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Last millenium with the advent of common Stereo equipment, recording engineers often used the stereo effects to re-create a 'stage' like presence in the recordings. I.e. the instruments would be panned to roughly their position on the stage whilst still maintaining a rich listening experience.

These days, stereo effects are more used for enhancing the music rather than trying to "re-create" a live experience.

Is there any scenarios where an engineer/producer should use one method over the other - particularly from a producers point of view?

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2 Answers

Not always true, in classical music recordings (and in my opinion, all live recordings), using stereo effects is generally not done.

You are mentioning 'panning' instruments to get an intensity-based stereo image, while there is an alternative: time-based stereo. That is the stereo kind you get by using for instance an AB microphone system.

Try this: Record a mono sound, and pan it mono, but make it appear in the left loudspeaker 3ms later than in the right loudspeaker. You will notice that you hear the sound on the right loudspeaker since it appeared there first, even though they have the same level and no panning is involved.

I only use time-based stereo using the AB microphone system (i.e. a pair of omnidirectional microphones with 51cm distance to record many musicians at once), that gives a more natural sounding stereo with perceivable depth (i.e. the instruments further away sound further away) whereas intensity-based stereo (by panning or recording with an XY or MS stereo system) results into a more analytical, one-dimensional stereo image with less depth.

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+1 for the point about stereo by delay rather than panning. I never thought about that but it makes a lot of sense to me! –  Kim Burgaard Dec 9 '10 at 9:53
    
Better than just inserting a stereo delay on mono, you can use a binaural panner, like Longcat H3D, which can pan mono and stereo recording to binaural stereo. –  moala Dec 23 '11 at 21:07
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I would say both. When recording, say, blues, rock, hard rock, or really any type of rhythmic music then I would still lay out the instruments in a stereo configuration that mimic stage positions; lead vocal, drums and bass in the middle, instruments that occupy similar frequency ranges go in opposite sites. From there I'd play around to see if some other interesting aspect comes up.

There's a reason why most band configurations look similar, across a wide range of genres -- from symphonic orchestras to heavy metal bands to R&B and hip hop. A lot of it has to do with making the instruments work together nicely to produce a coherent sound. The ability to see what's going on (the conductor or the band leader) also plays in. So even if you're making music just with synthesizers and samples, certain sonic properties like the fact that we can't detect the direction of low frequency sounds will probably make you end up placing the bass and drums at the center of the mix. If you have two synth sounds that occupy the same frequency range, placing them in each side might prevent your mix from sounding muddled too--just like the example with real instruments above.

I think the key thing is to try a range of options. If you do something very out of the ordinary, even listeners who are not audio production savvy will notice and that might divert their attention in a direction you don't want. But in other songs panning the lead vocal hard right might just be the thing you were looking for.

If you're mixing for a wider audience, don't forget to listen to your mix in mono too! Some people might be listening on a mono-setup or have their speakers really close to each other. Your mix should still sound good in such situations, and any gimmicks relying on clever panning will obviously be lost on those listeners.

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