Monitoring Strategies for Project Studios

At first glance I’m probably the last person qualified to write on the art of recording and mixing: after retiring my 4-track cassette deck and headphones I moved “up” to shareware and computer speakers which I suffered with for a long time. But if I’ve yet to master the art of recording and mixing I have gotten better at improving mixes in a very imperfect environment.

Most of you are probably in a situation that is similar to mine: you have some recording equipment in a basement, bedroom, garage, stuck with symmetrical box dimensions, low ceilings, etc. and have not, for whatever reason, invested in proper acoustical treatment such as bass traps, diffusers, etc.

A lot of our problems with recording in a lousy space can be solved through direct-recording technology and digital modeling. I always use DI when recording bass and probably half my guitar parts.

But mixing is an altogether different story. There’s no good way of bypassing the lousy space for mixing the way you can sometimes do with recording.

If you’ve made the mistake of mixing with headphones and/or computer speakers then you’ve already arrived at the conclusion that doing so is a terrible mistake: not only will you get bad mixes and false information but (in the case of headphones) you’ll destroy your ears in the process. But if, on the other hand, you’re planning on selling the farm to get a set of Genelec monitors then you might be throwing money away. Why?

Years ago when I was in a small basement space I thought it would be a great idea to get the most amazing monitors I could with a sub and all that but, after running a program that analyzes my room dimensions I found out that my mixing space will not even “support” frequencies below 75Hz. (You can find out about your room by running “room calc” downloadable for free). That doesn’t mean that those lower frequencies are absent but that, in that space, we’re not hearing them truthfully. And I have no plans for dumping thousands of dollars into making my current mixing space into a perfect mixing environment. So, what to do? Is there no hope?

The biggest challenge most of us face is hearing what’s going on in the bass frequencies. You’ve undoubtedly mixed a song on your workstation monitors only to be frustrated when you listened back to it in your car or on your home “Hi Fi” system. Without a rational plan to manage this problem you can be driven to madness by creating one random mix after another trying in a hit-and-miss fashion to accidentally create a good mix. Here’s the process I’ve recently hit upon to improve my mixes. I’m still not happy with the sound of my music but I can see genuine progress from song to song, usually. And when I make inevitable mistakes I can more easily document them and not commit them in the future.

1. Use speaker monitors that are as good as your room and rough out your mix using them. Do NOT try to mix with headphones.

2. While roughing out your mix it is a good idea to have a visual representation of what’s going on with not only your mix but with albums and songs you know sound good. Hence, get hold of a frequency analyzer. There are some hardware analyzers out there but there are many software versions available and some for free. My soundcard (RME Multiface) came with one and I think Voxengo has a good one freely available.

Once you have an analyzer, select a handful of albums that you love the sound of and make some notes on how the song “looks” – i.e. where does the kick peak, how much energy is there at 80Hz compared to 60Hz and 40Hz, how much energy is there at 10kHz, and so on. Now, this approach is useful and educational but, ultimately, it is not enough to merely try to “match” the visual representation of your song with songs that are known to be masterfully mixed. It will not make your song masterfully mixed!

3. In conjunction with a frequency analyzer and reference music you need some decent monitors. Remember, the space you’re stuck in probably isn’t world class so don’t blow your money on world-class monitors – unless, of course, you plan on upgrading your space at some future date. But even if you do go hog wild and spend $5,000 on monitors, remember, in your imperfect mixing environment, they will not live up to their full potential.

Get your song roughly mixed using your monitors and your frequency analyzer and then break out some actual monitoring headphones to check out the bottom end that you’re not hearing (properly) through your monitors. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on making my temporary basement space sound good or on overachieving monitors I got some really good cans. When I originally wrote this years ago I had equated “really good” with a budget of about $100. Ha ha. You cannot really fine-tune your mix with a pair of tracking and/or DJ phones. The bass hype or, inversely, the bass suck with make checking mixes impossible.

For tracking get the $100 closed-back cans but for your mixing/reference duties shell out what you need to get a set of really good, open-back phones, with a more or less flat frequency response out to the bass guitar’s low E fundamental, e.g., AKG K 701 or better.

And, importantly, unless you have a headphone amp that deliver a lot of power, get low impedance cans (40 – 65 ohms) rather than high impedance phones (approximately 600 ohms). But headphone amps are pretty cheap so impedance issues can easily be avoided. Just be aware of trying to check a mix on underpowered phones is quite irritating and counter-productive.

Get a mix that sounds good on your monitors and through your headphone collection. Then check it on your car stereo et al and you should find that your mixes are much better, i.e., that they ‘travel’ or ‘translate’ into acceptable mixes across multiple playback systems. This is a compromise and imperfect solution to an imperfect situation. You’re probably still not going to get “world class” mixes but with practice, note-taking, and diligence you can get better mixes over time.

Keep good notes on your mixes. Ask friends to listen and provide critique on your mixes. Ask them what they are listening through and where they are. Take more notes. If they note harshness in the area of, say, 7kH, for example, ask what they are listening back on and then research those speakers or headphones to see if the problem is you or their monitoring.

There is no one ideal or perfect mix. Each song calls for something unique. So don’t get imprisoned by the illusions of the “Perfect Sound” in the abstract.

Further, here are some ideas, vis-à-vis the lower end of the frequency spectrum that I’ve developed for myself. Again, these are just suggestions that I’ve developed (learned the hard way) and they may or may not apply for you or in all instances. Some of these are things you already know:

* Take care when adding ambience/reverb to your bass instruments (kick, bass guitar, synth pads, etc) as you can quickly build up a lot of mud in the lower end of the mix. A lot of synth patches (factory presets) are loaded with reverb and other DSP – try turning them off and recording your parts more dry. You can always add effects back in.

* High pass filters are your friend. Rather than using one with a steep slope use two with more gentle slopes.

* Avoid modulation effects like chorus or flange on your bass instruments or use with extreme moderation. Nothing is worse than your low frequencies swishing and swirling around – unless you’re creating music to accompany a documentary on sea sickness. Remember, the bass is your foundation and your song will probably sound better if the floor isn’t moving around like a drunken sailor.

* Fat, powerful kicks are great, fat powerful bass is great, fat powerful synth pads are great but, not everything can be fat and powerful or you end up with a tremendous buildup of energy in the bottom end of the song. Think of the mix as a puzzle that has to be assembled; each voice has to have its own space. If your kick is pounding away at 125Hz then it might not be a good idea to boost your bass at 125Hz. Cut the bass at 125Hz and boost a bit at 63Hz and 250Hz.

* On bass guitar and kick tracks try duplicating them (so that you have two of each) and treat each track separately. For example, think of the kick as two different animals altogether such that on one track you’re going to get a great sounding fundamental and octave and, on the other, you’ll filter out all the bottom end and aim for some definition and crunch in the higher overtones.

* Try spreading things around in the stereo filed. If the kick drum is hammering away right up the middle then try shifting the bass guitar a bit to the left and then a synth pad a bit to the right. The individual voices will appear more distinct and will require less EQ manipulation.

* Simple bass lines rather than complex ones will set in the mix better. If you’re playing a complex bass line try sweeping through your mids and high-mids to locate and push some of the transients and attack up to give more definition.

* Many times “ugly” and one-sided tones are the ones that sit best in the mix.

* Compression is your friend but it’s like sugar and salt – too much isn’t good for the body.