I’ve always feel very honored and privileged when I get asked to participate at a conference as a panelist of any kind where I can help people get a better understand of sound in any way. In September 2013 I was asked to join the sound engineering panel at the Bay Area Producers Conference. While I have training and experience in studio recording and mixing, I found that there were other aspects of the sound industry that appealed to me more. Sitting on the panel that day I found myself surrounded by recording experts, even a Grammy winner. So I thought to myself, what can I tell these aspiring producers in the crowd that might be something that these engineers might overlook? In the last 5 years the focus of my career has been on sound system design and implementation, and that was when it occurred to me that these people in the audience probably are so focused on getting the perfect mix of their tracks that they might not even think about where they are when working on the mix.
As a live sound engineer working at the Front of House position, trying to create a mix of the on stage instruments you have to make sure you understand what the room itself is doing to change and manipulate the sound. Are there heavy drapes that are being used to absorb low frequency? Is there a lot of glass or stone that will be reflecting sounds throughout the room? And what frequencies are being affected by the architecture or interior design decisions? You have to understand how the room is coloring the sound from the speakers to make sure that you are hearing the sound the way you are creating it in your mix, and not the way the room is changing it once it comes out of your speakers.
In home studios many times people look at online guides to get the best acoustic treatments for bass trapping, absorption and diffusion. This is always a great start to help deaden the mixing space, but so many of these people didn’t take the proper measurements before they installed them to know if they were placed correctly in the room or even if they were required at all. Remember, one person’s bass deficiency is another’s over abundance of mid-range.
There are some very expensive tools to perform the measurement operations, but my personal favorite inexpensive tool that gets the job done is the Studio Six Digital microphone and app for iPhone or iPad. It will cost you a few hundred dollars but will give you the fundamentals required to help balance out your room.
When doing these measurements there are a few things that you should not forget:
- Take a measurement in various locations around the room. When you’re mixing you will be, ideally, sitting in the sweet spot, but that doesn’t mean that anyone you will be playing the track for will be. Once you’ve taken measurements in various locations you will have a better idea where certain frequencies are nodal or cancelled out by reflections.
- Have outboard EQ available for your speakers where you can ensure that they are reproducing 20 Hz to 20 kHz reliably. It’s a personal preference to keep this off the DAW, but by having it as an external piece of hardware you can make sure that the settings are fixed and will never be lost by a computer crash.
- Don’t forget to make sure that your speakers are in phase. This is a measureable thing, and vital when working in a home studio.
- If you make any changes to the room take another measurement. It might seem silly to do this if you just shifted something 6 inches one way or another but because sound is a wave any change in the surfaces it moves across will affect it, and you should know exactly what that affect was.
- In addition to using pink noise, take a measurement using a track you’re familiar with. This is a neat way to find out just how sensitive your ears are in comparison to a balanced microphone. Is the microphone picking up things that your ears are not? What exactly aren’t you hearing? This can help you later down the road when you start thinking about your mixing because if you’re hearing certain frequencies more dominantly then you know how to take that into account when balancing your next track.
Once your room has been balanced and tuned you will probably want to go back and listen to some of the mixes you did before you took the measurement. Note any changes that you might have to make, and see how much this can help your mixes for the future.