How to Mix Better on Budget Speakers and in Bad Rooms
Thanks to the marvels of modern manufacturing, entry-level studio monitors are affordable to all but the leanest of budgets, and they sound stellar — especially for the money. That said, even value-priced Hi-Fi or multimedia speakers can get the job done if you know what you're doing.
After all, many well-known mix engineers work on the same studio monitors they've used for decades. And oftentimes these old-school speakers sound horrendous!
Don't believe us? Sit in front of a cranked set of 1970s-era Yamaha NS10s for a while — it's a bona-fide migraine-inducing experience.
In this post, we'll explore various ways that you can improve your mix environment, even if you're mixing on a $150 set of speakers. Sticking to these fundamentals is guaranteed to elevate the quality of your mixes.
Common Room Problems
Unless you're mixing in a professionally designed space that was tailor-made for audio production, your room is most likely chock-full of sonic deficits. This is especially true of the square or rectangular rooms found in most residential housing.
Thanks to their abundance of parallel surfaces, most home studios are replete with flutter echo and slapback. You can verify this by clapping your hands.
If you hear a high-pitched, reverberant ring, flutter echo is the culprit. This lends a hollow, tube-like sound to the room that will greatly affect your mixing decisions.
Another problem created by the parallel surfaces in your room are standing waves. Standing waves occur at frequencies where the distance between any two surfaces is equal to one half of its wavelength.
Standing waves reinforce and attenuate different frequencies in your room. This means that some frequencies will be perceived as louder than they actually are, and other frequencies will be perceived as quieter than they actually are.
To experience this, play back your mix. As you walk about your room, you'll hear frequencies — especially bass frequencies — get louder and softer depending on where you're standing.
Sometimes your bass will all but disappear. You can imagine how off kilter your mix will sound when it's played back in a room without these same acoustic flaws!
The last common room issue we'll explore is boundary proximity. This results when sonic reflections off the wall behind your studio monitors cause low-frequency anomalies.
This is perceived as a horrid-sounding dip, notch, or null in the low-frequency response of your speakers. Thus, if you think your speakers suffer from a massive bass deficiency, it may not be the speakers' fault — it's your room!
Improve Your Room, Improve Your Mixes
Logic dictates that the easiest way to mix in a bad-sounding room is to improve the room. Fortunately, upgrading your room's sound is easier than you think — a modest investment in acoustic treatment will work wonders.
There are three primary types of acoustic treatment to consider: absorption, diffusion, and bass traps.
Absorption is achieved by placing acoustical panels — typically made of foam or fabric — on your walls. This will alleviate flutter echo and slapback.
After installing absorption panels on your walls, you'll notice a marked improvement in the clarity of your system's high frequencies, as well as in your perception of imaging and timing.
Diffusion panels look a bit odd, thanks to their uneven, blocky appearance. That said, diffusion can be a game changer — especially in small mix spaces.
Diffusion prevents sound wave buildup, safeguarding your room against artificially boosted and attenuated frequencies. It also disrupts standing waves and flutter echo, but rather than removing errant frequencies like absorption, it simply scatters them about.
The proper use of diffusion will correct sonic deficiencies without altering the acoustic energy from your room or changing the frequency content of your mixes. Diffusion can also make small rooms sound much larger.
Low frequencies are the hardest to hear properly in an untreated space. This is partly because bass tends to collect in the corners of your room, which can create an artificial, boomy sound.
If your mixes sound full in your mix space, but seem bass deficient everywhere else, your room's low end needs an adjustment. That's where bass traps come in.
Bass traps are specially designed low-frequency absorption devices. Installing these in the corners of your room is a surefire way to smooth out its low-end frequency response.
What to Do Next
You'll need a balanced combination of acoustic treatment to bring your room up to snuff. For a quick-and-dirty solution, you can purchase complete room systems from companies like Primacoustic, Auralex, and ProSoCoustic.
Because every room has its individual strengths and deficits, there are no definite one-size-fits-all solutions. If you're left scratching your head, Auralex's free room analysis supplies you with a great starting point.
Use Room Correction
Unable to install acoustic treatment in a rented space?
No problem. Room correction is an effective alternative for leveling up your monitoring situation.
Room correction software, such as IK Multimedia ARC System 3 and Sonarworks SoundID Reference, creates a sonic analysis of your room's acoustics. It then applies digital processing to compensate for your space's sonic deficiencies.
While nothing can truly take the place of an acoustically perfect production space, this software will go a long way to ensuring that your mixes translate to other playback systems.
Position Your Speakers Properly
No matter which speakers you monitor with — or what kind of room you're in — it's important to position your speakers correctly.
Assuming you're mixing in a rectangular room (the most common home-studio scenario), start by placing your studio monitors along a short wall to maximize the distance acoustic reflections must travel to get back to your ears. This will greatly decrease the volume of the reflections and yield more accurate results.
You should also avoid placing your speakers too close to the wall to avoid boundary proximity issues. Also ensure that sound isn't reflecting off nearby hard surfaces — you don't want anything to affect what happens between the speakers and your ears.
Next, arrange your speakers in the shape of an equilateral triangle (where the length of each side of the triangle is the same). The speakers form two corners of the triangle, while your head forms the third.
In other words, the distance between the two speakers should be the same as the distance between each speaker and your head. By observing this principle, your ears will be in — what we call in the biz — the "sweet spot."
As far as height goes, the high-frequency drivers (tweeters) of your speakers should be at ear level. Since high frequencies are highly directional, this will ensure that you're hearing your mixes accurately and consistently.
If your mixing desk doesn't allow you to place your studio monitors at ear level, invest in a sturdy set of adjustable speaker stands.
Lastly, use your studio monitors' built-in adjustments (if they have them) to fine-tune their sound. Some models feature simple EQs, others include full-blown built-in room correction.
Audition Your Mix
Once you're up and running, it's important that you don't rely solely on your studio monitors to listen to your mixes. Rather, you should audition your mixes on a variety of playback systems.
Many pro engineers keep a secondary set of studio monitors on hand for auditioning their mixes on an alternate playback system. Avantone MixCubes are also commonly used to check how a mix will sound on frequency-deficient playback devices, such as smartphones.
You don't need to purchase anything to apply this principle. Simply listening to your mix in your car, on your home stereo system, or on headphones or earbuds will fulfill the same purpose.
Celebrated mix engineer Chris Lord-Alge is rumored to keep an old-school boombox in his studio for auditioning his mixes.
Use Reference Sources
When you're mixing, it's easy to get too acclimated to the way your mix sounds. That's why it's important to use reference sources.
A reference source is a finished commercial recording that you use as a "reality check." The goal is to try to match the sound of your mix to the sound of the reference mix.
It's important to choose a track that you're intimately familiar with, and one that falls within the same genre as the track you're working on. Not only does referencing help your current mix, it's also a great way to learn how familiar material sounds on your studio monitors.
Our aptly named REFERENCE plug-in enables you to quickly compare your tracks with your favorite mixes to make sure you're headed in the right direction. Just insert REFERENCE on your mix bus, drag and drop your references into the main window, and engage the Level Match feature — it's that simple!
After that, you can toggle back and forth between your mix and your references. You even get detailed instructions on how to improve your mix!
Monitor at Optimal Levels
Lastly, you should monitor at a consistent — and safe — volume. The right level for most small home studios below 42 cubic meters is around 73-76dB SPL (C weighted).
Not only will this improve your mixes, but it will also safeguard against listening fatigue — and ultimately — hearing loss.
To learn more about proper monitoring levels, check out our guide here.
You can become accustomed to any speakers. And every room has its benefits and its shortfalls.
That being said, improving your room's acoustics, using proper monitor positioning and calibration, and employing careful auditioning and reference mixes will go a long way to helping you achieve the pro-level results you're aiming for.