So, I just did a show about panning and LCR mixing. I prefer to mix with only three main pan spots, hard left, hard right, and center. Every now and then I find pan spots for other things, like when a drummer has lots of toms, but even then it will probably still be 50% left, 50% right. I do this for three main reasons:
1. Keeps the mix wide and have definite space.
2. Keeps the mix focused and easy to interpret.
3. Balances in level are easier to maintain (this about this one!!!)
4. Keeps me mixing quickly and efficiently!
5. Makes reverbs and delays much easier to fit in!
I'll give a short explanation.
1 - With LCR, you really use the full spectrum and have to make decisions about what is most important (which usually goes center). Things like lead vocal, kick, bass, maybe even acoustic guitar or the main rhythm element. These are usually all center. Other things like guitars, backing vocals, drum overheads, etc., can be panned hard.
2 - People understand Left, Center, Right. It's hard sometimes when mixes have too much in the "in-between" pan positions because it sounds too busy. Putting things LCR really allows you to evaluate what's important!
3 - Let's say something was hitting 0dB and panned center. If it's panned left, its apparent volume shifts up 3dB. This is because it's now only coming through one speaker. It's the same loudness, but it's only in the left year. So, essentially panning something 50% left means it apparently adds 1.5dB of level. Now think of all the in between spots...it's going to be very difficult to try and balance all of these different random pan spots. Especially if you have a mix that has some things 50L, 33R, 14L, 77R, etc.... Having LCR and 50/50 makes it easier to keep balances in the Left-Right spectrum!
4 - I believe mixing quickly is a GOOD thing. Spending too much time on a mix usually leads to a mix that is way overdone, way over produced, and sounds too hyped. Mixing quickly is exciting, it keeps my attention, and it makes me feel connected to the music. I want to keep that emotion as much as possible!
5 - Delays and Reverbs (especially reverbs) can sometimes take up a lot of space in the mix. When you only have L-C-R and a couple in between, you leave all that space for reverbs and delays to occupy. This I find is one of my favorite elements of LCR mixing. It really makes your reverbs and delays and spatial/phase/time based effects sound that much more obvious, which helps your mix retain clarity while still getting space.
On this whole note, I don't get why some people will pan things 80% and not just 100%. There is a difference obviously, but in the end, it's just more trouble than it's worth in my opinion. There are some people that have replaced the pan pots on their consoles with L - C - R switches! If you need more dimension, you can add delays and reverbs and things (refer to the podcast for details and audio examples!)
Enjoy your week!