redundant because they don’t contribute that much to the arrangement, and which tracks need EQ so they can carve out their own part of the frequency spectrum. That way, whether instruments are on top of each other or spread out, they’ll work well together.

But from there on, I split my approach. I still favor the center and use the sides as a frame, but also selectively choose particular elements (usually rhythm guitar, keyboards, and percussion) to pan off to the left or right so there’s a strong presence in the sides. For me, this gives the best of both worlds: a wide mix with good separation of various elements, but done in service of creating a full mix, without holes in the stereo field. Those who listen on headphones won’t be subjected to an over-exaggerated stereo effect, while those who listen over speakers will have a less critical “sweet spot” than if there was nuanced panning.

I came up with this approach simply because it fits the kind of music I make, and the way I expect most people will listen to it. Only later did I find out I had combined LCR mixing with a more traditional approach, and that underscores the bottom line: all music is different, and there are few—if any—“one-size-fits-all” rules.

Well, with the possible exception of “oil the kick drum pedal before you press record.”

  • Well, the only problem is I don’t follow LCR “rules” too strictly. Nonetheless, if you listen to the music that’s posted on youtube.com/thecraiganderton, especially the recent projects, you’ll hear mixes that come close to LCR. Probably the most “LCR” ones from my latest album, “Take Me Back to Tomorrow,” are I’ve Made Up My Mind and “Emancipation Declaration.

  • Great info. Would love to see more on this topic. Like, an example of a mix you’ve done in LCR and why you panned each instrument or part in the direction you did.

  • Craig Anderton

    Thanks for describing your experience. Less concern about a “sweet spot,” which certainly applies to cars, is one of the main reasons people use LCR. It also seems to translate better over computer speakers as well.

  • Tobo

    So far I’ve had better resulsts on my mixes with LCR. For example: I have a song with a bridge with a toms groove. I use to leave toms either as panned by the software (ssd or sd) or I would pan them say hi tom 50% R, low tom 50% L. Listening on my headphones or studio speakers they would sound nice but on my car they lost punch, they were there but not as loud. I tried the LCR approach (hi tom L, mid tom C and lo tom R) and got better results. I also mix in mono, get a good balance and then spread L, C and R. I watched it in a video but then compared some reference tracks I have and noticed most they were spread very wide, wider than mine. When I played those references in my car I noticed as if there were no instruments in between, they were either L C or R. On my mixes I can also hear everything clearer and now they traduce better to different equipment (my biggest challenge was my car). That said, I don’t consider it to be the “greatest thing since sliced bread”, if it works it works, if I need to do another thing I do it.

  • For some people, it’s kind of a cult. As in, “if you’re not mixing this way, it’s because you know nothing about arranging.”

  • That’s a good observation. Another angle is that some people start with an LCR mix because they find the limitations help them make decisions. After that, they can switch over into more of an artistic mode. I do find it interesting that I was adopting elements of it unconsciously, but never followed any “rulebook.”

  • Citizen Ben

    Same for me, I didn’t heard about LCR before but it’s an interesting approach, even if I qualify it more technical than artistical

  • Jeff Clark

    Glad I heard about LCR here first rather than though the Internet with gun and camera! 😁