LISTENING IS MOST IMPORTANT
by Mark King for proworkshop.com
Rupert Neve, First Contact
Back in 1991 at my first AES convention in New York City, Rupert Neve told me a good set of speakers were the most important tool of any engineer, you need to develop your listening.
It was at that trade show that I first heard the Meyer HD-1 studio monitors, they were everywhere in-use by 40% of the exhibitors because they were so compact and sounded so good. Finally 11 years later I ordered a new set of HD-1 that have been a joy to own and use ever since.
WHAT IS A GOOD SET OF SPEAKERS?
JBL did years of extensive research and development into what listeners really wanted from their speakers. Flat, uniform frequency response was the answer. They arrived at this from elaborate blind A-B comparison listening tests which proved the idea repeatedly.
After you acquire your good set of speakers, get accustomed to them and learn to make stereo mixes while listening to them, what's next?
INDUSTRY-STANDARD BAD SOUNDING SPEAKERS
In the 1970's the Auratone Super Sound Cube was an inexpensive set of full range speakers that got a lot of press from Quincy Jones using them as a reference in the recording studio. They were relatively inexpensive, very compact and for a brief period in history they provided an industry-standard, low-cost, average (ok bad) sounding reference speaker. I never liked them though I was an early adopter. It's sacrilege to say such a thing to many audio engineers who revere these for various sonic reasons. Trust me, I had the originals, I powered them with a nice Crown 300 so I had plenty of clean power, they just sounded like very average speakers, perhaps the originators of the "no highs, no lows" market segment.
WHY LISTEN ON AVERAGE SPEAKERS?
It's easy to get into a rut listening on the same speakers all the time. This is why it's important to listen to your mix on something else, it will help reveal deficiencies that may need attention.
Does your latest mix sound good when you listen to it on the internal speakers of a high end laptop?
How does it sound on an iPhone?
How does it sound on your TV system? Seriously, do you want film and video placements for your music?
I know, with lo-fi speakers it does not have any bass or top-end but the song should still work, the vocals should still engage and be balanced against the music, the effects should not be too loud, guitars should sound tight and together, keyboard sounds should still be right and so on. Many problems in a mix can have a spotlight pointed at them by listening on less-than-ideal speakers.
Do you listen to your mixes on the car stereo? I still make CD's so I can listen to them on different systems because I'm always curious how my mixes will sound on various speakers. It's also a good way to quickly compare my work to commercial CD products.
BE SURE TO CHECK THE MIX WITH HEADPHONES
I never mix a song using headphones but checking how a mix sounds on them is first order of business. In our studio we have all price ranges of headphones to cover a wide variety of tracking situations and client needs. I like to listen to stereo mixes on every one of these headphones, they all reveal something about the quality of a mix.
My personal favorite headphones currently are the Audio Technica ATH-50 for day-to-day use and listening while tracking. The Sennhesier HD600 are my regular pick for high-end alternative reference.
In the drum booth Vic Firth high isolation headphones have taken over as the drummers favorites, displacing all the Audio Technica and the Extreme Isolation headphone models. I like them because no click track can bleed out of them and be picked up by the sensitive overhead stereo microphones.
In the studio we also have the Sennheiser HD650 headphones which are a bit less revealing than the HD600 but a bit more pleasant sounding for average listening (great for listening to movies too). It is always surprising how different a mix sounds on the Audio Technica headphones compared to the Sennheiser models. The AT have a bit more punch while the Sennheisers are a bit more accurate, both are great.
I like to check how mixes sound on all these different headphones. By listening on so many different playback devices your ears learn to distinguish how various details in a mix are represented across varying levels of somewhat-uniform response.
LISTEN AT STANDARD LEVELS
To listen at exacting levels you need a sound level meter. It does not need to be a super expensive meter, the one we use at Proworkshop was about $30 new and it has lasted for over 25 years. The meter is battery powered and typically lays on the mixer in front of the engineer so it's easy to see. The microphone is omnidirectional so placement is not a huge issue.
When we're mixing at Proworkshop 90 dB is loud, 85 is the typical target volume level on the Meyer near-field monitors. It's important to watch the level to protect your hearing. Google "OSHA sound level recommendations" for more details about sound levels that can damage your ears.
It's important to check your mix at both high-volume and very low-volume levels. For high-volume we have a large Bose system that easily provides a nice full-balanced sound at over 105 dB. For low volume we use the Meyer monitors and reduce the volume to 75 dB for the loudest peak sounds. This can help reveal portions of a mix that are too soft (unless you're mixing classical music with big dynamic range). For pop and rock mixes, if certain instruments or vocals disappear at low volume they probably need to come up in the mix. Likewise if some vocals or lead-instruments are still dominating and loud in the mix, even at low listening levels, these elements might need to be reduced in volume relative to everything else.
Ideally a mix should still sound like itself at low listening levels, all elements should be present, just quieter.
LISTEN TO YOUR MIX ON A VARIETY OF SPEAKERS
Besides hearing your mix on different speakers, learn to listen to individual elements in the mix.
- Do vocals start and stop together? Do you want them to?
- Do doubled or overdubbed guitars sound tight and together or are they coming in and out all over the place seemingly at random? Hint: playing tighter and together on overdubs and doubled parts sounds better
- Can you hear the bass guitar at all? Is the bass playing with the kick drum?
- Is the bass drum audible? Is it too loud or inaudible?
- Is the melody vocal out in front on harmony parts? Should it be?
- Are the quiet parts too soft when listening to the song very softly?
When you improve your listening you'll improve the tracks you record and mix because you'll know what you're listening for.
Good music to you!