Every listening device is like a new set of ears to hear with, and having a handful of different ears at your disposal can prove very useful in fine-tuning your mix.
Investing in a solid set of studio monitors is an absolute must for the home project studio, but some other devices that you may already have lying around can give you some valuable information, too.
1. Your Go-To Studio Monitors
Studio monitors are specialized speakers designed to have as neutral of a frequency response as possible, and are meant to give you a fairly raw tonal representation of the audio played through them.
Those Sony, Fisher or Aiwa stereo speakers you had around the house as a kid had exaggerated frequency ranges—most likely “enhanced” bass and treble—that were designed to produce the most pleasing sound for casual listening.
Your studio monitors will give you a mostly uncolored view into your mix.
Any good quality monitors are, well, good enough. Read some user reviews and find a pair that are within your budget.
The real magic comes from intimately knowing your monitors and your room, and you learn this by playing professionally produced music (i.e. your favorite tunes) through your set up as much as possible. You’ll begin to know what a balanced mix sounds like on your system.
Spend as much time in front of your studio monitors casually listening as you can, and before long you’ll begin to hear where things are off in your own mixes when you A/B back to back.
A huge percentage of your potential fans will be listening through earbuds as they’re riding the city bus, studying for finals, or grinding it out in the gym.
They’ll be hearing your tunes on devices like those ubiquitous little ear-wax catchers by Apple, or similarly-styled, low-cost earbuds.
Monitoring through these helps you to quickly pinpoint such elements as:
- harsh mid-range frequencies in distorted guitars
- overly hard sibilants in vocals (e.g. “ess” and “tee” sounds)
- the brittle or “paper” sound of a snare drum
- the balance/level of any send FX
- the mid-range wash of cymbals
- and more!
Earbuds sort of place you in a fan’s shoes, and if you find yourself irritated by any of the aspects listed above, it’s a good sign you need to dig into the mix and fix something.
3. Cheap Speakers
The vast majority of people won’t be listening to your mixes on towering obelisks of $3000+ audiophile speakers in their home, but rather on some budget-friendly type of small speakers. These speakers will usually have unflattering frequency response curves and are most likely constructed from bottom-of-the-barrel materials.
Consumer-grade speakers are often engineered to exaggerate certain frequency ranges and attenuate others, to give some kind of “hi-fi” or “enhanced” sound perception. When an amateur mix is pushed through these, any imbalances become pretty obvious.
Some monitors are actually designed specifically for hearing the ugly in the mix, and purposefully isolate the problematic mid-range of music. The Avantone Mixcubes are the gold standard when it comes to “grot box” style monitoring, but a little pricey for such a specific type of speaker if you’re on a budget.
Above all, if you know how to listen to your cheap speakers of choice, then you don’t necessarily need such specially engineered secondary monitors.
You probably already have something like a small pair of budget computer speakers that could potentially do the job, for example.
I find my little $30 Arctic Speakers help in many ways, including:
- EQ’ing distorted guitars
- Balancing the kick and snare drums
- Revealing phasing issues
- Better gauging of overall drum cymbal levels
- and so on …
With your studio monitors, there is a tried-and-true way of positioning them, but when placing your cheap speakers, try setting them parallel or even right next to one another in the same way a consumer might have them arranged in their home. A lot of what you thought was balanced in the mix can come undone by disrupting the stereo image.
A pair of studio headphones is another great way to adopt a fresh set of ears for monitoring your mix. Specifically, headphones place you inside the mix in a way speakers do not.
Some producers working out of small/home studios even mix completely through a trusted pair of headphones!
I find headphones extraordinarily useful in cleaning up and fine-sculpting tracks. Elements that I find easily addressed with my headphones include:
- EQ of bass guitar mid frequencies
- correcting pitch and timing
- dialing in guitar tones
- surgical EQ
- de-essing vocals
- sound design
- tweaking synthesizers
As the old adage suggests, let’s not get lost in the tress to where we’re unable to see the forest. We can get in close and inspect the details of our sonic landscape, but we can’t stay there.
5. Car Stereo
I consider the time-honored “car-test” to be a hard exam of the integrity of your mix.
In particular, the low end can easily be gauged while listening on your car’s stereo. If your low end is out of control, you’ll instantly know it by the “whomping” of the speakers and subs, and the fact that the entire mix seems to be drowning in a bog of bass frequencies.
If the mid range is too flat, the music will seem to come from somewhere deep in your dashboard rather than take flight inside the cockpit around you. Conversely, if the mid range is too harsh, you’ll find yourself hesitating to crank the volume up.
Since we can’t mix in the car, you’ll need to really listen and make some notes about your impression of the low end, and take a game-plan back to your DAW.
Unless your mutant super-power is identifying frequency ranges by ear, there will be some trial and error with the car test and subsequent mix tweaks.
I usually make a few mix versions with alterations that I can recall easily using my notes. For instance, I’ll make a note along the lines of “Mix 3, -3 dB w/ Q 15.0 @ 80 Hz on kick drum EQ.” Read my article all about EQ if you want to know what that means (:
Consider Saving Up
In our home studio we can make use of what we have lying around to approach our mix at as many different angles as possible, and if we understand production fundamentals well, we can get some damn good results.
However, as I said in You Don’t Need Expensive Music Gear, a higher-priced piece of gear isn’t absolutely necessary, but can get you where you want to go faster, and with more comfort and ease.
If you’re quite serious about mixing your own music, or potentially netting some clients, and auditioning mixes through several devices seems overly tedious, I would highly recommend saving up for some stellar monitors like Yamaha’s HS8’s, which would set you back around $700 USD for a pair (which is a reasonable price, believe it or not).
Much further up the price ladder, over the $1000 USD rung, you’ll find highly regarded monitors from companies like Adam and Genelec that all provide comprehensive monitoring solutions with undeniably pro quality.
Other factors like room treatment and your general skill as a producer should all be kept in mind when considering a purchase of new monitoring equipment.
Bring it Together
After all this critical listening through these different sets of ears, try to identify what is commonly problematic in your mix across listening platforms, and remember to constantly A/B to a professional reference mix on any listening device.
Once you feel your mix is holding up—balanced, smooth, dynamic—on any device you push it through, you’re at the homestretch and ready to print, in my opinion.
Additionally, if you still need some reassurance, you can always bounce the mix to friends or to a forum of other home studio peeps for an objective listen and feedback.
Let me know if these tips are helpful, and what your own listening process is for your mixdowns!