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Tracks That Pan Out

An ocean of motion.

Panning, the placement of a sound source in the left/right sound field, was an audio effect that first appeared in the 1960s when two-channel stereo made its debut, supplanting single-channel mono.

In those days of analog recording, the engineer (often with help from assistants and sometimes even the artists themselves) would manually turn knobs on the mixing board called pan pots, which would shift the sound of a particular instrument or vocal into the left speaker, the right one, or anywhere in-between. Panning is still a staple of modern digital productions, though it is now sometimes done with a mouse instead of a knob.

Sometimes panning is static; other times, it’s used to actually move a sound around as the track plays — sometimes rapidly, other times gradually — to add motion and excitement to a track. Yes, it can be overdone, but in the right hands, it’s a creative and fun effect that is especially pronounced when listening on headphones, where the immersive experience is heightened. Panning effects also sound extra special on vinyl, thanks to the extra bit of warmth offered by records.

Here’s a selection of eight tracks that use stereo panning especially effectively.


With its relentlessly catchy four-note riff, this was the most commercially accessible song ever released by the British progressive rock band Yes, so it’s no surprise that it was also their biggest hit. The production by Trevor Horn is also a tour de force, with panning galore. It begins with a powerful yet distinctively lo-fi drum fill and guitar riff that quickly transforms into glorious Hi-Fi stereo with a broad soundstage. Check out the differing reverbs in the left and right channels that are applied to the lead vocal, which itself is panned up the middle. When the guitar solo hits, the track really starts to take off, as notes fly left and right randomly, zooming from speaker to speaker with abandonment, forming a veritable whirlwind of sound.


This Chemical Brothers production from their seventh studio album Further is a pulsing, throbbing sonic masterpiece filled with unique synthesizer and sound effect hits that move from left to right in time with the track’s tempo. Extra “ear candy” comes in the form of ultra-wide panning of the background vocals.


This track from the Floyd’s 1977 album Animals was originally just a jam, but it was brought to life with some great panning effects. At just past the 4:00 point, the organ begins subtly moving from side to side, along with other keyboard lines that go into motion before dissolving into reverb. The odd, heavily affected talking vocal line at around 6:27 also features a great left/right effect where the original is in the left channel and its ambient delay is in the right channel.


Keith Emerson’s iconic synthesizer solo at the end of this song takes things to a whole new level, hitting with the impact of a sonic sledgehammer. It begins with a soaring glissando that immediately grabs your attention before starting to move left and right, building in intensity and reverberation with each passing moment. Put on a good set of headphones and get ready to be transported!


This track, from Zep’s second album, is one of the most soulful songs they ever recorded, enhanced by some great panning effects. At around 3:40, one of Robert Plant’s layered vocals starts to move from side to side. If you listen closely, you can hear a second vocal also begin traveling, creating a flowing treatment to the sound that’s absolutely captivating. This track sounds especially good on vinyl.


Right from the start, where a spoken vocal is placed in a wide stereo reverb with delay, you know your ears are in for a treat. The guitar solo in the right channel is also delayed in the left channel at various moments, creating even more drama and tension. Then, towards the end, a vocal phrase also pans from center to right. Be forewarned: This journey is over 10 minutes long, so enjoy the ride!


This track from the 1967 Axis: Bold As Love album made great use of panning for the time. Jimi Hendrix’s fiery guitar playing not only takes advantage of intensive stereo panning, but utilizes other cool effects such as echo, fuzz and reverb. The real fun begins at around 1:51, where his solo starts moving from left to center to right, almost literally swimming around your head. At one point it gets so crazy you may even get a sense of vertigo … especially if your eyes are closed!


Long before Joe Walsh was an Eagle or a solo artist, he was a member of a group called the James Gang. His long guitar solo on this song starts out with a wide sweep from the left channel to the right, then begins moving from side to side, with an effected delay in the right channel. It doesn’t follow the beat of the song — it’s just random, which makes it totally cool!


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