Posts Tagged ‘ Monitoring ’

How to get the right amount of bass in your mix

Just a quickie today…

Getting the right amount of bass in a mix seems to be a common problem that a lot of inexperienced mix engineers have. People often have too much or too little bass in their mix and don’t actually realise it until they get an outside perspective. If this is you, try to do these three things:

1) Listen to references. As I’ve spoken about in the past, you need to know your monitoring environment.

2) Resist the urge for more bass. More bass sounds cool and can get you excited and inspired… just remember that you might be overhyping your mix. Don’t be disappointed if it comes back from mastering sounding thinner than you’re used to.

3) Adjust your monitors. If your mixes regularly have too much bass, try turning the bass up in your monitors. Likewise, if your mixes are regularly weak in the bass, try turning the bass down in your monitors. Don’t be dramatic here – even 3dB can make a big difference to your perception.

-Kim.

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Does your music sounds good on all systems?

It seems a common problem people have with their mixes is translation. That is, their mixes don’t translate well between different playback systems. A mix might sound great on one system, but awful on another. Just because your mix sounds great in your studio doesn’t mean it’ll sound great everywhere!

Often, people are advised to overcome this by listening to their mixes on a variety of playback systems – in the studio, in the home cinema, on the bedroom alarm clock, in the car, at the club, etc. This can be useful, but it’s quite time-intensive. You have to render the mix and put it on an iPod or CD and take notes on what you think might need fixing. And you need to keep repeating the process until either you get the mix right, you can’t figure out what else is wrong or you get tired of listening to your crappy mix over and over again.

Another approach you might want to consider is to focus on your own monitoring environment. This requires two activities: improving your monitoring environment, and knowing your monitoring environment.

If you’re serious about mixing, you need to be serious about your monitoring environment. You need to understand that your monitoring environment is more than just your speakers and that improving it is more than just buying better speakers. Your monitoring environment consists of all your playback devices and their acoustic surroundings. For a studio, this will consist of the space, speakers and headphones. Improving the monitoring environment doesn’t necessarily mean getting better versions of what you already have. It might mean adding a second (or third) pair of speakers. Or adding some good headphones. Or investing in acoustic treatment. To make these kinds of decisions, however, requires that you understand your monitoring environment and appreciate the way the different components interact.

Having a great monitoring environment is necessary, but not sufficient. To use it effectively, you need to know what it does to music. You need to know how to use it. Doing this is easy – simply listen to a lot of music! Listen through your full-range speakers. Listen through your small speakers. Listen through your headphones. Listen in different positions in your room. Listen to different artists, different styles, different sounds. The more you do this, the better you’ll be at gaining an intuitive sense for what ‘sounds right’ in the space. It is this intuitive sense that will guide you in your own mixes.

I’ll leave you with one question: Does your music really need to sound good everywhere? What are some circumstances where it might not need to sound good everywhere?

-Kim.

How to convince yourself to invest in acoustic treatment

You need to acoustically treat your room.

You know it. You’ve read the articles, you’ve had people tell you. You already know that it’s holding you back.

The problem is that you haven’t done it yet. Despite you knowing how important it is, it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe you’re not sure how to do it, maybe that money has mysteriously disappeared into more plugins or instruments or other hardware.  Maybe it’s just not sexy.

If you’re not quite sure how to do it, relax. It’s not that hard. For a basic studio, you should start with some wall panels and some bass traps. The wall panels absorb and disperse the first reflections from your speakers. Imagine mirrors on your walls – anywhere you would see the reflection of your speakers when you sit at your mixing position is where you should put a wall panel. The bass traps hide in the corners and edges of the room. That’s it. That approach will get you decent results for the first round of treatment, and will most likely be a noticeable improvement on your current environment (you can get more sophisticated if you want, but wait until you’re designing your next studio for that).

If the money keeps mysteriously disappearing into more plugins or other gear, take a good hard long look at your setup. Chances are, you’ve already got plenty of gear. Chances are, you’ve got enough gear to last you the next few albums, at least. Don’t kid yourself. How many more analogue-modelling synths do you need? How many more kick drum samples do you need?

Chances are, you need a new chair more than you need more music gear.

Despite what anyone else will tell you, acoustic treatment is sexy. It adds more sex appeal to your studio than any plugin or computer upgrade. Acoustic treatment impresses people who don’t even know what it is, or why it’s important (you’ll recognise them as the ones who call it ‘sound proofing’). Acoustic treatment is how people instantly know you’re serious about your studio – especially if it’s a modern computer-based studio which isn’t necessarily brimming with hardware.

It’s also how you know you’re serious about your studio. Acoustically treating your room will motivate you and make you work more than you expect. It will make you excited to listen to music, it will make you excited to work on your own music. It will actually make you more productive.

And besides, there’s nothing quite like telling people you spent $600 on foam!

-Kim.

Monitoring gain staging

The reason the commercial references are so loud is that they have very little headroom – the average level is so high that there’s not much room for the peaks (which have been squashed down). When mixing, however, you shouldn’t worry about headroom on the mix bus. You need to give yourself enough headroom that you can focus on the task of mixing – getting the balance between the different sounds right. Wait until mastering before you tackle the “mastering loudness” problem.

If you try to mix at commercial levels (with extremely low headroom) by using a limiter on the mix bus, you’ll have an extremely difficult time of it because every small change you make to a sound will change the other sounds in noticeable and largely unpredictable ways. For example, if you turn up the vocals, the bass might become quieter (because everything becomes quieter). Noticing the bass, you turn it up, which might make the whole mix more distorted (particularly if you’re using saturating processors on your mix bus). It also causes problems because setting a channel to solo causes it to sound very different to how it sounds in the mix (because it’s being modulated by the other channels).

To make sure you have enough headroom at mixing, simply turn your speakers up. Turn the volume up much higher than you would have it for regular listening. Don’t use any processors on your mix bus. Your mix will end up “quiet” (because it’s much further from 0dBfs than your commercial references), but don’t worry. Mastering is a separate process, and one of the purposes of mastering is to bring the overall volume up to its final level.

By doing this, you are free to focus on the mix.

-Kim.

Headphones

Headphones are a part of a well-balanced monitoring environment. They offer a different listening perspective to the speakers in your room. Generally, headphones allow more detailed and focussed listening, which makes them ideal for spotting problems in recorded audio, such as background noise or interference. They’re also essential for recording acoustic instruments such as vocals, guitars or drums.

The drawback to using headphones is that the sound is generally drier and wider than when listening with speakers. Personally I find they can be misleading for judging dynamics too – the difference between levels seems to be smaller than when listening to speakers. These factors make it more difficult to use headphones for judging front-to-back depth.

What headphones are good at, however, is zooming in on audio. Headphones can be great for hearing details that you might otherwise miss with speakers – such as rumble, hiss, crackles, breaths, background noise, distortion etc. Headphones can be excellent for surgical correction and cleaning up. They can also be useful for judging subtle distortion when using limiters and saturation to reduce headroom in mastering.

If you choose well, you can use your headphones to compensate for weaknesses in your speakers – either using bright headphones alongside muddy speakers or deep headphones alongside thin speakers.

-Kim

Speakers

The speakers are the most obvious component of a monitoring environment, but not necessarily the most important. It’s also not simple to choose speakers.

Full-range monitors

Full-range monitors usually have large woofers and are designed to produce sound down to low frequencies (in addition to high frequencies). These monitors try to reproduce the broadest range of sounds. Because of this, these can be attractive as “first” monitors. Be aware though, that there’s no free lunch. Reproducing those lower frequencies requires large cones, which are good at reproducing lower frequencies but aren’t so accurate at higher frequencies. The top of the frequency range is usually covered by the tweater, which is good at reproducing high frequencies but not as strong on lower frequencies. This approach results in a speaker that is strongest at high and low frequencies but might be weaker in the mid-range.

Smaller speakers

Another approach to the size/frequency trade-off is to use a medium-sized woofer with a tweater. This approach focusses the strength and accuracy of the speaker in the middle and high frequencies. This is good for making a lot of mix decisions, because the mids and highs is where the most instruments are playing together and where its most important to get the balance right in the mix. The drawback, of course, is that these speakers are weakest in the bass. This can be a particular problem when working on modern electronic music, where the kick and bassline are extremely important.

Subwoofer

A common solution to the problem of smaller speakers’ bass response is to add a subwoofer. This is a third speaker focussed on the lowest frequencies. This has the potential for a more accurate approach across the whole frequency range. The drawback, however, is that it’s easy to mis-configure the subwoofer (usually by making it too loud). The way the subwoofer works with the other speakers depends greatly on the room their placed in, meaning the configuration is very much up to you (or whoever configures your room for you). It’s common to hear large amounts of bass as pleasing or exciting, making it difficult to resist the urge to configure the system to sound exciting instead of accurate. Another problem more common with cheaper subwoofer-based systems is that the front speakers are too small to reproduce the lower mids (which are poorly compensated for by the subwoofer) , and the subwoofer is too small to accurately reproduce the lowest frequencies anyway.

Of course, a well-rounded monitoring environment consists of more than one set of speakers so that the weaknesses in a single set doesn’t become a weakness in the whole monitoring environment.

-Kim.

The space

The space you listen in is just as important as the speakers. There are many different types of acoustic spaces, and if you want to get the best out of your space you should try to understand the relevant acoustic properties. Spaces generally have three broad properties that you should pay attention to:

  • The size and shape of the space
  • The surface coverings
  • The placement of objects within the space

Size and shape

The size and shape of the studio are a critical factor in determining the general acoustic character of the room. Parallel walls create standing waves, which skew the native frequency response of the room. Unfortunately, most rooms have several parallel walls! The more square a room is, the greater the problems with standing waves. Larger rooms have standing waves at lower frequencies, which interfers less with the audible audio range. Conversely, smaller rooms have standing waves at higher frequencies, which interfers more with the audible audio range. The ideal size is a trade-off, however, because larger rooms bring other problems, such as reverberation.  Also, the ideal room shape wouldn’t have any parallel walls, but you might have to settle for less if you’re not in a position to design a new room (or inherit a previously-designed acoustic room)

Surface coverings

The type and arrangement of surface coverings will affect the reverberation characteristics of the room. Uneven surfaces (such as bookshelves) will “break up” the reflections and make the  reverberation smoother (which is less distracting). Soft surfaces (such as foam or fabric) will absorb sound and reduce the reverberation time and level. Again, correct treatment of surfaces is a trade-off. Too much absorption will makes the room sound dead and unnartural, which may encourage you to create mixes that are more dense and washed out.

Placement of objects

The placement of objects within the space also affects the sound of the room. Large objects can help absorb lower frequencies that surface coverings can’t absorb. This can be used to make the room less boomy. Objects can also diffuse the reflections in the room, helping to make the reverberation smoother.

-Kim.