Studio Monitoring Nightmares? 8 Steps to help get your mixes sounding right.
Why mixing with crap monitoring and getting crap results
will make you believe you are a crap engineer… and how to fix it.
Let me start off by saying that I feel blessed to be working in a field that I am passionate about… and right now given the economy I feel glad I am working at all. Part of the process of working freelance is that every job is different. Different projects, different people, different studios. This can be quite exciting… but part of the challenge that comes along with working in different studios is that sometimes I find myself walking into an acoustic nightmare… mind you this is not every unfamiliar room I go into… many times I am surprised to find a fabulous room that I didn’t know about. When I find great rooms I add them to my list of “places I would like to work”.. but too often I find myself in a room that lacks of any real sense of acoustic treatment… It may look good… but sound is what counts. A studio will never tell you that its mix room sucks… that would mean less booking… and… you get the idea.
The difference between a true “mix room” and these so called “mix rooms” are night and day…
- In a great mix room the sound you hear from the monitors will translate to multiple systems well.. in a bad mix room it will never sound like it does in that mix room anywhere ever again.
- In a great mix room the speakers will have enough detail that an engineer with ability can easily hear and make adjustments to the mix.. in a bad mix room there is a mushy, haziness to all the mids and lows… like a great cloudy mystery is covering your mixes.. and for every problem you fix another one takes its place.
- In a great mix room you can move around the room and hear the music similarly to the mix position… in a bad room the producer/client might as well be listening to a different song.. their position in the room sounds nothing like the mix position.
- In a good mix room you can achieve a good basic mix in a couple hours and spend the rest of the day refining… in a bad mix room you spend the whole day trying to make the mix listenable… and then have to schedule additional DAYS to make adjustments and refine the mix.
- In a good mix room you can finish a mix, listen to it in your car, and get a good nights sleep.. in a bad mix room you get in your car, get really angry that it doesn’t sound right.. and spend a sleepless night wondering why you didn’t become an accountant.
I mention the accountant thing in jest.. but when I would spend an entire day dialing in a great sounding mix only to take it to my car on the way home and hear a sonic mess.. it was demoralizing. It would even make me doubt my own ability as an engineer. This self doubt can be ruining.. especially in an industry that demands so much to even reach a point where you can pay the bills doing it. Because I found myself in unfamiliar mix rooms all the time and was confronted by less than ideal monitoring I developed some basic steps that helped me ensure that I could get the results I need each and every time. These are some general principles that helped me and hopefully can help you develop your craft, enable you to achieve better sounding mixes each time and help you deal with unfamiliar/unruly spaces that need some serious TLC…
- Mix Quality Material As Often As Possible: It is a hard thing to find (especially when you are just starting out)… but if you can… FIND IT… It is hard to create beauty out of feces. And if the source material was recorded badly or in an environment where they couldn’t here the detail to make sure it sounded right at the time then you may spend a good portion of your time trying to make the mix sound acceptable.. acceptable mixes don’t look good on a resume.
- Mix In A Good Room As Often As You Can: As you try to develop your craft it is important to be able to establish momentum in the right direction… If you always are battling the room you are in, aside from being discouraged, it will take far far longer to get a basic mix set up and will take multiple times as long trying to refine the mix. Engineers typically find rooms they like and that translates we’ll and then they try to use that room all the time… That way they get to know the space/monitors and can adjust for the idiosyncrocies… When you are always in a new room with new monitors it is hard to aclamate yourself.
- Reference Good Material Regularly: Take along some CD’s of music you are very familiar with and that you KNOW was mixed really well… preferably in a similar genre to the one you are trying to mix. The music you choose should be something which you have listened to over and over in various rooms and the best monitoring locations you can find until you know how it should sound. If you reference this before you begin to mix and then take breaks to listen back to this regularly throughout the mix process you can keep your mix on course to reach a sound which you know works well for the genre… and little by little your ears will acclimate to the room.
- For A Big Mix.. Mix Quietly!: Ironic as it seems mixing quietly not only helps your ears last longer before fatigue, somewhat helps you take the room out of the equation, but it also helps your mixes sound bigger. There is a time and place for loudness (when working on bass frequencies or to impress clients) but mixing quietly forces you to hone in on balances and when you turn it up you do so to hear buried detail… if it is already turned up you simply go deaf. Try mixing quiet and see the difference… then try turning it down to super super quiet and see how it sounds. If you can still hear everything clearly (bass may be a bit anemic at that point) and it all still sounds balanced.. chance are you have a balanced mix… I am surprised time and again at how much difference this makes. Impress the clients at the end of the mix by playing it loud… but make sure to bring some earplugs.
- Find The Crappiest Speakers To Check Your Mix On: So you spent one week on perfecting your mix… making it a masterpiece… well… you should also hear it as the majority of the fans will… on the crappiest blown out car speakers, 128 kbps MP3, Earbuds, Headphones, and Laptops you can find. Painful I know… but truthful. Your mixes need to be able to play on systems of varying sophistication and sound good on all. There is nothing worse than hearing your mix sound amazing on huge $100k monitors and distort the hell out of a “my first walkman”. Better you know now than later. Yes this can often be adjusted in mastering.. but just like you don’t want to spend all day mixing horrible source material the recording engineer thought you could just fix when you mixed it you shouldn’t burden your mastering engineer. You want them to polish gold not dog droppings. So make it right.. You wont have to hear from your clients about how it distorted the crappy speakers in their 70k Land Rover… and the mastering engineer will thank you later.
- When You Cant Mix In A Good Room Make The Room You Have Better: Many times, starting out, engineers end up using a room in their house or apartment as a mix room. That is not necessarily bad… even your bedroom can be a decent room with some basic treatment. And once you learn your room you will be able to mix faster, better and with more consisstency. TREAT YOUR ROOM. There is no substituation for an acoustically treated room that has been done properly… That said.. There are definitely options available for those on a budget… Check out the forum on www.johnlsayers.com for info and some amazing resources to help you figure out how to create your space. Even apartments can be made to sound good with some strategic placement of absorption an diffusion… and it can be done on a tight budget… Good doesn’t necesarily mean expensive. When it is not your room it a bit more difficult.. but things can be done. I have seen major engineers get the studio gobos out of the live room and place them behind the monitors on the mixing consoles speaker bridge. I have seen blankets hung on walls.. doesn’t matter if it looks crazy as long as works… the main thing is that once you know the basic techniques and theory behind room acoustics you will better be able to adapt the room you are in to better suit your needs.
- Find Your Preferred Monitors… Then Buy Them: This is easier said than done… There are almost no music stores with a comprehensive selection of speakers set up in a quality sound space to listen… and even those that do are not set up in your studio with your equipment. So you have to judge carefully. The best way is to try them in your home and return them if they don’t work well. Find a rental company or retailer who can work with you. Often times we choose those things with which we are already familiar or come with a good recommendation… just remember that everyones ears, rooms, and source material are different. Classical music wont necessarily sound best out of the same monitors Hip-Hop does. Don’t be afraid of the cheap monitors… sometimes they are the best for your particular application. I have found several speakers that I can work well with and some of them are cheap or more of a basic version without the super duper hyper tweeters. Thats ok… Just find the speakers you can mix best on and that translate well when you take them to other spaces. the point is… save yourself the frustration get good speakers… It’s not easy but it is important. I have 3 sets… A great, a good, and a crap, plus a laptop speaker i.e. super crap… then take them with you when you mix elsewhere.. that way you know what they should sound like. Also.. If you buy passive monitors make sure you get an amplifier that fits the speakers requirements… too much or too little power to the speakers is a huge problem.
- When You Have Treated and Gotten The Best Monitors and You Have Done All You Can Do… You Must Eq: Theories abound as to the usefulness and appropriateness of EQ’ing monitors… isn’t that something they just do for PA systems at live concerts? The dark truth is that even some of the most renowned rooms in the business hide an EQ for their Main monitors in a dark rack somewhere. They don’t like to tell you… but they have it there for one reason… It Helps! EQ is one of the final things you can do to make a room translate better… after you have treated properly and gotten the monitors that sound best in your room and there are still some small frequency anomalies which need to be addressed… you need to reach for an EQ. The trick is to EQ for each set of speakers differently. You can do this via hardware EQ’s or software… there are several over the counter solutions for your acoustic illness. KRK Systems makes the ERGO, IK Multimedia makes the ARC System, Genelec has a line of speakers with built in DSP, as does JBL, Dynaudio, and several others. The speakers with more accurate Room Correction use a “Measurement Mic” to help calibrate the speakers. The system will give off a series of long or short sweeps or a series of white/pink noise by which it determines where the frequency spectrum of the room is off. It then adjust those frequencies as best it can to bring them back into line.. a “Flat” room being the main target… i.e. no significant peaks or dips in the audible spectrum. I have had great success with IK Multimedia’s ARC System (which I endorse) because I can transport it easily (software and a mic) and I don’t have to take apart a room to implement it… simply load it into ProTools as a plugin. I do get some strange looks from assistants but once they see the problems in a graph and hear the difference they are sold on the technique.
There are additional things which I have not mentioned here such as Digital Converters, Monitor controllers, and Sample Rate/Bit Depth which are all important… but as a starting point the above mentioned suggestions will get you on the right path. All of these tips and techniques will have a cumulative effect on your career as a mixing/recording engineer. You will establish momentum in developing your skills, You will see successful mix after successful mix, you will be able to remove the obstacles that are preventing the most important person in your career from realizing how great of an engineer you really are… You. You are going to have to hustle in this industry just to make a living… so take time and assess the things that are preventing you from moving to that next level… make some changes, fix them and keep it moving. Your confidence, clients, esteem, and bank account will thank you.