These days, more and more producers, songwriters and bands are working their way through the production process outside of the traditional studio, often making all of their sonic decisions in less than ideal listening spaces. As a mixer, I am expected to have a critical listening space that minimizes the effect of the room’s acoustics on whatever I am listening to. Tons of attention is paid to the mixer’s acoustic surroundings. Expensive products are sold, pricey consultants are consulted, speakers are moved four inches, only to be measured and moved again another two. Not only is an acoustically accurate monitoring set-up critical to my ability to get a mix completed efficiently and accurately, it allows me to focus on being creative instead of second guessing my every move. But when components of the production have been recorded or conceived in a less than ideal acoustic space, making final decisions regarding balance and tone can create a variety of challenges during the mixing and mastering stage.
Many of the clients that I mix for employ me to clean up a variety of frequency issues picked up during the recording and production process. This is quite normal and a big part of the “value add” in having your work professionally mixed. But because they are often working on laptops in bedrooms, hotels, coffee shops and anywhere other than a traditional studio, this lack of an acoustically neutral listening space can heavily influence the sample and tone selection process and in turn, challenge me to make difficult decisions regarding key sonic components in the mix.
For example, think about a producer selecting what they assume to be is the perfect kick drum sample for a song. As we all know, the kick drum sets the tonal mood of the entire rhythm section, and in most genres, heavily influences the message of the song and the groove. Is it deep? punchy? scooped? mid-forward? or ridin’ dirty? All these little characteristics will go on to define the listening experience and ultimately, how the listener reacts to the song. But how can that perfect kick drum sample, painstakingly selected by the producer, end up being a frequency nightmare come mix down? Because the room in which the producer chose that sample was in effect, EQing the sound of the sample coming from the speakers, the tonal reality of that kick sound in a more critical listening environment may be radically different.
Those of us familiar with basic acoustic principles know that a room’s dimensions and speaker placement will heavily influence the perception of low frequencies, due to modal resonance, resulting in peaks and valleys sometimes as big as 20dB and as narrow as only a few hertz. For example, a sharp peak of 14dB at 55hz, may cause you to favor one drum sample that interacts in a positive way with your room’s modal response over another sample that reacts differently. Come mixdown, this sample that sounded great with one room’s weird modal response may not offer the ideal tonal balance to support the song. At this point, the mixer is faced with the following difficult questions: 1) Is this really the sample and tone that the producer intended or were they hearing something different in their room? 2) If the latter, do I alter (or even replace) the sound with a sound better suited to the mix and spirit of the song and by doing so, do I risk making a subjective decision that will upset the producer? 3) Regardless of 1 or 2, will the producer ultimately end up reviewing the mix back in his/her acoustically challenged room, potentially creating a viscous cycle of revisions?
There is no doubt that some of the “magic” or “gloss” is going to come from the subjective hand (ear) of the mix engineer and the producer/artist will expect that. Don’t confuse this discussion with a mix engineer looking to get out of the hard labor of a great mix. On the contrary, I concern myself with these issues because I want to connect with and realize the artist’s vision as closely as I possibly can, while hopefully adding my own unique touch that makes it even better than anyone could have originally imagined. But to do this, I need to know when something is a problem that needs fixing or a subjective difference in opinion. In other words, either your room caused you to make some questionable decisions regarding sounds or mic placement and you need my help fixing them, or you really want your kick drum to sound that way and will be pissed if I try to change it. Either way, I want to know and you should want me to know.
So what can we do? Obviously, many of these issues are resolved by having attended mix sessions, where the client gets to listen and make comments in the same space as the mixer. But with budgets being stretched and time in short supply, many professionals are now working over the internet, almost exclusively even, making attended session difficult if not impossible. Almost 90% of my mixing work is now done unattended, so for me to ensure clients are happy I need to make sure that in addition to a dialog regarding the esthetic direction of the mix, we also discuss the source material itself. Was it recorded in a professional studio or recorded in a bedroom? Who engineered the recording sessions and what is their experience level? Is the producer a seasoned arranger who is likely to be intimately familiar with their sound palette and how it translates, or are we dealing with a less experienced song writer with a brand new sample library?
In addition to having a solid ongoing dialog with the producer and artist, as the mixer I should be able to extrapolate a lot of what I need to do without constantly needing my hand held, just by getting a broader sense about who I am working for and where the material is coming from. But this doesn’t have to be a one way street. Here are some tips that I like to consider when I switch hats and become the producer.
- As a producer or song writer, you should strive to be familiar with basic acoustic principles and speaker placement techniques and how they might effect your sense of tone and space when producing and arranging. While you certainly don’t have to go spend $20K having your room tuned to write and produce a great sounding track, don’t assume that your listening space doesn’t matter because some mixer is going to take care of it later. Do some googling and spend and hour or two reading up on the topic.
- If you know you’re working in a questionable space or on headphones, work towards familiarizing yourself with your sound library and how it translates across different speaker systems and rooms. Did you find a kick drum sample that seems to sound really great in the club and the car, or one that only sounds good in one or the other? Great, remember that for later.
- Talk to your mixer and/or mastering engineer, ask them questions with the specific goal of improving your recording and production sonics. Things like, “do my kick drums or bass instruments seem a little hot or awkward in my demo mixes?” and “do my live recorded instruments sound reasonably balanced, or do they contain troublesome resonances?” You’d be surprised, often times we can make inexpensive mic and mic placement recommendations, as well as help you understand some of the major problems your room might have, just by listening to your rough tracks and mixes. I’m always begging the mastering engineer to tell me what frequency ranges they needed to work the most, not to steal their presets, but to better understand what I wasn’t hearing in my room.
- When you are confident in your tones and know you are taking some risks with a certain sound or piece, create a dialog and discuss it with your mixer. If they are aware of what you’re going for, even if it’s a little out there sonically, they can probably help you get even closer to where you want to go.
- Make sure when selecting samples or getting tones to double check them at reasonable and even low listening levels (e.g. not 110 SPL). Most kicks, guitars, basses, etc. sound great when cranked, but can be a bit dull at lower listening levels.
- Most importantly, try not to pass the sonic buck. If that vocal sounds lousy coming into the mic, don’t pull the “it will get fixed in the mix” B.S., because a lot of times it can’t be fixed, just made marginally better. Always strive to get great sounding recordings from the source, without EQ or compression first. If something doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t, so don’t be lazy and do something about it.
As you’ve probably realized by now, this isn’t a scientific discussion of room acoustics or a primer on acoustic treatment, but rather a discussion of consequences that are the result of being unaware of such topics. Whether you are mixing, recording, producing or doing it all yourself, it just makes sense to understand how the space around you is altering your sonic perception and ultimately, how your work will translate from each stage of the recording process and on to the end listener. Laptop producers and bedroom studios are here to stay, and I couldn’t be more excited at the possibilities. But do yourself a favor a spend a little time studying acoustics and the science behind sound waves. It doesn’t take a PHD to grasp the basic problems and work towards basic solutions, and in many cases, just knowing that the problem exists gets you half way there.
Here are some resources regarding basic acoustic principles and treatment solutions that I have found useful:
- GIK Acoustics – Acoustic Primer
- Auralex – Acoustics101.com
- Ethan Winer – Acoustic Treatment and Design
- S.O.S. – Monitor Placement Guide
Be sure to check out my course Foundations of Audio: EQ and Filters at lynda.com for more information on sound waves, EQ and how room acoustics can alter our decision process.