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George: When they invented stereo, I remember thinking "Why? What do you want two speakers for?" Because it ruined the sound from our point of view. You know, we had everything coming out of one speaker, now it to come out of two speakers, it all sounded like, very naked.

Paul: But then finally someone said "Well, you can like move things". So like then everything from then on got panned like mad, you know, everything got moved.

George: But to get to the point where you do a stereo mix and put the drums and bass in the middle, it took a while... it used to be over on the side!
The Beatles on the invention of stereo

For a long time since the beginning of recording technology, most recordings were monaural (reproduced on a single channel), in spite of explorations by Clement Adler starting in 1881, and Bell Laboratories in the 1930s under the direction of Harvey Fletcher. The first stereophonic disc was released by Audio Fidelity in November 1957 and the technology quickly took off, by 1968 all major record labels having stopped manufacturing monaural records.

This all happened at the same time that rock music was rapidly becoming very psychedelic or garagey, and as a result many people in the studio probably couldn't resist the temptation to show off with their new technology. So, we got many albums from the mid-sixties up to the early-seventies (sometimes) that isolate various tracks on separate channels, or heavily employ fancy panning effects, as if avoiding the center was a matter of life and death.

This description does not mean to imply in any way that this is a bad thing. There are often good reasons to use stereo separation, such as allowing instruments to be heard more clearly than the usual lump-everything-in-the-center approach. It is a sort of musical equivalent to Science Marches On and Zeerust as this sort of production tricks aren't as widespread anymore. Plus, if you're a producer who wants to sample a bit of a song, you'll probably pray for this sort of thing - easier to get a song where the drums are on the right and everything else is on the left, sample it and cut out the left channel, than one where everything is centered and you have to use the extraneous bits as well or break out the EQ.

This is also used to great effect in motion picture sound. It allows sound to be matched to moving visuals. Theater and home surround sound systems have between five and eight channels to play with; using multi-channel surround in music is still largely experimental, if only because headphones only have two channels.

The intended effect can be altered by the playback equipment. Two speakers mounted side-by-side in a single cabinet have more crossover than two mounted in opposite corners of a room, and headphones have none at all.

Historically, the decline of the "guitar on the right, bass on the left" type of mixing came about as albums started being recorded on 16 or more tracks, which makes it easy to double-track every instrument. When your mix already has two or more guitars playing the exact same part for the "fatness" this provides, the natural tendency is to spread them out over the stereo field. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were some of the early bands to do this, although not all the time as the examples below show. Likewise, when you have enough tracks to give each individual drum its own separate stereo position, its highly unlikely you're going to mix the entire drum kit to one side unless you're deliberately trying to invoke the 1960s.

Has nothing to do with the practice of critically lambasting a work without restraint, at least not inherently.

Examples of Gratuitous Panning include:

  • The Beatles:
    • Good luck trying to hear the vocals on "Norwegian Wood" if your right channel/speaker/ear is broken.
    • "Run For Your Life" puts the rhythm section entirely on the left channel.
    • "Taxman" used the "I Feel Free" method, bundling everything on the left channel, leaving tambourine and cowbell on the right, and filling the center with vocals.
    • "Yellow Submarine" throws the vocals on the right channel, and the rest on the left. The sound fx stay on the center.
    • "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" puts the vocals on the left, and the rest on the right.
    • "Fixing a Hole" and "Lovely Rita" put most of the instrumentation on the left channel.
    • Most songs on the White Album and some on Abbey Road separate the drums on one of the channels, and sometimes most of the instrumentation as well.
    • On the opening series of 'Number 9' in Revolution 9, 'Number' is on the left and '9' is on the right. Makes it even more disconcerting.
    • The Magical Mystery Tour album puts almost everything on the left channel, brass on the right channel, and the vocals in the center. The exceptions: "The Fool on the Hill", "Your Mother Should Know", "I Am the Walrus".
    • The opening of "Back in the USSR" has a jet engine noise starting in the left speaker and moving gradually over to the right, designed to create the effect of a plane passing over the listener.
    • Most of all it's worth noting that The Beatles stereo mixing was done by other people and the band wasn't present during these sessions. There's a reason they say that "you haven't heard Sgt. Pepper's if you haven't heard it in mono."
    • It's also worth noting that this trope was the reason why George Martin remixed two of the groups earlier albums (Help! and Rubber Soul) when they were released on CD for the first time in 1987. He also wanted to remix their first four albums as well, but thanks to EMI, didn't have enough time, so they were issued with the original mono mixes instead.
    • In many cases rather than an artistic decision actually they had no other option. For the first album they recorded in a two track tape. Two track recordings were either "stereo" or "twin track". For a stereo recording you did the stereo mixing live and recorded the already mixed down results to the tape, effectively condensing the modern processes of "tracking" and "balancing" into one. That's the reason why orchestral and jazz recordings of the 50s sound so natural even if they are recorded in 2-track - they were recorded already mixed to stereo. For the Beatles recordings, as they were not after a "natural" sound they used twin track - band mixed down to one track, vocals mixed down to the other, so they could balance vocals and instruments in the mono mix. The stereo mix was just the unmixed two track tape with a bit of reverb added to blend both channels.
  • Jimi Hendrix:
    • Are You Experienced - "Foxy Lady" puts the vocals on the left channel, whereas "Purple Haze" favours the right. "Manic Depression" has all the guitars on the left. "Fire" separates the bass and guitars to the left and right, respectively. "Are You Experienced" does the same, but with the drums and guitars. "The Wind Cries Mary" does the same, but this time with the vocals and drums.
    • Axis: Bold as Love - "If 6 Was 9" keeps the vocals on the right channel and the guitars on the left... mostly. "You Got Me Floatin'" separates the drums on the left channel. "Castles Made of Sand" puts the rhythm guitar on the right channel, and the reversed licks on the left. "She's So Fine" and "Little Miss Lover" keep the rhythm guitar on the right, before indulging in rapid panning of their own.
    • Electric Ladyland - "Crosstown Traffic" twiddles the panning knobs like crazy (curiously keeping the rhythm guitars on the right channel). "Voodoo Chile" keeps the organ on the left channel. "Little Miss Strange", "Long Hot Summer Night" and "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)" do the same to the drums. "Burning of the Midnight Lamp" pushes the harpsichord to the left and the wah'ed guitar to the right. "1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" too engages in heavy knob-twiddling throughout its 13 minute length. The slide guitar solo in "All Along the Watchtower" is slightly panned from left to right.
    • Both the introductions to Axis ("EXP") and Ladyland ("...And the Gods Made Love") apply heavy, disorienting panning to guitar feedback, and phased noise respectively.
  • The Who:
    • "I Can See for Miles" piles the drums on the right channel and the guitars on the left.
    • "Magic Bus" throws the backing vocals of "Ride on the magic bus!" on the right channel, and the guitars on the left. Then proceeds to bounce the vocals between left and right.
    • The vocals of "I'm a Boy" are exclusively on the left channel.
    • "Armenia City in the Sky" and "Odorono" stack the guitars and drums on the left channel.
    • "Our Love Was", "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "The Real Me" restrict the drums to the left channel.
    • "Behind Blue Eyes" sticks the acoustic guitar on the right channel, and its reverb on the left.
    • "Young Man Blues" (studio version) puts the guitars on the right channel and the bass on the left.
    • Live At Leeds separates the bass to the left channel and the guitar to the right. As the bass is played with distortion and lots of middle it sounds almost like a guitar.
  • The Doors:
    • Invariably throughout The Doors the drums are kept on the left channel, and the guitar and organ take turns remaining on the right.
    • The Strange Days gimmick is to keep the bass on the left channel and the guitars sometimes on the right ("People Are Strange", "Love Me Two Times"), or the keyboards.
    • Waiting for the Sun pans the keyboards to the left, and the guitars (or the bass) to the right.
    • Morrison Hotel returns to the technique of the first album - drums left, alternating guitar/keyboards right, with the occasional variation.
    • L.A. Woman combines all these techniques,
  • While producing Fresh Cream, Robert Stigwood decided to put all the drums on the right channel. Then he went overboard on "I Feel Free", where all the instruments are on the right channel, the tambourine on the left, and the vocals filling the gaps.
    • Felix Pappalardi applied the drums on the right technique to Disraeli Gears as well, and restricted the reverb on the vocals to the right channel on "Mother's Lament".
  • Ted Templeman's main studio gimmick when producing Van Halen was running the guitar through heavy reverb, panning the guitar to the left channel and the reverb to the right, to simulate a "live" sound, which guitarist Eddie Van Halen resented.
  • Velvet Underground: "White Light/White Heat" keeps the drums on the right channel, and separates the two vocalists (Reed, Cale). "The Gift" keeps the instrumentation on the left and the spoken word on the right. "The Murder Mystery" has two spoken word performances by Reed and Sterling Morrison on the left and right channel respectively, and vocals by Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule with the same arrangement.
  • Led Zeppelin:
    • Led Zeppelin I: "Good Times, Bad Times" and "I Can't Quit You Baby" pan the drums to the right channel. "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" does the same to the acoustic guitar.
    • Led Zeppelin II: "Whole Lotta Love" keeps the driving riff on the left channel, and furiously twiddles during the middle freakout and was made specifically to be appreciated with headphones. "The Lemon Song" keeps the guitars mostly on the left, "Thank You" does the same but on the right channel, and "Bring It On Home" alternates.
    • Led Zeppelin III: "Gallows Pole" puts the acoustic guitar intro on the left channel, and afterwards separates John Paul Jones' mandolin and Jimmy Page's mandolin on the left and right. "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" pans the percussion to the left. "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper" is the most extreme example, keeping the slide guitar on the left channel and the vocals on the right.
    • Led Zeppelin IV: "Stairway to Heaven" keeps the acoustic guitars on the left channel. "Misty Mountain Hop" has the same riff played by keyboards panned to the left and guitar panned to the right. The disorienting coda of "When the Levee Breaks" was achieved entirely through panning, according to Jimmy Page.
    • Houses of the Holy: "The Rain Song" keeps two sets of acoustic guitars on the left and right channels.
    • Physical Graffiti: "Custard Pie"'s main riff is played on guitar (right channel) and clavinet (left)
  • Black Sabbath:
    • Black Sabbath mostly pans the guitar towards the left channel, either obviously ("Black Sabbath", "Sleeping Village") or more subtly (exception being "Evil Woman"). "Black Sabbath" also pans the the bass to the right channel, "The Warning" puts the guitar solo on the right channel, and "Wicked World" reverses the guitar-left-bass-right panning of "Black Sabbath".
    • Paranoid mostly shoves the guitar on the right channel and the bass on the left channel, with the exception of "Hand of Doom", where their position is reversed, and "Fairies Wear Boots", "Rat Salad" and "Paranoid", which center both.
    • Master of Reality begins with a tape loop of Tony Iommi coughing panned from left to center. "Embryo" uses subtle panning. "Children of the Grave" uses panning on the spooky feedback-drenched coda. Outside of these, the album largely centers everything.
    • Volume 4 continues the trend of centering everything, with the exception of "FX" and "Laguna Sunrise".
  • (In general: see above) In the late 60's it was a trend to pan psychedelic guitar solos back and forth, regardless of the 'static pan' of the other instruments.
  • George Clinton didn't have much experience as a producer in Funkadelic's early years, and thus employed this trope often ("Mommy, What's a Funkadelic?", "What Is Soul?"), and arguably drove it to its logical conclusion on Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, with the erratic, disorienting panning of the title track and "Eulogy and Light".
  • The Temptations song "Slave" (from Puzzle People) has been described by one reviewer as having "enough panning to make George Clinton dizzy".
  • The Sly & the Family Stone albums Life and Stand! love putting the drums on the right channel.
  • The Cars' song "Moving in Stereo" does exactly that with the vocals.
  • Iggy Pop's supposedly diastrous first mix of The Stooges' Raw Power isolated all the instruments on the left channel and all the vocals on the right (it couldn't have been worse than his last one). David Bowie was called in for a remixing job, which is in itself a near infamous case of Love It or Hate It.
  • Blue Cheer's album Vincebus Eruptum invariably separates the drums on one channel (either left or right). On "Summertime Blues" and "Doctor Please" the rest of the instruments are put on the left. "Out of Focus" separates the guitar (left channel) and bass (right channel). "Second Time Around" has an entire bass-and-drum solo entirely on the right channel.
  • The acoustic version of "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel has the vocals on the left channel, with the backing vocals and guitar on the right. The electric version has the drums on the left and the guitar on the right.
  • Zaireeka by the Flaming Lips is this trope taken to 11: The tracks are spread across four separate CD's, and the listener is supposed to play all of them simultaneously in four separate CD players.
  • "Astral Traveler" by Yes.
  • "Sunglasses at Night" by Corey Hart does this with every keyboard note.
  • Wishbone Ash frequently panned each of the lead guitars on a separate channel. It's quite interesting to listen to each one individually, as opposed to both at once.
  • "30th Century Man" by Scott Walker.
  • "Talk Talk" by Alice Cooper.
  • Nine Inch Nails tend to fool around with stereo more subtly, but they have their more obvious examples, such as: "Gave Up"'s outro, "I Do Not Want This" and "Last".
    • On "1,000,000," off of The Slip, about 2/3 of the way through the song, there's a whisper of "A million miles awaaaay..." panned all the way to the right. In a song with zero panning otherwise, it sounds like somebody's right next to you, speaking in your ear.
  • Esquivel! often used gratuitous panning in his lounge jazz music; sometimes going so far as to have separate bands is different rooms to emphasize the stereo.
  • Paris' song "AWOL" has the sound bounce around when the narrator of the song describes a confusing situation where his unit was caught in friendly fire.
  • "Supper's Ready" by Genesis twiddles the vocals from left to right for 20 minutes.
  • Parodied by Spinal Tap with their 1965 single "Gimme Some Money", the drums being entirely on the left channel and the clapping on the right.
  • Satirically used by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention throughout We're Only in It for the Money.
  • Winked at on Aimee Mann's The Forgotten Arm, which tries its hardest to sound like a 1970s album.
  • The organ in Al Stewart's "Midas Shadow" wobbles prettily ? and almost constantly ? from channel to channel.
  • In Joy Electric's spoken-word song "Hello Mannequin", the vocal track abruptly switches from the left channel to the right channel and back again with every single line.
  • Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly" bounces the low-rumbling percussion between left and right for 2 minutes.
  • Hawkwind's D-Rider features synth parts that constantly zig-zag betwen left and right.
  • Collective Soul used this on a few songs. "Heavy" puts the distorted guitar intro so that it alternates channels between riffs, and "Energy" did the same with the vocals right before the chorus. The same song also put the vocals for the first verse on the right channel and everything else on the left.
  • Don Caballero likes this trope, often splitting two guitar parts between the two channels. Taken to its logical extreme in the intro to "Slice Where you Live Like Pie" (yes, that's the real song title), which bounces between left and right constantly.
  • In the breakdown at the end of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive", the whole thing pans back and forth pretty fast to sound like the music is spinning around the listener.
    • The kazoo solos in Corporal Clegg pan from one side to the other and back a few times each.
    • Also Egregious in "One Of These Days". This was originally achieved live through a device called "The Azimuth Controller".
    • In "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk", both guitar and bass are panned to the left, while the organ and drums are panned to the right. In the middle of the song, they switch for a few seconds before switching back at the end.
    • The song "Lucifer Sam" from the same album also takes this trope Up to Eleven in that, with each repetition of the riff, the guitar track moves to a different position in the stereo field. Meanwhile, the drums and the vocals are separated as per usual with a song from The Sixties.
    • "Welcome To The Machine" has a pulsating low synth drone throughout switching from left to right.
  • Queens of the Stone Age tend to do this, at least, to a larger extent than most modern bands do.
  • On the Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco DeLucia live album Friday Night in San Francisco, the tracks with two guitarists would confine one to the left channel and the other to the right. The remaining tracks added the third guitarist in the center channel. Mind you, these guitarists were the only musicians on the album.
  • Post-Brave New World Iron Maiden does it, since the number of guitarists jumped to 3 (example: in Rock in Rio, Dave Murray's guitar is in the left speaker, Janick Gers' is in the right one, and Adrian Smith is in the middle).
  • Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody" in particular - "Little high" the left speaker is followed by "Little low" in the right.
    • Justified in the canon of The Prophet's Song, where voices are separated to make the whole thing easier to listen.
  • The Residents' song Sinister Exaggerator - Bass to the very left, guitar (?) to the very right, and vocals and violin in the middle.
  • Children of Bodom's "Touch Like Angel of Death". Lead guitar pretty much completely on the right channel.
  • A variation is used in the Beatmania IIDX games: Any notes hit by player 1 play primarily on the left channel, and any notes hit by player 2 play on the right channel. In Double Mode, notes hit on the left half play on the left channel, and notes hit on the right half play on the right channel. Notes played on each side are faintly heard on the opposite channel, though.
  • Common in Prog. "Thoughts" by Spock's Beard follows the Queen example by putting alternating lines on alternating channels - the third line goes through the middle.
    • Indeed - common on anything engineered by Alan Parsons or James Guthrie, including Pink Floyd or Pink Floyd later solo artists.
    • Good luck trying to make sense of the first verse of Dream Theater's "The Glass Prison" if one of your speakers is messed up, on that note. The vocals alternate between the left and right channel, giving it a panicked, uneasy sound, which makes sense - the song is about the drummer's battle to recover from alcoholism.
  • DVD example: The stereo remix of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy TV series places the narration of the Guide entries completely in one speaker, and the background music in the other.
    • Speaking of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the original radio version had had the speech on middle channel on monologues. And not always then.
      • Also on the radio version, the Vogon voice treatment for the first episode had the voice on the right, and the phasing effect that had been added to it on the left. Rather disconcerting if you take out your right earpiece...
  • The Muppets' song "Mah Na Mah Na" (incidentally adapted from a song in a swedish porno) has the monster singing in the opposite speaker to the backup singers, and during the chorus he switches between the two.
  • Novelty singer Napoleon XIV, best known for "They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Ha!" did a piece called "I Live in A Split-Level Head" where the first round of lyrics are in both channels-- and then each channel simultaneously plays different lyrics.
  • If you listen to The Monkees' track "Zilch" with headphones on, it sounds like the four of them are surrounding you.
  • In Propellerheads version of "On Her Majesties Secret Service" the opening trumpets swing repeatedly from left to right.
  • Symbion Project's "the difference between order & chaos is only the distance between your two speakers" has on one channel percussion and a recording of the captain's announcement from an airplane takeoff and on the other channel all the other instruments and the famous "Oh the humanity!" recording from the Hindenburg crash.
  • The second part of the song "A Man's Gotta Do" from Dr. Horrible has Penny on the right only, Billy on the left and Captain Hammer in both, so you can easily hear all three when they sing at the same time.
  • "Before the Storm" by Joker (off the OverClocked Remix album Project Chaos) opens with a synth-bell melody that switches between the left and right channels with every single note. It's fast enough that you have to listen to the song on headphones to catch it.
  • The vocals on the final line of the Vocaloid song Wide Knowledge of the Late, Madness use this trope to great effect, even more so when watching the video: the repeated 'watashi, watashi' swings back and forth from left to right, creating the illusion of Miku gradually breaking down until the abrupt cutoff.
  • The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" has a similar effect to "Before the Storm"; the song contains electronic beeping that alternates channels.
  • Oceanic by Isis has a lot of this.
  • Therion's 2007 album "Gothic Kabbalah" contains a song titled "Tuna 1613" (nothing to do with fish) which does this once, as the only instance on the entire album. It's brief, only done with the guitar, and falls right smack in the middle of the song, but for some reason it really jumps out at you.
  • Leonard Bernstein must have had some kind of deal with Columbia Records to promote quadraphonic sound in the early 1970s. His Mass opens with what is effectively a quadraphonic sound test with four vocal/percussion ensembles operating independently of each other, and also incorporates an unaccompanied oboe solo which moves around all four channels. For the 1974 revival of Candide, the (reduced) orchestra was spread out into four groups of players.
  • The fadey outey ending thing Dream Theater has at the end of "Panic Attack" alternates between the left and right channel, which is a bit disorienting when you have headphones on.
  • Leftfield's "A Final Hit". Listen to the beginning with headphones. Don't forget your Dramamine.
  • Bubble Puppy's "Hot Smoke & Sasafrass" is a knob-twiddling extravaganza. The stereo placement of both vocals and instruments changes after every line.
  • The Neon Judgement's "Billy Tcherno and the Pretty Petrouchka" has two different sets of lyrics, one on the right and one on the left.
  • Emilie Autumn, just about all of it.
    • Of special note is "Dead Is The New Alive". At the start, the instruments cycle between the two channels.
  • "Ectobiology" from the Homestuck Volume 5 album, when it was released, originally had a panning effect added that made the song swoop from left to right and back again, rhythmically with the music for the entire length of the song. When people listening through headphones complained of headaches, the panning version was removed from the album and replaced with a much less gimmicky one.
  • Helloween uses this briefly in "Kill It", alternately killswitching the left and right guitar tracks really quickly for about a second. It's pretty jarring if you've got headphones on.
  • Machinae Supremacy's "Hero" has two guitar solos playing at once, one for each channel. They're written so that one track is shredding while the other plays more slowly and melodically, switching every once in a while.
  • "Dan Dare" by the Art Of Noise has an incredibly jarring panning effect partway in that almost spoils the music entirely.
  • Beat Hazard Abuse

 I am in your left ear.

I'm now in your right ear.

Now I'm back in your left ear.

  • You could use "Go Straight" from Streets of Rage 2 to test your speakers. The first few bars bounce from left to right every note.
  • Tyler the Creator uses this effect at the end of his songs "Yonkers" and "Tron Cat."
  • On the Coraline soundtrack, the back up vocals move back and forth between the channels. The song? Exploration.
  • For Stereolab's album Margerine Eclipse, every single instrument on every single song was confined entirely to either the left or right channel--as some folks call it, a "dual mono" mix rather than stereo. Muting one speaker or the other can vastly change how the songs sound.
    • On "Analogue Rock" (from the album Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements), the organ is confined entirely to the left channel, while the guitars, drums, and most of the vocals are confined to the right channel. The two channels abruptly flip for a few seconds in the second verse.
  • The original single version of The Germs' "Forming" has the vocals panned hard left and everything else hard right. It was recorded to two track and all of the instruments other than the vocals were recorded at once with one microphone, so to be fair really any attempt at giving it a "stereo" effect would sound like gratuitous panning to some extent.
  • Marilyn Manson's "Fundamentally Loathsome" plays with this: For the first 2:40 of the song, almost everything is panned either hard left or hard right. Then when it transitions to a louder, more rocking section, the mix is suddenly much more centered.
  • "Blasphemous Rumors" by Depeche Mode uses this effect.
  • Metric's song "Ending Start" plays with this at the beginning. This troper always feels a bit dizzy listening to the odd sound effect that seems to swirl around and around the head through the earphones.
  • Giorgio Moroder combined stereophonic panning with synthesisers in many of his recordings between the late 1970s and early 1980s. Among the most notable examples are Donna Summer's I Feel Love and the Chase theme from Midnight Express.
  • In an early example of stereophonic separation, The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" has the rhythm and melody section biased towards the left channel, and the orchestral section biased towards the right channel.
  • During the chorus of Elton John's Crocodile Rock, every yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah is on the left channel and the right channel has a synth. The song is very wide in stereo, but the chorus is the most gratitous part of the song.
  • Towards the end of Mr. Bungle's "Dead Goon", the entire song starts panning back and forth in a similar manner to "Interstellar Overdrive", as a creaky swinging rope sound effect stays in the center of the mix. It's pretty creepy in context: The song is about someone dying while practicing auto-erotic asphyxiation, so this section of the song is probably supposed to represent the death itself.
  • For Duke Ellington & Count Basie's collaborative album The Count Meets the Duke, all the musicians from Ellington's band were confined to one channel and those from Basie's band were confined to the other.