So you've just finished your final mix, and it sounds amazing on your monitors or headphones. Excitedly, you play it for your friend on his stereo, and the mix just falls apart. Maybe the frequency balance is all wrong. Maybe the balance of instruments is completely off. Maybe it sounds weak and hollow instead of full and powerful. Maybe it's enough to make your ears cringe.
The short of it is that your mix sounds good on your speakers or headphones, but doesn't translate to other speakers or headphones. Why? Well, it could have been one of many things. Or many of many things, potentially, if your mix is very challenged. We're going to take a look at what could have gone wrong.
In Part 1 of this topic, we're going to explore five ways your equipment and your room may not be set up to help you deliver mixes that translate. In Part 2, we'll cover what you can do as an engineer to create mixes that translate better.
1) Are Your Speakers Holding You Back?
When you mix music on studio monitors, you rely on those speakers and the information they give you to make several thousand decisions throughout the course of your work. But if your monitors just aren't up to snuff, the inaccurate and incomplete information they provide you will guide you to make wrong decisions. Enough wrong decisions and your mix just won't sound good on speakers other than your studio monitors. This is why you need clear, uncolored studio monitors to help you create better mixes.
After all, you wouldn't expect to make a great painting while wearing tinted sunglasses, would you?
How monitors affect your mix
Your speakers need to have a flat enough frequency response that you don't feel the need to correct your music's spectrum by boosting here and cutting there. Your speakers need to play deep enough to show you what's going on in the low-end of your song. Similarly, they need to play high enough to show you whether or not you have a shrillness problem in your mix.
And it's not just the obvious limits of frequency response that affect your mix. Speakers need to sound clear and sharp in order to help you make decisions. If your speakers aren't clear enough, you may not hear swallowing noises that need to be edited out between vocal phrases, or bad fades that sound like a click or a thump on speakers precise enough to reveal them. Also, when listening on cloudy speakers, it can be really hard to fine-tune the amount of reverb an instrument needs, or exactly how much delay supports an instrument without overwhelming it. Even balancing the levels of your mix can be a challenge when you can't accurately dial in how loud a supporting instrument needs to be in order to be heard on great speakers while merely adding strength on lesser speakers.
Assessing speakers and how they translate
The most accurate way to determine if speakers translate well is to do a few mixes on them and see how the mixes sound elsewhere. Put them to the test doing exactly what you need speakers to do for you. But you can only do this with speakers you own, and it's less than helpful advice if you're reading this because your mixes already aren't translating.
The easiest way to tell if speakers are likely to translate well is to listen to how good they sound when you play well-engineered music on them. Well-engineered music, no matter the genre, should sound reasonably good on just about any speakers or headphones, and it will sound better as it's played on better speakers. But if you know a song sounds good on other speakers yet you don't like how it sounds on this specific pair of speakers, then you know you have a problem. Because if you make your music sound good on these speakers that you now identify as flawed, then your mixes just won't translate.
There are a dozen more ways to evaluate if speakers are good for mixing, like how much distortion they add to the music, how fatiguing they are to listen to, and how they integrate into your room. But you can choose a great pair of speakers without factoring in those more nebulous criteria.
If you need help identifying if you need new speakers, or help navigating the purchase decision, I cover these aspects in detail in another post.
2) Are You Listening Only on Headphones?
This is a tricky one. On one hand, headphones can sound surprisingly detailed, can have great frequency extension, they don't even factor in less-than-optimal room acoustics, and good headphones can cost a lot less than good speakers. On the other hand, even great headphones won't necessarily lead to good mixes.
One of the biggest reasons is that headphones tend to skew your perspective of stereo imaging. The phantom-center doesn't act as it should, you can be tricked into making decisions that cancel in mono playback scenarios, extreme separation can lead you to rely on EQing less than you should, and headphones tend to encourage mixes that sound narrow on traditional speakers.
But stereo-field aside, headphones can be dangerous in that they don't always convey the low-end how it's heard at high volume in a large room. Also, the volume balance of instruments can sound skewed, and you'll miss out on the tactile slam of transients if you mix on headphones alone.
Don't get me wrong, headphones are an important check to know that your headphone listeners won't be left out in the cold. But mixing on headphones is often a poor choice compared to mixing on speakers.
That said, if you're enormously budget constrained, or you simply can't make much noise at all, or your work is completely mobile, headphone mixing can work. But you need to learn the disadvantages of your headphones, and headphones in general, so you can compensate. And you need to be extra thorough with your reference checks too.
3) Are Your Speakers Positioned Well?
Just having good speakers doesn't mean they'll sound good. Have you experimented with speaker placement? It has a night-and-day effect on the sound of any speaker. And, in my experience, any speaker regardless of price, when positioned well, can sound equivalent to speakers costing four times as much that aren't positioned well.
The basics are that you want to make an equilateral triangle between the speakers and your head while you're in the listening position. If one speaker is 3' away from you, the other should be 3' away from you as well, and they should be 3' away from each other. Aim to keep your speakers positioned with the tweeter at ear-height.
Though it matters where in the room you place this equilateral triangle of speakers and you, I find the surface speakers are resting on to be more important. If your speakers are resting on a desk or cabinet or shelf, it's very likely that the surface is resonating in sympathy to the vibrations of the speakers. This is especially true with low-end. The problem is that the desk or cabinet or shelf begins to act like a mid-bass speaker too, except with terrible frequency response and sluggish timing. This can lead to a really cloudy low-end. The best way to avoid this is to keep your speakers on speaker stands: preferably heavy, dense stands of the appropriate height to keep the tweeter at ear level. If this isn't an option for you, vibration-absorbing platforms can help, or monitor isolation pads, at a minimum.
If you do a search for speaker placement guides, you'll find more information that you'll be able to absorb. Many recommend setting up the speakers on a short wall to fire lengthwise into the room, and to position the speaker/listener triangle in the middle of the room equally between the side-walls. These are good starting tips. Using calculators and measurements for placing speakers at specific points in the room can help even out your bass-response, assuming you're relying on your primary monitors for bass and not separate subwoofers.
In my experience, it's especially important to bring the speakers out from the wall. Low-end muddiness aside, I find that speakers just sound truer when you get them at least 2-3' from the nearest wall, maybe even further.
The full story is that an equilateral triangle might not be ideal: maybe your listening position should be a little closer or a little further. Some speakers sound best pointed at the wall behind you, others directly at you, and others somewhere in-between. Some speakers don't actually sound best with the tweeter at ear-height. Finding the ideal place for your speakers and the listening seat is more complicated than a computer can predict, and it is best found through trial and error. But using the simplified tips I mentioned above should get you 90% of the way there in 5% of the time.
Whether your speakers cost $15,000 or $50, you can make the most of them by learning about speaker placement and finding the spots in your room that they sound best through trial and error. Think of it as a free speaker upgrade, and it absolutely will improve the translation of your mixes when you can better hear what's going on in each of your mixes.
4) What Are Your Room Acoustics Like?
This isn't a fun one to think about, but room acoustics make a huge deal. As-big-a-deal-as-your-speakers kind of huge deal.
The truth is that most every room suffers from some very serious issues including bass build-ups on some frequencies, bass suck-outs on other frequencies, masking, comb-filtering, flutter-echo, and more. It may be nice to have speakers that have a frequency response flat to +-3 dB, and an interface that has a frequency response flat to +-0.1 dB, but that doesn't mean much when your room very likely has a bass response of +-15 dB. And early-reflections off of hard surfaces smear what you hear in a way that blurs detail and masks the information you need to make precise mixing decisions.
The Good News
The first bit of good news is that using just one tool, broadband absorption, can help solve most issues present in most rooms.
And the second bit of good news is that, while it may cost more than $10,000 to ideally treat the acoustics of a large mix space, you can make substantial progress in your space for less than the price of your interface, or far less if you're willing to get creative.
Room acoustics is too complex of a topic to cover in-depth in this brief look at improving mix translation. But if you're not up to speed on acoustics and acoustic treatment already, check out my previous post on the fundamentals of room acoustics and how to solve problems, and also take a look at my personal journey through room acoustics using a medium-budget, medium-complexity approach to dramatically improve the acoustics of my bedroom studio in an apartment-friendly way.
That said, just as important as your speakers, and even more important than your placement, tackling at least the fundamentals of room acoustics will provide the clarity and precision of sound you need to properly inform your mix decisions towards creating better translating mixes.
5) Do Your Monitors Reflect Your Listening Preferences?
This is one that most guides on mix translation might miss, and even most recommendations for buying speakers. But it matters very much that your speakers sound how you like them to sound.
A Few Stories
First, as an example, recently at a Meetup group for producers, I met a gentleman that fundamentally disagreed with me on what "accurate bass" sounds like. To my ears, the system we were listening on and the way it was calibrated resulted in a massive "smile EQ" in that the bass and the treble were both tremendously boosted (in the shape of a smile, if you imagine a graphic equalizer). I would find it super difficult to mix on such a system because, to my ears, the speakers were grossly inaccurate. Yet he asserted that the bass sounded right, sounded as it should, and that his mixes sounded on those speakers like they did in his home studio.
While I know the monitors were off, I think it's best that the fellow continue to mix on a system like that. Though I'm positive the frequency response of that system isn't accurate, what would happen if he purchased monitors that are? More than likely, he'd be eternally dissatisfied with the bass response of music on his speakers, and he would almost certainly mix far too much low-end into his tracks according to his preference. After all, all we can really do while engineering is to mix according to our preferences.
Second, some years ago, I had an internship with a well-regarded mastering engineer in Florida. He quickly brought me up to speed on how tremendously important it is to him to have a playback system with a razor-flat frequency response. After months of working for him in his studio, I became accustomed to what a big-dollar system with a razor-flat frequency response sounds like. The same mastering engineer had a trusted friend that built his career out of positioning speakers and calibrating systems in high-end studios around the world. And for one afternoon, I was privileged to spend one-on-one time with this studio consultant listening to music and talking shop in his home listening room. After hearing the first song for just a few moments, my eyes went wide, and I told him that the bass wasn't flat! In fact, it was boosted. He turned to me with a smile and said, "I know. I like it this way." And I realized I liked it too. It was a small boost, but I just found it more satisfying than listening to the mastering engineer's flat system. There were other inaccuracies in the studio consultant's system too, and he acknowledged and said it was his preference.
At the time, that was so freeing for me. It meant I could like the sound of stereos that I like. And that I'm not wrong or uneducated or misinformed to like what I like. And to this day, I prefer listening and engineering on speakers that have a little bass bloom. For me, this means that if it were time to go shopping for speakers again, I should shop for speakers that have just enough bass bloom to make me smile while listening to commercially engineered music I love.
Third, I have a friend that is a serious bass-head. If bass were a drug, he belongs in rehab. He has a monstrous Hsu Research subwoofer for his powerful stereo in his tiny room. I've never measured exactly, but I estimate he has his sub turned 12-15 dB louder than even I, who enjoys a little bass boost, could appreciate. It's truly overkill. Yet he loves it, and that makes it the perfect system for him.
Why This Matters
I tell these stories and use these examples to help you, my reader, embrace what you like. And, more to the point, you can shop and calibrate accordingly. If you like a little bass bloom like me, or if you like your music sounding bass-shy, or even if you also belong in bass-rehab, don't be afraid to buy speakers that can deliver that for you. Same with the rest of the frequency spectrum, or any other aspects of speakers that you find you're drawn towards.
And if you already have your speakers, don't be afraid to calibrate according to your preferences. If your monitors have switches or calibration knobs, play with them while listening to well-engineered tracks you know and love. Adjust until things sound perfect to you. Same goes for your subwoofer's volume and crossover controls. Or tone controls, if you have an amplifier with them. And if you don't have any knobs to turn and your speakers' or headphones' frequency response is very far from your liking, it may be worth building a custom EQ preset to sit on your master bus while you work (though be sure to remove it before bouncing your track).
I delved more into story-telling for this point than I ever have before in my blog. But I wanted to emphasize this aspect of hearing speakers that most overlook, and I wanted to give examples that show character. If you like your food a little spicy and a little salty like I do, you may find it challenging to prepare meals appropriate for other people. Likewise, if you prefer extra bass and your monitors are bass-shy, you're very likely to produce booming mixes that translate poorly. This can be overcome by careful planning and restraint, but it's tedious and not complimentary to creativity. But if you purchase or calibrate towards your preferences, you can create and mix freely without distraction and restraint, and you'll end up with a mix that translates better because of it.
Part 1 Conclusion
I hope these first five tips can get you well on your way towards mixes that translate by taking a closer look at the elements of your system and room that are influencing your decisions. In Part 2, we'll cover aspects more related to your decisions themselves and things you can do within a session to create better translating mixes.
I'd love to hear your stories. Do you have any speaker buying tips or placement tips that you want to share? What are you doing to address the acoustics in your room, and what are your listening preferences in speakers? Feel free to share in the comments below. I do my best to read every post.