Probably the most overlooked aspect of home studios are the acoustics of the control room. You may put money into great instruments, mics, and preamps, but if you can't hear what's going on in your monitors how do you expect to make a great record?
When people ask me for tips on mixing music I tell them that if they can hear what they are doing accurately it should be easy. What I mean is, if you have been listening and playing music for a good part of your life you already have a great benchmark for what good music sounds like, right?
We need to be able to accurately hear what is going on in our mix or else it will only sound good on your own set of monitors and that's no good. There are a few hard and fast rules worked out by engineers much smarter than all of us when it comes to acoustics. The least we can do is honor their work. So here are a few easy tips that will help almost any set of studio monitors and get your mixes to that next level.
1. SQUARE ROOMS ARE BAD!
Rectangular rooms are more ideal acoustically. If you can, try to move your mix out of a square room into a rectangular room. The bigger the better. If you can move from a rectangular room into a large oval room... wow, that's a great room.
2. MOVE THE SWEET SPOT!
The best spot in the room? 38% back from the front wall. The second best spot in the room? 38% forward from the back wall. The worst spot in the room? Right in the center. Don't ask me why. This isn't the place for why. I'm telling you how. If you want to know why just use Google ya' dingus.
3. PLACEMENT IS EVERYTHING!
3a. SPEAKER HEIGHT
The general rule of thumb is to have the tweeter at ear height if it is a two-way speaker or to have your ear sit right in the center between the tweeter and mid range driver if it is a three-way speaker.
3b. SPEAKER PLACEMENT
While the powers that be may disagree on the exact angle they all agree on one thing. Your sweet spot is part of an equilateral triangle with the speakers i.e. both speakers should be exactly as far from you as they are apart. You'll also want to keep them away from the walls. Also be sure to fire them into the long part of the room.
Dolby Placement Specs
DTS Placement Specs
THX Placement Specs
4. CALIBRATE YOUR SPEAKER LEVELS!
One of the cheapest tools for audio professionals is an SPL meter. Not only is it handy for checking a level to make sure you don't blow an expensive ribbon mic. It can also be used for setting up your speakers! You can purchase one from any RadioShack location (Catalog# 30-2055) or buy one online here.
This is very easy to do and I will provide you with the test tone to do it here. Download Pink Noise Test Tone
Load the test tone up in your DAW on a mono channel with absolutely no effects. Leave the fader at unity. Don't have a single effect on your master bus. It's at a very specific level for a reason. That's why it's called a test tone. DON'T MESS WITH IT DUMMY!
Get your SPL meter out and set it to C weighting with a slow response. Set the meter up to be sensitive to around 80 dB. If you have a camera tripod handy you can affix the meter to it and set it in the sweet spot. If you don't have one available get a friend to hold the meter in the sweet spot where you head would be.
Pan the test tone hard left and play the tone. Adjust the volume on your left speaker up or down until it reads exactly 83 dB SPL on the meter. KEEP THE METER IN THE SAME PLACE! Now go and pan the test tone hard right in your DAW and play again. Adjust the volume on the right speaker until it reads exactly 83 dB SPL on the meter. If you did everything right when you pan back to center you you get a readout of 85 dB SPL on your meter.
If your speakers don't have individual volume controls this same thing can be achieved with a volume and pan control on your receiver.
Congratulations! You have now properly set your speakers to an industry standard reference level. The trick with a reference level is to let your speakers work for you by telling you when something really is too loud or too soft. Don't touch the volume on your speakers or your master bus while mixing. If it sounds too quiet, turn up the faders. If it sounds too loud, turn them down. Easy.
If you have a subwoofer in your setup you can also calibrate it the exact same way. Just make sure the test signal is only running to the subwoofer when you set it's level.
Mixing with a reference level lets your focus shift to the music instead of watching meters all the time for clipping.
5. DON'T LISTEN TOO LOUDLY!
We all love to listen to music loudly at home, in our cars, and at the club. But when you listen too loudly while mixing there are a couple of things that happen. Not only will long term exposure to loud levels while mixing will destroy your hearing, loud levels will also mess with your perception of low and high frequencies. Enter the science of equal-loudness contours.
The science of equal-loudness contours basically states if we listen at too low a level we won't hear enough bass and if we listen at too high of a level we won't hear the correct level of high frequencies. Turn your SPL meter back on with C weighting and a slow response and measure the level of your mix. If it's coming in somewhere between 77 dB SPL and 85 dB SPL you're in the right loudness range to hear what you need to be hearing most of the time. Of course you can always push your volume up or down occasionally to check and make sure your mix doesn't fall completely apart at different levels, but if you stay in this particular window you'll find your mixes get the balance they need a lot faster.
You can find more info on equal-loudness contours here.
6. DON'T SET VOLUMES IN HEADPHONES!
Headphones can be great for EQ'ing certain problem spots in a mix because they take the non linearities of the room out of the equation giving them a flatter frequency response in most cases. They do have one MAJOR drawback and that is the omission of a phantom center channel. When this is missing it makes it very hard to properly set a level for the crucial mix elements that live there i.e. kick, snare, bass, vocals.
When you listen to a mix on a set of speakers that have been properly calibrated the elements in the middle sound about 2-3 dB louder than the same mix does in headphones. Not only that but there is a very defined placement of the center elements on a set of speakers whereas the phantom center in a set of headphones just comes from some random place in your head.
If you absolutely must use headphones to mix I like to suggest a product like 112 dB Redline Monitor which emulates a set of speakers in your headphones. It's not as good as speakers, but it's better than just the cans.
7. CHECK YOUR MIX IN SEVERAL PLACES!
Even the best studios in the world have several sets of monitors to check their mixes on.
One easy and accessible extra set of speakers to check your mix on are the cheap white earbuds that come with Apple iPods. They are terrible and hard to do an entire mix on but if anything sounds extremely whacky in them it's worth trying to fix it because a lot of people will listen to your mix on this exact setup.
I also recommend checking your mix on every system that you're familiar with. Your own car. Your TV/home theater setup. Your clock radio.
Where not to check it would be systems you aren't familiar with. Your friend's car, etc. If you don't listen to the system every day you should not make ANY mix decisions at all based on what you heard from those systems.
In conclusion there is a lot that you can do with your monitoring setup that is free or that costs very little to improve your sound dramatically. Yes, acoustic paneling is, in my opinion, a must in every professional studio. But if you are only putting out records very infrequently or just doing this as a hobby you may not be willing to put the money it takes into proper acoustic treatment. But if you follow these tips you know you will be getting the best sound that you can get without spending that extra money.
If you have any questions, comments, or additions please be sure to let us know below.