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Listen Up And Mix Right

LISTEN UP AND MIX RIGHT!
(If You Didn't Hear It...)

First Published in L’Amour Report of December 2003

Let's start with the obvious:  If you didn't hear it, you don't know what you did. In too many studios, the monitoring system is the weak link. We can become so focused on the idea of making a recording that we forget the important fact that what we record must be heard, or all our work means nothing.  Our mixes may later be heard on speakers of every size, shape and description, but that does not excuse us from using the best monitor systems that we can get.  The mastering engineers that the major record companies rely on to polish their product spare no expense when it comes to their monitor systems, because if they don't get it right, no one will.

Setting up good monitoring in the studio is a two-part process.  You have to start with the right amplifiers, speakers, etc. Your choice of equipment does not mean very much, though, if you do not use it correctly. Your monitor system actually includes the room and everything in it. A lot of the money spent on studio design goes to making sure that the speakers, room, furnishings, etc. work correctly together to let you hear your work accurately. 

Here are some simple rules for monitoring.

1) Dollar for dollar, headphones are more accurate than speakers. 

I have bought pairs of headphones for $100 or less that are more accurate than some speaker pairs costing more than $1,000.  We all know about having singers and players use headphones while they perform, and lately we have seen similar technology adapted for use in concert, but you don't hear much about how useful headphones can be to the engineer. For us "knobs and dials" dudes, the neat thing about headphones is how well they let us hear details. We can shut out distractions, eliminate the listening room as a factor, and hear things like problems with the noise floor of our setup, subtle distortions, whether the singer needs to clear his throat, etc. that we usually miss while listening with speakers. Headphones are great tools for hearing, and sometimes locating, problems with equipment or setups that could otherwise cause us real headaches later on.  Headphones are most helpful for sniffing out little technical problems before they have a chance to become big.

2) For mix monitoring, speakers are better than headphones.

The best thing about headphones is that they make it easy to hear details. The worst thing about headphones is that they make it easy to hear details.  Most of the time, your mixes will be heard on speakers.  The sound will travel several feet before reaching the ears of listeners. The sound will be bounced all over the place in a room or a car before it is heard.  (All this bouncing around tends to blur the sound a bit.)  The sound will have to compete with other noises in the outside world. All of these conditions lead to a loss of detail in what the listener hears, and we need to tailor our mixes to compensate for this fact.  When we monitor with speakers, that compensation process is more or less automatic. Mixes made using good speakers in a proper environment will almost always play well over headphones. Mixes made using headphones often will not sound quite right over speakers, the main problem being that some of the important details seem to disappear.

Checking mixes with headphones is best for when you want to make sure that something your DON'T want DOESN'T get through.  You listen with speakers to make sure that everything you DO want DOES get through.

3) Get the best speakers (and amplifiers) that you can afford.

During a studio upgrade several months ago, I took the plunge and bought new monitors. I was determined to hear my work properly, and I spent enough money that it hurt.  I was very nervous about my decision at first, but soon I was amazed by the details that I had never heard before jumping out at me as if to say, "See? Hear what you've been missing?"  These new details were both good and bad.  In one classical recording, I heard some low rumbling noises that had nothing to do with the music, as though the studio was being shaken by a subway or a large truck passing by.  I would never have heard this on my earlier monitors. Since the original recording was, in this case, made in 1959, I bet the engineer on the original session never heard this stuff in his monitors at all (most professional studio monitors of the time did not reach that low).

4) The more toys you have for twisting the sound, the better your monitors should be.

Some of the top recording engineers and producers in the business will tell you that some really great recordings were made in the '50s and '60s. In particular, a number of classical and jazz recordings really stand out. Many of these great recordings were made with only a few microphones, using consoles that didn't even have tone controls. The monitor speakers used then were primitive by our standards, not very accurate, and lacking in the extreme bass.  These recordings still sound great partly because the engineers then could not do very much to damage the sound unless they put the wrong microphones up in the wrong places. Starting in the late '60s and into the '70s, consoles with much more powerful EQ and other features became available, and many engineers and producers started correcting the sound while still using those old tired monitors.  Often they would jack up the low bass to make up the weak low end of their studio monitors.  A lot of these older recordings had to have some of the resulting excess bass pulled down when they were remastered for CD.  If you do an entire mix today using, say, your trusty NS-10's, you do NOT know what is happening in the low bass.

5) Good speakers in a bad room can still mess up your sound.

This concept of a "bad" room is tricky.  Most rooms naturally do things to frequency response that we simply would not tolerate in any of our studio equipment, except as an "effect". Fortunately for us, our ears and brains actually filter some problems out for us.  Otherwise, we would go nuts whenever we were in a room trying to hear the stereo or the TV, or even someone talking to us. The downside of this "automatic ear/brain room filter" is that we don't always know when the room is messing up the sound of our monitors, which can then cause us to mess up our mixes.  To make this mess even more complicated, moving the speakers (or your listening position) can drastically change the sound.

There is, in fact, no such thing as a perfect room, and the best rooms are usually extremely expensive to design and build. What all of us are left with is doing the best we can with the knowledge, materials, and money that we have.  Most of the time it is possible to do a decent job without breaking the bank. There are whole books dedicated to how to build and treat rooms (the college boys call this stuff "acoustics"), but I can give you a quick look at some of the most basic rules here.

The most difficult thing to fix about a room is its basic structure, meaning where the walls, floor and ceiling are, and what they are made of.  This means we have to start with the shape of the room itself. Since we listen in stereo, the room should be symmetrical, meaning that if you draw a line from front to back through the listening position, the contours that you see on either side of the line will be perfect mirror images of each other.  Many of us have to work with existing rooms, so the wild shapes we see in some of the magazines are pretty much ruled out.  Most of the symmetrical rooms you can find in standard construction are rectangular, meaning that opposite walls will be parallel, and so will floors and ceilings (not the best idea, by the way, but we can live with it).  Certain proportions of dimensions work better than others.  If a room is too close to being a perfect cube, it is not the best choice.  If a room is stretched out enough one way to start to look more like a long narrow hall, it is also not likely to work well.  In both cases, the room will want to strongly emphasize certain frequencies (notes or pitches), and may severely reduce others.  These frequency emphasis points are called "resonances", and all rooms have them; the trick is to have the resonances evenly spread out, rather than "bunched" together, so that you get the smoothest sound possible.

Once you have found (or built) your room, you need to lay out your furniture and equipment correctly. This means, first of all, deciding where the engineer sits and where the speakers go.  Obviously, the distances from the engineer's head to each of the speakers (left and right) should be the same.  You generally get the best imaging when the two speakers are about as far apart from each other as they (each) are from the engineer.  Much closer together and it is hard to hear where things are panned, much farther apart and you start to lose the center (the old timers called this effect "hole in the middle"). Once again, remember that a line drawn on the floor from the front to the back wall and through the engineer's position should split the room right down the middle.  When everything is set up, there should not be anything blocking the path from each speaker to the engineer.  The tweeters in the monitors should be at or just above ear level, with speakers aimed directly at the engineer.

From here it gets a little trickier. The closer any speaker is to any wall, floor, or ceiling, the more its sound will be affected by the room. This is especially true for bass.  Moving a speaker closer to a room boundary or corner will boost the bass, but it will also make the bass more uneven. In extreme cases, this can make some bass notes too loud, and cause other low notes to be almost "sucked out". It is possible to build "bass traps" to fix these problems, but it is easier to move the speakers out more into the room. Another common problem with putting speakers too close to a room wall is that the bass will build up at the very front and back of the room, but sounds weak at the mix position. Again, getting the speakers away from a wall may help.

For higher frequencies, the main problem is reflections from any large flat surface. These reflections can mess up frequency response and can also really trash imaging.  The easiest fix here is to use acoustical foam (do NOT use mattress pads: they are EXTREMELY flammable.  Proper acoustical foams may cost a little more, but they are usually made to be fire retardant.  I know about this because I ran some fire safety tests of my own when putting my own room together) place where the main "bounce points" are (when in doubt have someone hold up a mirror there; if you can see a speaker, you have a reflection for sound as well).  Putting foam on all the walls is not usually a good idea, because you will lose too much of the upper mids and highs in the room.

Do not forget that all those knobs on your console are sticking up from a large flat surface.  If you can see the reflection of your speakers in a mirror laid on top of your board, move them back a bit;  your mixes will thank you.

Now I will tell you two simple things that you can do to help your mixes that won't cost you any money. First, walk outside of the control room during test playbacks once in a while. It's a quick way of getting a different perspective, and a lot of people actually sometimes listen to their favorite jams that way.  If you can hear all of the important stuff (like the words) clearly in the next room, you probably did something right. Second, CHECK YOUR MIXES IN MONO!  In the real world, many people still hear their music in mono.  Hitting the mono button on your board costs you nothing.  If you do it and discover that something big like the bass or the lead vocal goes away, or if the sound changes drastically, something important is probably wrong, and if you don't catch it now, your client probably will later.

Finally, a warning against equalizing your monitors: trying to fix room problems with a graphic equalizer will cause as many problems as it solves.  PA guys equalize their systems because they CAN'T fix the rooms they are in, and they have to fight feedback. Careful adjustment of the controls on the speaker itself is a good idea, if you know what you are doing (just remember to set the controls the same way on both speakers).

The point of all this, of course, is that the more accurately you  hear, the more accurately you can mix. Even if you can't make your monitor setup perfect, a little common sense and some sweat can save you a lot of frustration later. After all, if you didn't hear it, you don't know what you did.
 

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