There are always supporters of different workflows, and many often get so set in their way that they completely block out other methods of working. I think the key to doing this in a professional manner is to experience each method before making a decision about it. More importantly, you need to revisit these methods when new technology becomes available. While today’s discussion focuses on the pros and cons of different mix environments, trying new things can apply almost anywhere in this industry. When digital processing came out, most engineers hated the lack of processing power. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find an engineer that doesn’t do at least some part of his work in-the-box. Let’s take a look at some of the places engineers are using to mix their music, and the benefits that come from each.
The Standard: Speakers
Speakers will give you the best reference to mixing your songs, but only if set up properly in a correctly treated room. In a room without treatment and that hasn’t been designed for mixing, your mix is navigating an auditory minefield. It can encounter everything from standing waves to flutter echoes, making you hear things that aren’t truly there. After treating your room for these “land mines” you need to properly calibrate your system.
There are many different speaker setups, and they’re all extremely different depending on number of speakers, whether or not you use a subwoofer, and the features available on your particular speakers. You can check out how to set up 5.1 surround speakers here, and I’ll focus on the most common arrangement: a nearfield pair of monitors. The most basic rules when setting up your speakers are:
When used properly, your speakers will usually have a flatter frequency response than other methods of monitoring. Larger, more expensive speakers will expand the frequency range, and including a properly calibrated subwoofer will give you plenty of low end reproduction. Studio speakers might take the most effort to set up and have a higher cost than other options, but a great listening environment goes a long way for a mix.
The New: Headphones
Headphones aren’t anything new, and many engineers have used them to check mixes. The new generation of laptop-based music creation has for the most part skipped large studio monitors and replaced them with high-end headphones. What was once not seen as a realistic method of creating musical landscapes is becoming the norm, especially for traveling electronic musicians.
There are plenty of reasons not to use your headphones for mixing. Your mixes are always effected by the environment you mix in. For most closed-back, around ear headphones, this means a virtual vacuum. Open-back headphones are becoming more commonly advertised, as they allow a more natural feel when listening. After finding a pair of properly designed headphones for mixing, you still need to worry about frequency response issues.
Most headphones have speakers too small to create an accurate low end, and cut out well before the 20kHz that humans can hear up to. Then everything found in between is at the mercy of the manufacturer. Most pro audio companies getting into the market aim for a flat response, which has always been preferable in the studio monitor industry. Unfortunately many other competitors are also entering the market with “hyped” responses. These headphones usually boost the low end; great for listening to your favorite songs with an 808 kick, terrible for mixing.
When you’re cautious with your headphone purchase, there are some great ones on the market. Personally, I’ll mix in headphones when traveling and don’t have the access to a properly treated room. Portability continues to be a huge asset in this industry, and headphones take up very little space. I find manufacturers like Shure, AKG, and Sennheiser are creating better headphones constantly, and even consumer brands like Sony are releasing headphones with relatively flat frequency responses. You can compare many different headphone frequency repines charts on Headphone.com’s Build A Graph feature.
The Crazy (But It Just Might Work): Your Car
Yes, the thing you use to take you to and from work. The thing you get groceries in. But your car (and everyone else’s) is the most common place you listen to music every day. Whether an iPod or the radio, most people enjoy listening to something during their daily commute. It only makes sense that a decent mix can be achieved by making it sound good on the most common playback device. I personally live in Central Florida, and can’t sit in my vehicle in 100+ weather to mix, but I still check every mix in it before sending it off to clients. If it weren’t for the heat, I’d sure I’d sit there all day long with my laptop and get it to sound just right. With companies like JBL now providing professional sound systems stock to manufacturers like Toyota, extremely good quality sound reproduction can be found in most vehicles.
When it comes down to it, you’re going to mix how you’re most comfortable. If your clients are satisfied with a mix you’ve done using a pair of headphones, or even your computer speakers for that matter, I can’t say you’re unprofessional. In an industry where techniques and technology constantly change, we have endless tools available to us and each person chooses which they use to achieve the sound that’s just right.