If you were to browse any of the popular recording forums, it wouldn’t take you long to find someone complaining about how their mixes don’t translate.
What he’s complaining about is that he records a song, spends hours in his studio mixing it, and then it sounds completely different when he burns a copy to go listen to in his car or stereo.
This is something that has always plagued engineers and will continue to do so for years to come.
The issue? Everybody listens to music on a different set of speakers. And no two sets of speakers sound the same. So a perfectly crafted mix on one pair of speakers could sound really bass-heavy and muddy on another pair.
While there is no quick fix for this, the biggest reason mixes don’t translate is inaccurate studio monitors. (When I say studio monitors, I’m referring to speakers specifically designed for “reference monitoring” in a recording environment.)
When you’re mixing a song, you want to hear exactly what’s going on in the music. If you’ve got a cheap set of speakers that do something to the sound to make it sound “better,” you’ll end up with a mix that sounds good…but only on that specific pair of speakers…not anywhere else.
Imagine you’re a really bad vocalist. (Don’t freak out, this is strictly hypothetical.) Now imagine that you have a magical set of speakers that make you sound amazing. Everything you sing through them is just heavenly.
Here’s the catch. These speakers are too big and heavy to take to a gig or studio, so you only sound good at home.
Now you go to sing in a studio or at a gig (or at an American Idol audition), and your real voice comes out. Suddenly you’re all over the news as the world’s worst vocalist. If only your speakers (and your friends) had told you the truth.
Flat is Good
So we’re in a agreement. You don’t want your studio monitors to lie to you. What you want is a pair of monitors that have a flat frequency response, meaning they don’t boost or cut certain frequencies. Flat studio monitors give you a clean slate on which you can build your mixes.
So…which monitors are flat? A lot of the same principles I discussed with microphones applies to studio monitors. You get what you pay for. Cheaper monitors tend to be less flat than more expensive ones.
Microphones and studio monitors are arguably the most important part of your studio. Microphones capture the sound. Studio monitors reproduce it. Yes, you need a good audio interface, but it’s all for naught if your microphones and monitors are garbage.
That being said, you should plan to invest a decent amount of money into your monitors – at least a couple hundred dollars.
There are as many monitor options as there are microphone options, but the main point I want to make is this – Don’t use cheap computer speakers to mix your music.
Rather than dropping $70 on a pair of Logitech computer speakers at Best Buy, go to a place like Sweetwater.com and check out the studio monitors. Any studio monitor would be better than cheap computer speakers. Trust me…I used them on my first album in high school, and as I’ve said before, ’twasn’t good.
You’ll notice that there are studio monitors of all different shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, the bigger the speaker, the better it is at reproducing low frequencies. A 3-inch monitor isn’t going to have nearly the same bass response as an 8-inch monitor.
The biggest problem area I have when my mixes don’t translate well is how the lows sound. I mixed for a few years on some nice little 5-inch monitors. They sounded great and were fairly accurate. However, due to the fact that they were only 5-inch monitors, I couldn’t hear what was happening in the deep bass of my songs.
I would record something as simple as a guitar-vocal, and it would sound great in my studio. Then I’d play it on a system with bigger speakers and BOOM! There’s a TON of bass on the guitar that I simply couldn’t hear on my smaller monitors at home.
The bass was always there, from the moment I recorded it. I just never knew it because my speakers couldn’t reproduce it.
If you can afford it, try to get something with a 6-inch to 8-inch woofer on it. I’ve found that these tend to reproduce enough low frequency information to provide reliable, accurate mixes.
Spend at least $300-$500 if you can. $700-$1500 will get you into a really nice set of monitors, but avoid spending less than $200 if you can. You’ll only end up using them for a year at most. Then you’ll sell them for some nicer monitors.
What about headphones?
I’ll discuss headphones in the next article, but generally-speaking they’re not great for mixing (although it is certainly possible to do). Because they’re so close to your ears, they tend to make the bass sound louder than it actually is. Also, the stereo imaging (how the song sounds from left to right) is very different than with studio monitors. More on that to come.
What I Use
In my home studio, I use M-Audio EX66 monitors. They’re a bit different from your standard monitor in that they have two 6-inch woofers instead of a single woofer. This gives it a very deep, tight response.
Ever since I got these, I noticed that my mixes started sounding much better. I still have to work hard to manipulate the audio to my liking, but a good set of monitors always makes it easier to hear what’s going on in the mix.
What monitors do you use? What questions do you have? Leave a comment!