Listening session at Rutger Verberkmoes—Music Composition & Sound Design . . . that''s a lot of speakers!
If your mixes routinely fail to achieve the level of excellence you strive for, maybe the problem isn''t with your skills in juggling faders, equalizers, and compressors. You might just be listening the wrong way. Use these simple strategies for changing the way you listen, and nail your next mix.
LET IT SUCK
It''s a misconception that your mix should sound great on all consumer playback systems. If a killer mix for a major-label release in your music genre sounds boomy on your car stereo, your mix should also sound boomy—to the same degree—on that system. If you were to EQ your mix so that the low end sounded balanced on that lopsided equipment, it would sound paper-thin on most other stereos. Learn how great mixes sound on each of your monitors, professional and consumer. Then aim for those benchmarks in your own mixes.
TURN DOWN THE VOLUME
Resist the urge to work with your control-room monitors cranked up. Listening at a loud volume introduces three stumbling blocks that are sure to trip up your mix. First, it causes ear fatigue. Second, it excites room modes. And third, the Fletcher-Munson Effect comes into play.
When your ears get fatigued from listening to loud music for an extended period of time, your ability to hear high frequencies becomes compromised. Your natural reaction will be to boost highs on your tracks so you can hear them more clearly. The next day, after your hearing has recovered, your mix will sound piercing and brittle. To mix highs in proper balance with mids and lows, keep your playback volume quiet as a mouse for most of your mixdown session.
Loud sound pressure levels (SPLs) also amplify the effect of room modes. Room modes are acoustic phenomena that cause very narrow dips and peaks in your control room''s frequency response. (Even the best studios suffer from room modes to some degree.) The dips and peaks occur at different frequencies depending on the dimensions of your room and are most troublesome in the bass range. A room mode causing a boost at 100Hz, for example, might trick you into cutting that frequency in your mix to reduce boominess. When you listen to your mix in other rooms that don''t exhibit a peak at 100Hz, your bass-starved mix will sound thin. Fortunately, listening at a low volume makes room modes sound less prominent. Turn down your monitors, and you''ll hear a truer representation of your mix''s spectral balance.
Mixing at loud levels also introduces the Fletcher-Munson Effect, a phenomenon wherein our ears become progressively more sensitive to very low and high frequencies as SPLs increase. Listening with monitors cranked, you can easily be tricked into thinking the bass and highs are muscular when in fact they may be weak relative to midrange frequencies. To avoid a dull and thin sound, EQ the top and bottom ends of your mix while listening quietly. When you crank the playback level later on, the intensified bass and highs will blow you away!
CRUISE THE ROOM
If a room mode or other acoustic anomaly makes it hard for you to evaluate your mix''s bass balance at a certain frequency while sitting in the mix position, sit or stand somewhere else to suss it out. You can bet that frequency is going to be reproduced truly at some other place in your room. (The “true” spot will be different in each room.) Listen to bass tracks on major-label releases while walking the room to figure out where that frequency sounds right. For example, I can''t get a true read on how prominent 43Hz (roughly a low F on the bass) is in my mix while sitting at my mix position. But standing three feet from the back and four feet from the left wall of my control room, the picture becomes clear. I always stand in that spot at some point during the mix process and initiate playback on my DAW using my Frontier Design TranzPort remote control. I evaluate the 43Hz neighborhood while at the back of the room, return to the mix position to tweak its EQ accordingly, and repeat the process until the low bass is perfectly balanced with the other spectra.
LEAVE THE ROOM
It''s sometimes hard to tell whether or not the lead vocal and guitar solo are at the proper level in the mix. To gain perspective, stand outside your control room—leaving the door open—for a listen. You won''t hear much detail, but you''ll get the big picture.
SEE WHAT DISAPPEARS LAST
Listen to your mix on bass-deprived, midrangey monitors such as the Yamaha NS-10M or Avant Electronics Avantone MixCubes. Slowly turn down the monitor level until your mix is almost inaudible. If the lead vocal and guitar solo disappear before other elements of the mix, they''re mixed too low.
MAKE A SWITCH
Wire all your reference monitors to a speaker switchbox that allows you to hear your monitors separately and in combination. Engaging the switches in turn while mixing, listen to your near-fields with and without your subwoofer in-circuit. Switch between your full-range speakers and consumer-playback proxies (your midrangey monitors) often, listening to each pair separately. You''ll know your mix is in the can when it sounds great on every reference system, big and small.