When we mix music we primarily mix to please our ears, that’s great cause we all want to hear good sounds. However if we have problems or inconsistencies with our monitoring systems we can sometimes make a mix that does not sound as good as it could on other sound systems. This is known as mix translation or you might have heard the expression “How does the mix travel?” We are going to discuss how you can improve your monitoring, mix decision making and ultimately make your mixes sound as good as they can across the widest number of playback systems.
1. Acoustic Treatment
The enemy of good mix translation is bad acoustics, and an untreated room normally has a considerable amount of reflective surfaces and that means the sound waves will reflect from the boundaries (ceiling, walls and floor) and cause inaccuracy at the monitoring position. If you only heard direct sound without reflections it would be much more accurate and you would make better mix decisions. So the goal is to try and absorb some of the sound waves so they do not interfere with the direct sound coming from your speakers.
The good news is that acoustic treatment need not be expensive and is relatively easy to install. Firstly you will want to take care of the side walls, side walls can be fitted with 10cm thick acoustic foam or Owens Corning/Rockwool RW type products. Typically you will want a 1.2 x 1.2 meter square quantity of foam or Rockwool attached to both side walls mid way between you and your monitors.
Installing acoustic treatment on the ceiling will also help reduce flutter echoes and other reflections which can cause stereo image problems. Again acoustic foam products of not less than 10cms in depth are a good choice as they are easy to fit with the right adhesive. You can use sheets of Owens Corning but suspending them may require more ingenuity.
Bass traps are often somewhat bulky and encroach more on the space in the room, however once installed they are an excellent way of ensuring your low end is mixed with greater accuracy. Bass problems in mixes are common and there is only one real way to deal with the issue. Bass trapping requires the corners of the room to be straddled with Owens Corning or Rockwool, foam is not recommended for bass traps as it does not have such a good absorption coefficient. An alternative is to cut the material into triangles and stack it from the floor to the ceiling. Bass traps are usually augmented with some lightweight wooden frame to keep the slabs in place and covered with fire retardant cloth.
You can get more tips about acoustical treatment and building vocal booths here.
2. Use A Single Driver Speaker
A single driver loudspeaker is a very useful addition to any studio environment. It allows you to focus on the all important mid range frequencies in the mix. Studio loudspeakers normally have a tweeter and a woofer and they present all the information through the bass mids and highs. Not every sound system in the world has a tweeter but all systems have a mid range, whether big or small. A single driver loudspeaker can give a great insight into the often cluttered mid range and allow adjustments to snare, vocal and other instruments. The mid range often has many instruments fighting to be heard and it allows for better decision making. A secondary advantage to a single driver speaker is you can use one for testing your mix in mono which allows you to hear what it might sound like through a small radio.
3. Know Your Musical Genre
As mentioned in this guide on mixing tips, mixing a rock track is going to be somewhat different to mixing down a dubstep track. As we listen to music in our daily lives we build up a knowledge bank of how things are mean to sound. Unless you plan on reinventing the wheel it is a good idea to know your chosen genre. This allows you to know the differences that are likely in the tonal response of good mixes. It is important to know how much bass and kick drum is right for a dubstep track compared with a rock track for example. So by understanding and knowing a genre you will immediately understand what is the ball park appropriate tonal content for your mix down.
4. Test The Mix
There is absolutely no harm in testing your mix on different sound systems, maybe a friend has a big PA system you can listen on, or check how the mix stands up in the car, in a bar, another stereo system or on ear buds…
Take some brief notes about what you hear and decide what the pros and cons are of making adjustments either to the level or tone of instruments in the mix. Be diligent and make good balanced judgments. The goal is getting the mix sounding acceptable on all systems. Bear in mind a tiny radio is going to sound thinner than a PA system and that cheap ear buds may not have the same clarity as your studio monitors. A mix can never sound the same on all system, but you can find the mid point where the mix works acceptably well across them all. Cross reference and make small tweaks based on your findings. This is often an iterative process.
5. Compare The Mix
A good way to tell if your mix works within it’s genre is to reference a couple of tracks that have been released by other well known artists. No two tracks sound the same and that’s the not the goal, the goal is finding the right tone for your mix based on a few well regarded tracks. When doing this kind of check it is very important to ensure that you play the commercial tracks at the same level as your mix. So you will probably have to reduce the volume of the references to match your mix down in your digital audio workstation. Once you have well matched volumes you will find you can more easily focus on the tonal qualities of the mix and instrumental balance. This is because you have removed the volume differences which the ear is initially very sensitive to. Depending on how different your track is to the references make judgment on what to change. For future mixes you can introduce this technique at different stages of the mix process and see what produces the best results for your way of working.
6. Don’t Be Extreme.
Chances are if you have applied any extreme processing be it equalization, de-essing or compression and/or limiting. It will means that you are rectifying problems in the recording phase or addressing sonic issues related to your sound sources. heavy compression and extreme EQ boosts/cuts often suggest there is a problem with the source sound.
This is a useful point in time because you can build your production knowledge to make you select better sound sources for future productions and understand why such extreme processes were seen to be required. In a good mix you should not normally have applied what is deemed as extreme processing. Refining your recording techniques is often preferable than using extreme processing to hammer a square peg into a round hole.
These techniques should produce mixes that sound more consistent and more acceptable on a wide variety of playback systems. This is important, as you never know what kind of device people are going to be listening to your music on.
You can read more about mastering and studio production here.