Join Brian Lee White for an in-depth discussion in this video Setting up the studio: Speakers and acoustics, part of Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools.
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Almost as important as a mixer's signal processing tools and mix knowhow is the environment that he or she will be mixing in. This includes your monitors or speakers, their placement and the room they are placed in. The mix environment can make or break even a seasoned engineer's mix and in this video, I'd like to share with you some basic ideas and considerations for setting up your mix space. Let's first talk about your monitors or speakers. So, think of your monitors as the window into your mix. If you have a dirty or colored window, this can distort your perception of the view outside.
Now, as far as choosing monitors, there are tons of excellent sounding and affordable monitors on the market but not all monitors are right for every individual. Generally, you are going to run into three different types of monitors: those are near field, mid field, and far field. Now, for the home studio and the small mix space, we are generally going to be working with near field monitors that are very close to our head. These are going to provide a more accurate frequency response in a smaller room.
When you are choosing a monitor, you definitely want to choose one that's right for your ears, not the one that the magazine told you to buy; you definitely want to go out and listen to as many pairs as possible. And when you think about it, everyone's ears are radically different, and everyone's tastes are different. So you need to think about how do you enjoy music, or idealize sound. Do you like a lot of low end, do you like it really bright? An example I always think of is one of my original mentors really love these old Genelec monitors and I always felt they were so bright, I couldn't even stand or listen to them.
Well, it turns out that he was much older than I was, and he had a whole career of sitting next to cymbals touring as a drummer. So his high frequency response was a little skew. And so to him, a super bright Genelec sounded perfect whereas to me, they were just way too bright. So you can kind of think about speakers like brands of car or flavors of soda or bubble gum; everyone is going to have a slightly different taste. But because they play such a critical role in your final output, you are going to want to dedicate a good chunk of your studio budget to a nice pair of monitors.
Now, a lot of people will ask me, should you buy NS-10s? Now, NS-10s were these monitors from Yamaha that came out late 70s and were used up through now by many of the top engineers, because they represented sort of this basic stereo setup that you could find in most home stereo systems. They sounded kind of bad and the rumor was that if you could get a good mix on a pair of NS-10s, it would sound good anywhere. Well, today, people's stereo systems are much different, in terms of current technology.
So while a lot of guys still mix on NS- 10s, it doesn't necessarily mean, you have to buy a pair and learn a pair. Actually in my opinion, I feel it's much easier to learn a more modern pair of monitors than it is to go back and buy a used pair of NS-10s, and you don't really know where they came from. Above all, you definitely want to check your mix on as many systems as possible. So, every speaker in every room is different, but as a general rule, I'd like to monitor on a high-end system and then some sort of generic home or computer system, this could be anything you pick up at your computer store for 20 or 30 bucks, or boombox or something like that.
And then on something really small, like a pair of ear buds, like iPod earbuds or small pair of headphones. So you definitely want to consider, who is going to be listening to your mix when you are considering what monitors you want to spend most of your time on. So, for example, I did a French children's record once and I knew that it was going to be played on a lot of really small boomboxes. So, I spent a lot of time considering the bass and how it would sound on very small speakers and actually, optimized my mix for those speakers, rather than optimizing it for more of an audio file system.
Now, a lot of people asked me, should I mix on headphones? Now, there are definite benefits to mixing with headphones. They are going to provide a consistent listening environment and a consistent low-end response, especially if you know and you learn the specific pair of headphones that you own, you are going to be able to mix in any space. Now, there are some concerns that you should know about. Headphones generally have a lack of stereo bleed from the left and right-hand channels and so, this often creates too much separation between the left and right and makes it really difficult to set pans and center channel levels in balance.
You are also not going to get any room ambiance, so you might tend to add too much reverb or delay when mixing on headphones. There are some new solutions that have come up on the market, a company 112dB makes something called the Redline Monitor and it's a plug-in that actually adjust your headphone mix to sound more like monitors. So, it gives you some cross-bleed between the left and the right, and a center channel and ambiance control. SPL also makes a hardware headphone amplifier called the Phonitor that does the same thing.
But you definitely want to spend some time to choose the right pair of headphones, especially if you're going to be doing a lot of mixing on them. So pick one that has a right amount of high frequency level for your taste so on, etcetera. Another question I get a lot is, should I mix with a subwoofer? Now, there is some definite pros and cons to this. In the post-production world, subwoofers are fairly common as a mixing for surround sound or theater environments. However, in music, people, I often find, tend to set their subwoofers up incorrectly, which gives them sort of a false impression of their low end, and a lot of times what this does is that subwoofer gives them a false low end that masks through low mids or the higher low end, shifting your focus away from the more critical components that are going to make the mix sound full and big on smaller speakers.
So, how I generally use a subwoofer, is I mix without one and then I turn it on towards the end of my mix or just a check that anything weird might be going on when the subwoofer comes in, but I don't generally spend most of my time mixing on a subwoofer. So, one of the biggest secrets in terms of mixing and monitors and your room is going to be understanding studio acoustics. You can spend thousands of dollars on your monitors, but if your room is inaccurate, those monitors will also be inaccurate.
So, is your room lying to you? Have you ever experienced that your mix sounds great in your room, but terrible when you bring it anywhere else. So, what you can do to kind of test this is if you bring up a signal generator in Pro Tools, set it to a sine wave and just sweep through the low end frequencies, let's say, about 50 hertz through a 150 hertz. And see if you hear any frequencies that stick out or duck down at your mix position and then you want to consider how is this going to affect the way I mix.
So, if I had a bass guitar and its fundamental frequency was sitting around, let's say, 80 hertz and that note might be popping up really loud, and so I attenuate that with my EQ. What ends up happening is because it's just my room that's boosting those frequencies. When I get the mix out into the real world, I have an imbalance in my low end. And so, to understand this, we need to understand some basics of room acoustics and how sound waves develop in a space. So one of the most common issues in the mixing space or recording space is room modes.
And these are based on the room's dimensions and a result of standing waves, which is constructive or destructive interference of low frequency waveforms that reflect of the walls and then interact with the original waveform. So, you see that low frequency waveforms are very, very large and so they don't have enough time to develop in a small room. So we get these standing waves that gives us these pockets of either boost or cut at certain frequencies, which makes EQ in the low end in particular very difficult.
Now, this is much worse in a smaller room or a square room with equal width and length dimensions and again, how it's going to manifest, is you are going to get a lot of mud in the low mids and the low end and certain bass notes are going to pop out. So, another problem that comes up when we are mixing are very reflective spaces, or what we called flutter echoes, and these are high frequency sounds reflecting of the hard or parallel surfaces. So let's say, like your desk or the walls in your mix space.
Now, when a room is too reflective, it can make reverb decisions, and stereo panning and imaging decisions very difficult as the sound is sort of bouncing around your room. If it's too dry, let's say, you have filled it with foam or blanket throughout, you can create an inaccurate representation of ambiance even. So you want to be careful with treating your room, remember, you need to kind of divide it into two parts, treating the low end and the standing waves, as well as treating the high end or the reflections in flutter echoes.
So, what are some solutions to these problems? Now the first solution would be to rebuild your room, but for most people, this is way too expensive. However, if you are considering building a dedicated space, it's definitely worth the money to hire an acoustician or an architect who is familiar with studio design to speck out the plans right. It might be a bit expensive, but it's small portion of the build out, and it's really worth your time. For most of us that don't have the budget to rebuild our room, what we are going to do is invest in or build our own acoustic treatments.
So, we are going to build bass traps for these standing waves, and then we are going to think about high frequency absorbers or diffusers for these reflections or flutter echoes and we really want to create a reflection-free zone around our mix space. Now, there are some EQ treatment solutions that have come on the market these days, and what that does is it effectively takes and EQs out some of the problems in your room. So if you have a boost at a 100 hertz or 200 hertz, an EQ would treat the output of your Pro Tools system and attenuate those.
One from IK Multimedia is called ARC and it actually comes with a microphone and it analyzes your room and it creates a custom EQ curve, just for your room. Now, what you would do is mix with that on and then take that off when you bounce through mix. And there are some hardware solutions too for this. You might want to explore the Internet, and look into EQ treatments for acoustic problems in the room. Generally, you want to combine this with actual acoustic treatment bass traps and high frequency absorption as the EQ treatment solution can only go so far in correcting a space.
Now, there is a free solution. It doesn't cost you any money, and that is learning where your room's problems are. So listen to music in your space. Listen to mixed and mastered music that you really know in your space, and recognize where the problems exist. Are there low-end problems? Are there mid-range problems? So, if the bass sounds really heavy on your favorite mix, that probably means you've got some room modes down there, that are causing those problems and you want to consider that when you are mixing your songs.
So, may be the bass will sound a little heavy in your space, but be okay, when you get it out. So, there are a lot of free Internet resources for finding out about or learning about acoustics and acoustics treatments. Auralex is a company that makes a lot of acoustic treatment products, commercial acoustic treatment products and their website has a ton of information about studio acoustics and room design and acoustic treatment. And there is another website, a guy named Ethan Winer.
He is one of the owners of RealTraps. It's another company that makes acoustic treatments and he has got a website that has tons of great information about building your own acoustic solutions and a lot of great easy-to-follow examples about how room acoustics kind of work in a studio space. So, obviously, the scope of this video is not meant to provide a comprehensive or in-depth look at studio monitoring and room acoustics, but hopefully, I have inspired you to learn more about the topic, as it does play a major role in your mix results.
There are many free resources, like I said, on the Internet, tons of plans for building studios or just treatments and there is tons of message boards that are dedicated just the topic of acoustics, with lots of people answering your questions all the time. So a simple Google search should you lead you to a ton of information.
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- Using saturation effects to capture that "analog" sound
- Working with limiting and multiband compression during the mastering process
- Dealing with plug-in delay and latency in a mix