One of the ironies of mixing is that the more successful your work, the lousier the speakers on which it will be listened to. As a mix engineer, you have absolutely no control over that. But the one thing you do know is that your mixes will be heard on a wide spectrum of systems, including some of the worst. And knowing this allows you to wrest back control over your sound.
FIG. 1: Charles Dye at Supersonic Studios in Miami, with three sets of monitors set up for mixing: Genelec 8050s, Yamaha NS-10Ms, and Sony SRS-88s. He doesn''t like to use large, soffit-mounted studio monitors, such as those in the background.
When I mix a song, my goal is to create a great-sounding mix: a big sound with expansive width; lots of depth and separation; full, rich lows; well-defined mids; and clear, open highs. But because I know my mix won't always be heard on the best of speakers, I work hard to ensure that all of the recording's key elements — the rhythm, harmony, and melody — retain a consistent musical balance no matter the speaker.
Many techniques with EQ, compression, and effects can be used to accomplish these goals, but processing is not the only tool. Shaping the mix actually begins with how it's listened to. And there are a number of monitoring techniques you can use to achieve a big, powerful mix that will sound great on any speaker, regardless of frequency response.
Getting out of the Woods
Have you ever noticed how when you listen to a mix in the morning, you're able to hear things you hadn't noticed the night before? It's an empowering moment, because all of a sudden you have a fresh perspective. Problems become clear in an instant and you can correct them with just a few changes. It's both relieving and frustrating. Why couldn't you do that last night?
This is the forest-for-the-trees effect. When you get to the studio in the morning, you're able to hear the big picture, and the problems are suddenly obvious: the vocals are hideously drenched in reverb, or the snare is just way too loud. So, how was it possible to be so amazingly deaf to those deficiencies during the previous night's session, yet so attuned to them the next day?
The answer is that you're listening with a clear head and your ears are no longer prejudiced from hearing the same thing over and over. But wouldn't it be great if you could re-create this eureka moment many times a day while mixing? Well, you can, and it can really speed up the process.
A Forced Perspective
During a mix session, your goal is to keep your perspective the whole time and to come up with a mix that sounds good on all speakers. That might seem like it's asking a lot, but both those things are possible. How? By emulating how others will hear the mix, and forcing yourself to listen in as many ways as you can: on different speakers, at different volumes, and from different locations in the room. This will make it possible to create a mix that will translate well to many speakers, while also continually giving you a fresh perspective — waking up your ears to problems you couldn't hear minutes before.
Certainly, it's important to have high-quality monitors and an acoustically well-treated control room. If you can't accurately hear what's going on, decision making will be difficult. And this is especially true while recording. But accuracy in mixing is a very relative thing, because nearly everyone will hear your mix anywhere but in a studio.
I have at least three different sets of close-field monitors that I switch between when working on a mix (see Fig. 1):
- High-end, self-powered studio monitors with extended lows
- Consumer-grade bookshelf monitors
- Real-world lo-fi speakers
Although I frequently work in studios that have large, soffit-mounted monitors, I don't usually find them as useful as close-fields when mixing.
TIPS FOR PRODUCTIVE MONITORING
- Switch between different types of monitors to get a variety of perspectives. Don't spend all your time listening to your expensive monitors.
- Set up one pair of monitors off to the side of your mix position. You'll get different room interaction than you do with your mix-position monitors, and you can listen mainly through one ear when facing forward for a pseudo mono effect, or swivel and hear them full on.
- Don't mix with your monitors at loud volumes except for when you need to judge low end.
- Vary the levels at which you listen, and spend a lot of time with the volume turned low.
- Occasionally walk away from the mix position and listen from another part of the room or from right outside the door.
- Take short breaks to regain your perspective.
FIG. 2: The Yamaha MSP10 Studio, a biamped active monitor (now discontinued), is Dye''s top choice to fill the studio monitor role among the troika of speaker pairs he uses when mixing.
At the High End
My powered reference monitors are the most accurate speakers I use when mixing, reproducing the highs and lows as they actually are in my mix. They're a great choice because they include not only the speakers, but the entire system including the amplifier and crossover as well. Quality powered monitors have matched components that sound their best together. Such monitors are one of my most important investments.
Models like the Genelec 8050 or 1031, Mackie HR824, and Yamaha MSP10 Studio (which I use; see Fig. 2) are all excellent. But there are many comparable brands and models, and self-powered isn't the only way to go. The real key is to have a pair of accurate monitors with extended lows; generally a pair with 8-inch woofers is needed for good low-end reproduction.
Oddly enough, I use these monitors the least — usually only while I'm working on kick and bass — but their importance can't be overstated. Having monitors that can properly reproduce your mix's low-end balance is essential when shaping this critical area. Lows can be difficult to judge, and without accurate monitors you can get unpredictable results. (Some people use systems with subwoofers for judging lows, but because I don't, I can't offer any concrete advice about using them.)
At the same time, however, great-sounding speakers can be quite flattering to your mix and potentially fool you into believing that things sound better than they actually do. This is not to discount these speakers, but I simply don't stay on high-end monitors for too long while mixing.
Off the Shelf
Once I've got my low end sorted out, I'll spend a lot of my time on smaller, less expensive, and more consumer-oriented monitors like Yamaha NS-10Ms. Their predecessor, the NS-10, was actually designed for home use, but it became popular with recording and mixing engineers in the '80s, and Yamaha released the NS-10M in response. Neither model is manufactured anymore, but they're readily available on eBay, and Yamaha's current HS50M is intended, in part, to fill the void left by the discontinuation of the NS-10M.
Now, NS-10Ms are not great-sounding speakers, but I find that their limited frequency response more accurately represents how the listener may hear my mix. And experience has shown that mixes I do on NS-10Ms usually translate very well to many other speakers.
The cliché goes something like “If you can get your mix sounding good on NS-10Ms, it'll sound great anywhere.” And it's true, because NS-10Ms don't complement your mix with pretty top end and full lows. Instead, they make you work hard to get great sounds, and the results are definitely worth it.
The strength of NS-10Ms is their pronounced high mids, which force you to focus on this important frequency area where so many instruments have their definition. The vocals, guitars, keys, kick, snare, hat, toms, and even bass all have upper mid frequencies that need to be managed in a way that will allow each of them to speak without distracting from the others.
And whether you use NS-10s, HS50Ms, or another similar monitor, the point is to use speakers without extended lows and highs to better craft the mids of your mix.
In the Real World
In the end, the speakers I spend most of my mix time on are a small pair of self-powered computer speakers. The pair I currently use are Sony SRS-88s, but the actual model is less important than the fact that they're extremely “real world,” sort of like modern-day Auratones.
This type of monitor doesn't have any low end or high end to speak of, and you can't listen to them loud. So, all of a sudden your mix becomes totally about the music (as it should) and very little about pristine sound. As a result, these lo-fi monitors are perfect for balancing the instruments and doing automation.
As lo-fi as they are, these speakers work surprisingly well for EQ'ing, for the same reason the NS-10Ms work well in the high mids. Because these speakers have a pronounced woofy quality without much low end, they cause me to clean up my low mids on upper-register instruments. At the same time, they're great for making sure the kick and bass have enough low mids to cut properly on small speakers.
And because these speakers don't have much high-end response, they allow me to hear if instruments that are bright enough on high-quality monitors have enough definition in the upper mids to translate well to cheap speakers. Seriously, lo-fi speakers are really useful.
Mono a Mono
Besides using different speakers, there are other techniques you can employ to freshen up your view of the mix. The first is listening in mono. Many engineers swear by it, and there is a lot of validity to the technique. It works well when checking for phase problems — by listening for instruments that lose level. And it's a great way to force yourself to listen only to the balance and frequencies of your instruments, without being distracted by the exciting stereo panorama moving around you.
I don't like listening in mono; it takes the fun out of mixing, and for me, it's just not that useful. However, I will frequently listen in what I call manual mono (which I'll explain in the next section). And this brings me to the next technique: you may have noticed that when you take your mix out of the studio, even simply to a boombox in the next room, you hear things you hadn't noticed only minutes before. It's because the change in environment also gives you a new perspective.
I've found it's possible to actually re-create this effect in real time, while still tweaking the mix. Moving around from speaker to speaker as we've already talked about can jerk you into a whole new reality that gives you a fresh perspective of your mix almost every time you switch. But one thing isn't changing, and that's the room you're in.
When I have three sets of speakers set up in front of me, even though their sound changes as I switch between them, what remains constant is the impact of the room acoustics. This can cause three extremely different speakers to share common sonic characteristics. And that doesn't help the whole perspective issue.
FIGS. 3a and 3b: Placing an alternate set of speakers to the side of the mix position lets you swivel to face them so that you hear your mix interacting acoustically with a different part of the room (3a). If you listen to those same speakers while facing the main mix position, you''re hearing them mainly out of one ear, giving you a simulated mono effect (3b).
But I have a solution for this problem. Instead of placing my lo-fi speakers in front, I place them directly to the left of my mix position. This causes two things to happen. First, with the speakers to the side I will sometimes turn and face them, which changes the entire color of the room (see Figs. 3a and 3b). The speakers now interact quite differently with the space, making it seem like I'm hearing the mix back elsewhere. I also listen to them while facing forward (toward the console and the other speakers). With only my left ear facing the speakers, I essentially perceive the mix in mono, and this is what I refer to as manual mono. It most accurately represents the way many people will really hear my mixes: as incidental music that's mainly in the background.
Does It Hurt Yet?
Ever notice yourself reaching for the volume knob when your mix doesn't quite sound right? When you do, it should wake you up to the fact that the real problem is the mix itself. This is when you should turn the volume down instead.
Mixing loud is the best way to get a result that will sound wimpy and flat when played back on small speakers at a low volume. Why? Because the number 1 rule of monitoring is, “Everything sounds great loud.” Although blasting the playback works perfectly to make the drummer feel good after a take, it's pretty useless when you're trying to create a mix with any detail.
One reason is that our ears have built-in compressors, and at high volume they begin to distort. The louder the speakers get, the more your ears compress the sound, essentially impairing your ability to accurately judge dynamics. It can sound good at the time, but when you listen to it at more realistic volumes, your mix will be very different.
The frequency response of your ears changes as you turn up the volume, but you can use that to your advantage. By changing the level, you can alter the way your mind hears the mix. Like switching speakers, you can once again give yourself a fresh perspective.
Although listening loud for extended periods isn't generally a good practice while mixing, I do occasionally push the volume up, because louder levels help me more accurately judge low end. This is because the lowest frequencies are something you almost feel more than hear — literally in your chest. And you really can't sense this until you get some air moving.
Try a Little Quietness
Not only is an extended period of high-volume listening hazardous to your health, it will also temporarily burn out your ears. It will cause the highs to seem not bright enough, and instruments not loud enough. That is precisely why and when your mix will get out of whack — leaving you chasing sonic ghosts.
I find it's best to spend most of my time mixing at low volumes, what you would probably consider very quiet. I listen so quietly that even a whisper from the studio couch can be distracting. It might be difficult to get used to at first, but the longer you do it, the more you will realize how much easier it is to hear mix problems this way.
Try listening as quietly as you can. If you've never done it, I promise you'll hear detail you haven't heard before. And you'll soon learn your ears will have more productive hours in a day because of it. Listening loud can be exciting, but your emotions will often cloud your sonic judgment. Save it for the final playback.
Something Completely Different
Here are several low-tech but time-tested techniques for reinventing your listening environment. One of the simplest and most revealing is to get out of the hot seat and listen while relaxing on the studio couch. Or, if your studio doesn't have a couch, simply stand off-axis elsewhere in the room. The mix position has a tendency to put you in a very reactive state, constantly wanting to fix every problem you hear. But when you move away from it, the fact that you can't reach the knobs frees your mind to hear the mix in a new way.
Another method is to leave the environment completely. Get out of the studio for 15 to 30 minutes, just long enough to clear your mind completely of whatever you were zoned in on. When you come back, you'll be able to hear the whole mix, not just that hi-hat you were tweaking. Or, simply remove the environment from the equation altogether — by listening on headphones. It's a completely different way to hear your mix, and with all the iPods out there, it's how many others will hear it too. You can even try listening with iPod-style earbuds.
The next two suggestions may seem quirky, but they're effective. They're known as the “finger test” and the “door test.” For the former, you listen to the mix with your fingers in your ears. Really. And for the latter, you step outside the control room and listen back to the mix with the door closed or just slightly ajar. The effect for both is similar. By eliminating the top end in the mix, you can tell if all the instruments are well balanced. That is because all you can hear are the fundamental frequencies. It's not something you need to do very often, but a finger or door spot check can be very illustrative.
To review, listen to your mix on different speakers, at different volumes, and in different environments, and change between them often. The idea is to hear something unexpected, and there is no better way to do that than by changing your aural point of view. Of course, literally taking your mix out of the studio (like listening on your car stereo) can be helpful too, but the advantage to the techniques I've described is that you not only get a fresh perspective, but you also can tweak your mix while you're listening. And if you can get it sounding good in every situation, then you've got a great-sounding mix.
Grammy-winning engineer, mixer, and producer Charles Dye (Lauryn Hill, Shakira, Ricky Martin, Jon Bon Jovi) adapted this article from his DVD/DAW session-based mixing course Mix It Like a Record (www.likearecord.com).