The Perfect Speaker

When I first thought of writing this article, the plan was to compare, contrast, and evaluate the differences between a whole gang load of speakers. I found this to be nearly impossible, though, without having endless hours to record basics, or mix, or master, or casually listen and use each set in each application. I mean I’ve been doing that for more than 15 years and find it an ever-evolving process, at best.
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But speakers deserve a solid treatment sitting, as they do, at the end of a long journey that starts with a mic. They let us move through history, raising folks from the dead so we can hear them as they were: Speakers bring a moment in time to life and reduce global distance to a breath.

Flash forward to now.

My world is a control room where I spend my time looking for the “perfect” mix: some chimera that rests on our ability to control the listening environment. After unmentionable years in my own studio, mixing in hundreds of rooms, from the top facilities to the worst garage, you’d think it would be easy . . . but you have good days. And bad months.

And traveling from control room to control room as an independent engineer, you might be carrying your speakers, amps, and cable to minimize the unknown factor of unknown rooms. Or, you’ve got a back pocket full of CDs that let you learn something about the speakers you’re provided; and you spend time moving them around (to the endless dismay of your client), testing left is really left and making sure tweeters aren’t blown, etc.

You learn how to make your environment as consistent as possible while dealing with the inexperience most artists have toward critical listening. Without meaning harm, an artist will ask for things that might not be what they really want in three months. A career as a producer or mix engineer is going to be built around how the musical content is received outside the control room. It’s your promotional tool without the benefit of your anecdotal tales of the studio and how horrible the environment was to work in. So getting it right the first time has everything to do with getting it right the first time . . . something you’ll never do with substandard speakers.

I never really thought of myself as a speaker whore, but apparently I have so many pairs it’s now officially embarrassing. So, I’m going to focus on the how, when, and what of speakers, big and small, in my own control room at OTR Studios [and a few of my other listening environments].

THE OFFRANDES, JEAN MARIE REYNAUD SPEAKER DESIGN

For many years, I only listened in the control room and checked mixes where and when I could, mostly because there wasn’t enough time for casual listening. I used to joke about friends playing my “audiophile” CDs on their $40,000 speakers knowing they were mixed on NS10s. During my days in A&R at Windham Hill, the speakers I had never worked on the right side. And, yes, the irony was lost on no one. It seemed my car speakers never worked on the right in those days, either, curiously enough.

But in 2002, I met Jean Claude Reynaud, an engineer/producer from France whose father, Jean Marie Reynaud, built audiophile speakers for more than 35 years. As my production partner, Jean Claude taught me about speaker characteristics in ways I never considered, as well as listening from the consumer’s point of view. He brought a pair of Offrandes with him, which we paired with Nelson Pass amps.

Jean Claude’s style was that of listening to one kind of speaker both in the studio and in the home. I was an NS10 with 300 watts kinda girl. It took me awhile to get used to the audiophile speakers, but the incredible life-like clarity of the Offrandes was amazing, and shocking as well. The mid range provided reality where most speakers fell short. It was the first time the power of mid-range hit me, and it’s not something to be gotten rid of: a great mid-range is the beauty of sound.

But as I started listening to all my previous productions on the Offrandes, I heard every nuance of reverbs tails, imaging issues, and the slightest bit of over compression. At first, I was horrified by every mix I had made, when in actuality, they hadn’t changed and were as good as ever. I had never heard them like this before. Listening to popular CDs on this system showed their faults as well. However, listening to a great recording was an awesome experience that you wanted more of . . . like a kid with candy.

Re-listening to recorded music over these speakers also made me appreciate the audiophile listener in a new way. They loved sound and music, and this needed to be honored and addressed. Those were the people buying my recordings. After 20 years of engineering records, I became an audiophile.

For the first time, I attended CES and checked out all the new speaker designs and thought it was curious that more engineers didn’t attend. After all, this is where our music ends up getting played. These were the people most appreciating our work. It seemed irresponsible to not pay attention to consumer electronic equipment. We ought to know how they’re building these things, whether in cars, AV, home theatres, or iPods.

So, at the moment, my home system is a 5.1 set of Offrandes where I listen casually and critically to CDs, surround and vinyl. My iPod is on continual shuffle of all my albums for when the need for miscellaneous sound outweighs the desire to locate the CD in the case.

TANNOY LITTLE REDS

At this point, I’ve adopted the habit of using the Tannoy Little Reds to cut basic tracks and listen on when I do overdubs in my control room. I really don’t like them that much, but they’re good enough and the artists seem to enjoy them. The Tannoys are big enough to not sit in a near-field position and aim slightly over my head when I’m at the console. I can play them louder than the other speakers and my ears aren’t in the direct line of fire.

When cutting basics, the band is often listening to music in headphones at loud volumes. When they enter the control room, there isn’t time for the ears to relax. The artist often requests volume levels that might kill a cow. Along those lines, overdubbing guitar or bass in the control room can have the same consequence. These folks are used to playing on stage in front of huge speakers . . . outside of setting up that situation (which sometimes happens), I’ll put them in front of the Tannoys and run for cover, taking the remote with me.

These speakers have long been discontinued. I have been offered three times their retail price several times. Apparently, these were the choice monitors of many heavy metal engineers in the ’80s. In my second control room, which was four times larger than the first, they have become tolerable to cut tracks on, though still they’re not my favorites.

AURATONES, NS10s, MEYER 833s, & RESISTING PUBLIC PRESSURE TO DIS THEM ALL

Typically, I start a mix on the HorrorTones (Auratones) for a number of reasons.

Reason 1: It’s hard to get the artist out of the room and you run the risk of tiring their ears if you start on the higher end systems. Eventually, they get bored while you’re on the Auratones and leave while you’re working. That’s the good news.

Reason 2: In the beginning of the mix, I prefer to be the one setting up the patches and cross patches on the board. While I might be patching a series of compressors and efx, I’m listening to the general balance of the instruments and making casual adjustments. I don’t really want to be listening critically at this point and prefer to save my ears. The Auratones are pretty perfect for this.

Reason 3: When I go under the headphones (Beyerdynamics DT250) to fine tune the placement for the stereo image, the Auratones are less likely to interfere with my judgment and the artist can enter the control room, listen, and I don’t worry they are ruining their ears. I could, and do, turn off the speakers, but it can be deadly boring in the control room for the others.

At low volumes, the Auratones show off distortion and intonation issues better than most of the high-end speakers. While you can’t really judge bass response, the theory that “if it sounds good on the small speakers, it’ll translate better in the final mix” still holds up for me. I will spend 50% of the time on the small speakers. It’s probably the best $60 I’ve ever spent.

Now’s the time for adjusting the reverbs and creating the environment for the song to live in. I go first to the NS10s and reference at as low a volume as I can so that the room has no effect in the mix.

I know NS10s get a bad rap. I also know that I have three pairs of them. The popularity of NS10s cries for spending some time on them, if only to cart with you to some remote location you don’t want to bring your $6,000 speakers. It’s a myth that they sound the same everywhere, though. My experience is the NS10s sound particularly different when powered with different amps, in various rooms, distance to walls, how they’re placed and what they sit on, more so than most speakers. You still need to reference known recordings. And they won’t sound as terrible if you make sure you have more than 300 watts of power.

At this point, I’m working quickly before my ears burn out, but I do start allowing the artist to make decisions about certain parts standing out more or less. I will reference to the Tannoys, then revert, and then reference to the Offrandes (which always sound so good, you don’t want to leave them).

One trick that seems to save my ears? Using a second set of speakers while I’m working on the NS10s. Far in the back of my control room, I have Meyers 833s that seem to act as a kind of stereo subwoofer/tweeter aspect so that I can take the volume down on the NS10s, which are probably killing my ears at this point. Note: The Meyers alone sound really terrible unless they can achieve a high volume.

Now, there’s a point, once or twice during a mix, when I give the mix some high volume. Kinda depends on my mood, but if I reference loudly too many times, I’ll be shot for the rest of the day. I try to control myself no matter how pleasurable it might seem at the time. I’ll turn up the volume, run quickly out of the control room, and listen to the mix in the adjacent room, where I’ve found it’s the best place to test balances of bass to vocals to drums, etc. I’ll take another 15 minutes of silence after this event.

Now we’re just about ready for the final approaches . . . that’s when I go to the Offrandes and hear every little %^*&^#% problem there is, and fix them. I turn down the volume and gradually increase to a comfortable level and do a mix. I might invite the artist in to check it out and ask for comments at this point, though I make sure the playback volume is the same so I can check for artifacts and discrepancies on the 2-track.

At this point, I’ll let the artists go to whatever speaker they want, though I’ll usually try to advise them to bring the levels down as they start to increase and lose their judgment. When the mixes are acceptable, I’ll go back to listening on the Auratones as we make copies to test for distortion, and listen on the headphones to make sure the stereo image is still intact.

WHAT SPEAKER MAGIC CAN DO

Over the years, I have tried the Mackies, 8" Tannoys, bought the Genelec 1031s (which are still in the box . . . I bring them out for parties), and used just about everything imaginable in other studios. In the long run, it’s mostly about what you are used to. No speaker is going to stop you from getting a bad mix.

Of the new designs coming out, we just got a set of speakers from NHT, the XD series. NHT has only recently put them on the market. They have a wonderful system that seems to jump holographically out of the box and fill the room. While I haven’t put them into the control room just yet, the freestanding model has been a great tool for checking mixes out of the control room. You can walk around and not have the image distort, they sound great, and the artists love them as well. And they look beautiful, which, as we well know, helps the listening process. Yeah. And “gullible” is not in the dictionary either.

My computer system uses a $100 Altec Lansing surround system. I like to emulate the home environment with it . . . speakers placed aimlessly everywhere. It’s great. Recently, I purchased a $30 mic/speaker for the iPod, which I love to check my mp3s on. My two cars have all both stereo speakers working now, I’m happy to announce, one a Bose system, one a Harmon. The point? It’s impossible to compare. Matching the JMR Offrandes with the Auratones or NS10s or 833s yields subjective results. Yet in a stereo mix, it’s nearly impossible to not use the less desirable Auratones and NS10s along with the high-end speakers.

The upshot? In the end, if you get a call from the artist or a fan that hears your work and compliments you on it, you’ve done your job. If in a year, you can still listen to your work and not cringe, consider yourself a success.

Cookie Marenco is a producer, engineer, and sound architect, and can be reached out and touched at otrstudios.com.