Hearing & Listening:

Probably the most reliable way to waste your time in a small studio is by trying to mix before you can actually hear what you’re doing.

Without dependable information about what’s happening to your audio, you’re basically flying blind, and that can get messy. In the first instance, you’ll face a frustratingly uphill struggle to get a mix that sounds good in your own studio, and then you’ll invariably find that some of your hard-won mixes simply collapse on other playback systems, so that you’re left unsure whether any of the techniques you’ve learned along the way are actually worth a brass farthing.

You’ll be back to square one, but with less hair. Relevant advice from professional engineers is perhaps unsurprisingly thin on the ground here.

After all, most pros have regular access to expensive high-end speaker systems in purpose-designed rooms with specialist acoustic treatment.

However, even the hottest names in the industry don’t always get to work in the glitziest of surroundings, and if you look carefully at their working methods, they have actually developed various tactics that enable them to maintain consistent high-quality results even under difficult circumstances. These same tricks can be applied effectively in small studios too.

So much so, in fact, that as long as you take care with gear choice and studio setup, it’s perfectly possible to produce commercially competitive mixes in a domestic environment with comparatively affordable equipment.

Indeed, all of my remixes for Sound on Sound magazine’s monthly “Mix Rescue” column have been carried out under exactly such restrictions.

But even God’s own personal control room won’t help you mix your way out of a wet paper bag unless you know how to listen to what you’re hearing.

In other words, once you’re presented with a bunch of information about your mix, you need to know how to make objective decisions about that data, irrespective of your own subjective preferences, because that’s the only way of repeatedly meeting the demands of different clients or different sectors of the music market.

Do the cymbals need EQ at 12kHz? Does the snare need compression? How loud should the vocal be, and are the lyrics coming through clearly enough? These are the kinds of important mix questions that neither your listening system nor your mixing gear can answer—it’s you, the engineer, who has to listen to the raw audio facts, develop a clear opinion about what needs to be changed, and then coax the desired improvements out of whatever equipment you happen to have at your disposal.

Most people who approach me because they’re unhappy with their mixes think that it’s their processing techniques that are letting them down, but in my experience the real root of their problems is usually either that they’re not able to hear what they need to, or else that they haven’t worked out how to listen to what they’re hearing.

So instead of kicking off this book by leaping headlong into a treatise on EQ, compression, or some other related topic, I’d like to begin by focusing on hearing and listening.

Until you get a proper grip on those issues, any discussion of mixing techniques is about as useful as a chocolate heatsink.

Choosing your monitors:

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Dealing With Acoustic Reflections:

A cost-effective absorber here is open-cell acoustic foam of the type manufactured by companies such as Auralex, and a meter-square area of such treatment covering each of the reflection points can make a big difference to the clarity of the speaker tone.

In a typical small setup, that means you’d put patches of treatment on each wall, on the ceiling, on the wall behind the monitors, and on the wall behind the listener if that’s within range.

Some further foam on your work surface can be a bonus too, but clearly your options may be limited here! In general, the thicker your absorptive material, the lower down the frequency spectrum it’s going to be able to absorb, so don’t just use the cheapest foam you can get, because it’ll probably only be 5cm thick or less; a 10cm thickness will do a much more respectable job.

If you have to cut treatment costs, try using a pattern of thinner and thicker foam tiles, rather than going for thinner foam across the board.

You can easily glue acoustic foam directly to walls or ceilings with an appropriate spray adhesive, but if you do that you’ll have the devil’s own job getting it off again if you ever want to transplant your studio setup at a later date.

It’s therefore a much better idea to glue the foam to some kind of lightweight ply-board instead, so you can then hang the foam like a picture in whichever room you happen to want to work in—a great advantage if you have to get results in untreated college facilities or on other people’s home rigs.

You could also try angling the foamed boards to bounce some of the reflected frequencies away from the sweet spot, just as in purpose-designed rooms.

(Sound On Sound magazine’s editor, Paul White, suggests another elegant and thrifty wallmounting method: if you glue a couple of old CD-ROMs to the back of the acoustic foam, then you can use their central spindle holes to hang it directly from panel pins.) FIGURE 1.7

If sound from your speakers reflects off control-room surf

Above all, however, resist the temptation to cover the entire room in foam—I can’t tell you how often college studios in particular succumb to this seductive error.

It is quite simply a recipe for disaster, because it hoovers up the top half of the room’s reverberation, making for an extremely unnatural working environment.

Although it makes good sense to damp down strong early reflections that can potentially comb filter your frequency response, you also want your monitoring environment to bear at least a passing resemblance to real-world living rooms and offices.

If you plaster your whole studio in foam, you’ll basically be mixing for people in padded cells—perhaps not the most lucrative demographic to set your sights on! What’s more, the economics of covering such a large surface forces most foam fanatics to compromise on treatment thickness, which just sucks the life out of the upper frequencies, giving a superficial impression of acoustic control while the rest of the spectrum merrily runs riot.

“I’ve heard a lot of home recordings,” says Keith Olsen, “and there’s a lot of what they think is deadening, because it takes out all the top end.

That might save the neighbors from calling the cops, but the bottom end and midrange is still real ambient; it bounces around the room, and you get phase destruction.

Because acoustic absorption like this is best used in moderation, it shouldn’t break the bank, and if you’re sensibly dividing your budget equally between the speakers and the acoustics, then even entry-level speakers should justify this kind of outlay.

Still, if for whatever reason you can’t afford proper acoustic treatment, you’ll find that even soft furnishings such as thick curtains, blankets, and duvets can be of some benefit in damping those reflections if rigged appropriately.

One more tip in this instance, though, would be to try to leave a few inches of air gap between the curtains/blankets and your room boundaries, as that has a broadly similar effect to increasing the thickness of the treatment.

(You can pull this stunt with acoustic foam too by sticking small foam spacer blocks behind the main foam panels, as long as you’re fairly open to the idea of covering yourself in glue and swearing a lot during the process.)

Boundary Effects:

There’s one further reflection issue to consider: a constructive low-frequency interference commonly referred to as the boundary effect.

As you move a speaker closer to a room boundary, it reduces the delay between the direct and reflected sounds arriving at the listening position, making them less and less out of phase.

This means that the comb filtering reduces and you start to get just a simple level reinforcement as the reflected sound adds power to the direct sound. However, for two reasons this reinforcement occurs primarily at low frequencies: first, their longer wavelengths shift less out of phase as a result of a given delay, and second, low frequencies are better transmitted by the speaker off-axis anyway. So if you place your speakers right up next to a wall, you’ll get up to 3dB of bass boost, and this can rise to 6dB if you tuck them into a room corner where the effects of two boundaries gang up.

One solution is to EQ the speaker’s output to compensate for the low-end tip-up. Indeed, a lot of active monitors aimed at compact setups have a little low-cut switch round the back for just this purpose. However, although this is one of the only situations where EQ can usefully bail out your acoustics, I’d still advise against placing your speakers right up against a wall if you can help it, because even with a sensible thickness of acoustic foam on that surface, there is still likely to be enough reflected sound arriving at the listening position to give significant comb-filtering problems in the midrange. you’ll get up to 3dB of bass boost, and this can rise to 6dB if you tuck them into a room corner where the effects of two boundaries gang up.

One solution is to EQ the speaker’s output to compensate for the low-end tip-up. Indeed, a lot of active monitors aimed at compact setups have a little low-cut switch round the back for just this purpose.

However, although this is one of the only situations where EQ can usefully bail out your acoustics, I’d still advise against placing your speakers right up against a wall if you can help it, because even with a sensible thickness of acoustic foam on that surface, there is still likely to be enough reflected sound arriving at the listening position to give significant comb-filtering problems in the midrange.

Furthermore, if you’re using monitors with ports at the rear of the cabinet, the proximity of the boundary is likely to increase turbulence as air zips in and out of the port opening, leading to extra noise and low-frequency distortion.

TACKLING ROOM RESONANCES:

Although acoustic reflection problems can make mincemeat of monitoring accuracy, the remedies I’ve suggested are cost-effective, fairly simple to implement, and effective enough that comb filtering shouldn’t stand in the way of you achieving commercial-level mixes. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the more switched-on small-studio owners have often already implemented something along these lines. However, there is another equally important aspect of room acoustics, which is more difficult to tackle and so is often simply ignored by budget-conscious operators: room resonance.

Understanding the Problem

To understand how room resonances work, it helps to bring to mind how a guitar string resonates. At its lowest resonant frequency (called the first mode),the string is stationary at both ends and moves most at its middle point—or to use the technical terms, there are nodes at the ends of the string and an antinode in the middle. However, the string also has a second resonant mode at twice this frequency, giving a vibration with three nodes, such that the string appears to be vibrating in two equal-length sections. Tripling the first mode’s frequency gives you a third mode with four nodes, quadrupling it gives you a fourth mode with five nodes, and so on up the spectrum.

The reason it’s useful to keep this image in mind is that the body of air between any parallel room boundaries has a similar series of resonant modes (sometimes also called “standing waves”) at frequencies dictated by the distance between the surfaces, although the positions of the nodes and antinodes are actually swapped for air-pressure resonances, as illustrated in Figure 1.8. A quick-and-dirty way to work out the resonant frequency of the first room

mode between a given pair of parallel boundaries is by dividing 172 by the distance in meters between them.

Subsequent room modes will then be at multiples of that frequency, just as in our guitar-string example. So if the ceiling of your studio is 2.42m above the floor, then you’d expect the first room mode in that dimension to be at around 71Hz, the second at 142Hz, the third at 213Hz, and so forth.

Each room mode will generate its own regularly spaced series of nodes and antinodes between the room boundaries, and if this means that there’s a node in your monitoring sweet spot, you’ll hear a drastic frequency–response dip at that room mode’s resonant frequency, whereas if there’s an antinode at the listening position, you’ll hear a significant level boost at that frequency instead. Because each pair of parallel room surfaces will contribute its own independent series of room modes, and most rectangular domestic rooms offer three pairs of parallel surfaces, small studios typically find themselves liberally peppered with nodes and antinodes at different frequencies.

So what does this mean in practice? Well, the first thing to say is that even a single room mode can easily push its resonant frequency 20dB out of kilter, so only a flying pig is likely to find a listening position that gives a faithful spectral balance when several room modes are active at the same time. Plus, if you move around the room at all while listening, the monitoring system’s apparent frequency response will writhe around like a twerking python as I’ve tried to illustrate with the frequency plots in Figure 1.8. To be fair, room modes tend to affect primarily the lower half of the audio spectrum, by virtue of the fact that higher-frequency resonances are much more easily damped by normal room decor, but the remaining sub-1kHz disaster area is more than enough to scupper your hopes of making objective decisions about a mix.

Every room is different, though, so try this experiment to get a realistic idea of what the room modes are doing to your own monitoring.

Play back the LFSineTones audio file through your system again and listen carefully from the sweet spot, comparing the relative levels of the pure sine-wave tones as they march in semitone steps up the bottom three octaves of the audio spectrum.

If your studio is anything like most small, untreated control rooms, you’ll probably find that some tones almost disappear, whereas others practically go into orbit! Table 1.1 shows roughly which frequencies occur at which times in the file, so grab a pencil and make a note of which are the most wayward tones while you’re listening at the sweet spot. Now move your listening position a couple of feet away and try that little experiment again—it’ll be a whole different story, and you’ll probably find that some of the tones that were anemic before are now overprominent, and vice versa.

Now it would be quite reasonable to say that sine-wave tones aren’t much like a real musical signal, so it’s also worthwhile to focus on what your room is doing to the evenness of bass lines on commercial tracks that you know to have been very well-produced in this department. If you want a suggestion here, then try the song “All Four Seasons,” produced and engineered by Hugh Padgham for Sting’s album Mercury Falling.

The bass part on this track is wide ranging, but it is also extremely consistent, so all the notes should sound fairly even on any mix-ready monitoring system. If they don’t, then you’ve seriously got to ask yourself how you’re planning to judge bass balances in your own mixing work.

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