You’ve just put the finishing touches on your new track, and it sounds Amazing. But tomorrow you play it at a friend’s studio and… huh? You give it to a club DJ and the bass frequencies (and the dancefloor) have disappeared!
If you’ve noticed perfectly good mixes fall apart when you leave the house, it’s time to get your mix translation game right…
It’s so common to have your song sounding good on your home setup then not sound good at all on someone else’s speakers. And before you quit in despair, know that there’s a few easy steps you can take to overcome this issue.
The two main factors are the acoustics of your room and the equipment you use. Together they combine to create what we might refer to as the sound of your setup. For speakers, most nearfield studio monitors these days (6 inch for regular sized rooms, 8 inch for large rooms) will do a good enough job, even the modestly priced brands. A massive factor is the acoustics: the shape of your room, the hard or soft surfaces and objects in that room, the acoustic treatment (or lack of any), and the positioning of your speakers all combine to determine how your speakers perform and how your production environment sounds. And only some of things you have any control over – for example most home producers can’t rebuild the shape and materials of their walls or flooring.
But the problem remains: if you’re making mix decisions or producing in a less than perfect environment, it will give you an inaccurate representation of your mix. For example, your room might reflect lots of bass frequencies, leading you to believe that your bassline sounds louder than it actually is – which might result in you mixing the bassline at a lower volume than you should. Or your room might have lots of hard reflective surfaces that send high frequencies bouncing everywhere, leading you to turn your hi-hats down too far in the mix.
Yes, professional studios will spend beaucoup dollars on the construction and interiors of their rooms to manage the acoustics, but don’t panic. Before you go out and spend every cent you have on acoustic treatment or rebuilding the actual room, start working on your mix translation skills.
A mix that translates well is one that sounds good on different speaker systems in various locations.
The simplest (and cheapest) solution, even if your setup or room or speakers is sub-par, is to test and analyse your mix in multiple environments. Kitchen, club, car, friend’s place… anywhere you can access, test how your mix is sounding. This is not a hack workaround, even top mixing engineers will test the translation of their tracks on multiple pairs of speakers.
Test often, and take notes each time you listen on a different setup. Literally, write down a description of the differences you’re hearing. Then go back to your setup and make adjustments to the mix, then re-test it in those other locations and make more notes. And repeat.
Not only will this help you create a finished mix that works in multiple environments, an important extra bonus is this process will reveal to you what the “sound” of your production room is. For example, does every system you test the mix on sound too bassy? This is likely because your room’s acoustics are removing bass so you’re overcompensating and turning it up too much. Get the idea?
Here are some good first steps to start improving your mix translation skills… and a couple of tips from our expert Mixing and Mastering engineers, Tim Watt and Dylan Martin.
Getting to know your room and your monitors is the most important thing for mixing work. Every space and playback system has its quirks, and knowing what they are and how to compensate for those quirks gives you confidence while mixing and ultimately results in better sounding mixes faster.
Moving out of your studio (or bedroom or wherever you produce) and testing on a normal domestic sound system is a classic for testing your mix. Overall the general trend for consumer sound systems (living room hifi, kitchen radio, car stereo, etc) is for them to sound “flattering” (ie make the music sound nicer) compared to studio speakers that do their best to be “neutral”. So you will hear your mix differently – and hear it more like your audience will eventually hear it, on their own home systems.
Other benefits of listening on home systems like these is they’re in diverse everyday listening environments – like a living room with soft furnishings like sofas, or a kitchen that has hard surfaces and a brighter more reverby sound – so each one lets you test under different acoustic conditions. And if any are space where you listen to music often, you also get a good comparison for your mix compared to other music you listen to.
An important point: consumer grade stereo systems often have all kinds of strange settings and presets available (graphic EQ’s on some systems, or presets like Dance, Classical, Pop, or others that might have a button that says Megabass or some such) – these can do weird things to your mix, turn off any effect settings like that – unless its a device you always listen on and you’ve always had that effect turned on, in which case leave it on, it’s a great reference point.
Another very common (some would say essential) test environment is the “Car Test”. If you own a car, chances are you’re extremely aware of the “sound” of its stereo. Some people listen to music in their car more than at home so it might be your most familiar reference environment. Even if you haven’t been consciously paying attention, you will be able to hear what sounds right and what sounds wrong. Cars are interesting listening environments because they are quite well acoustically treated (soft upholstery absorbs lots of sound) – this can help you understand how the bass works in your track and might help you hear details obscured by natural reverb in other environments.
If headphone listening is something you already do often, then you’ll have the benefit of being able to compare your mix to how things usually sound. But there’s more benefits to mix testing in headphones, so listening on various sets can be revealing.
Headphones provide a clean stereo image – literally the left signal goes to the left ear and vice versa – so it can be useful to listen through headphones to dial in your panning effects and get the width of spatial effects such as chorus and reverb sounding right.
Headphones can also be good for hearing detail in the bass range – things that might be obscured by the acoustics of your home studio may be more accurately heard in headphones.
Usually when listening through headphones you will be able to pick up more detail than you would have with a standard monitoring setup. However, one thing to be careful of in headphones is the detail can be deceiving: they allow you to zoom in on individual sounds easily, which can trick you into thinking those details are prominent in the mix. So use headphones to identify detail, but then check on speakers for volume balance and clarity.
Aka using your eyes, not just your ears. The perhaps overused phrase “trust your ears” can only get you so far, especially for those of us don’t have million dollar studios. A visual check with a spectrum analyser like Voxengo’s (free) SPAN analyser can be really useful.
As a general guide, if you run your track through SPAN, the default setting should look horizontal. Different genres will look closer to horizontal – brighter, noisier music like dubstep, modern Drum & Bass and pop tend to be almost flat, whilst darker sounding music like deeper techno might angle downwards to the right more.
Run a few reference tracks through to get a comparison. If your mix looks very ‘triangular’, angling down to the right hand side – you need to turn the bass down, tighten your kick up (low cut eq just a little to get rid of long sub-bass tails you might not even hear) – or add some top end. If the SPAN spectrum is very angled down towards the left, you might need some extra bass, or to turn the high frequencies down a bit. If it’s a little scooped in the middle, that’s pretty typical of music without a vocal. Of course if a vocal is really loud, you’ll probably notice that too. What you want to see is that the top is balanced with the bottom.
A balanced mix will be able to be turned up loud and not destroy peoples ears or speakers. It should translate to most sound systems. (please note – this advice is really specific to Voxengo SPAN. A flat spectrum in Ableton Live’s Spectrum plugin will sound VERY VERY bright).
Secondary Monitors (or more)
After you’ve done this so often that you’re successfully able to make mixes translate you’ll have learned a lot about know how your room “sounds” and can can compensate for those things while mixing.
At this point it might become convenient to install more speakers. In almost all professional studios you will find several pairs of monitors (eg: large, regular and small) so that, instead of moving to different rooms or systems you just hit a switch and play it through different speakers.
A word of caution – while this lets you quickly compare different playback systems (eg large speakers often have more bass, small speakers often have reduced bass), you’re still in your same acoustic environment. So if your room is not-so-perfect you will still need to test your mix in other locations, even if you have 500 different speakers in your room.
Different mix engineers have different preferences for which speakers they go for but the idea is to have several pairs of monitors that you know well. For many decades (and in some studios you still see them) a common pair of secondary reference monitors were the Yamaha NS10 – not because they’re awesome but specifically because they have a sound that some describe as “ugly”, the rationale being that if you can make your mix sound good on the NS10’s it will sound good everywhere else. Another bygone classic was to use an Auratone (aka “horror-tone”) speaker as a 3rd reference. These were small speakers (or speaker, because it was common to use a single one for testing in mono) that mimic a basic player like a kitchen radio (or car speaker back before car systems got fancy). So… if you’re upgrading your monitors consider keeping your old ones for a while – they can be good for a secondary reference. And maybe bring that kitchen speaker into the studio.
The Golden Rule
Always be testing! Remember when you’ve tested the mix on one setup, that doesn’t mean its now perfect. It’s all about the middle ground. Keep checking across different setups until you find a solution you’re happy with. If you can get a mix that sounds good across a lot of different environments, chances are you’ve found a mix that will translate well. Then hand it to that DJ mate and see how it sounds in the club!