Why listening on cheap earbuds will improve you mix (and some other speakers you should listen on and why)
Here’s a little info about why listening to your mixes on multiple devices (headphones, earbuds, car stereo, iphone speaker etc) is important, some practical advice on why I do this, and what specifically I listen for on each different type of playback system.. in the end, listening on all these different consumer playback systems helps me create better more consistent mixes that translate well, keep clients happy, and ensure i keep getting hired for future mixes.
The classic “car check”
You may have heard of engineers listening to their mixes in the car on the drive home from the studio. The “car check” is a great way to listen to your mix outside of the studio because you’ve probably listened in your car for many hours, generally have an idea of what music should sound like in it, as well, car stereos usually have a bit of a hi-fi sound- lots of low end and mid range or high end so any problems in those areas will pop out and (hopefully) become obvious when going back and listening on your monitors in your studio. I find this is helpful to hear overall vocal level balances as well, balance of kick and bass (which one is carrying the bottom end? Are they working together?), and for hearing if the mix is defined in the lower mid range or if it is muddy. Its also provides a great quiet environment (if you’re not driving), that lets you listen to your mix clearly and without distraction. Listening while out on a drive can be great as well to hear if the right elements are cutting through since there will be some background noise from the road etc. Maybe get a friend to do the driving though, as i DO NOT recommend critically listening to your mix while your driving as it is quite distracting 😉
Some questions I ask myself during the car check:
Is the rhythm well defined? Are all the melodies there? Can you sing along?
The earbud (headphones) listen
I listen to all of my mixes on my apple earbuds. I often use them for listening to podcasts or music while commuting, and am familiar with how they sound. They aren’t the best sounding headphones, but listening to your mixes on these (or whatever brand of headphones or earbuds you have) can be really valuable for one BIG reason… you can take the mix with you outside the studio!
Listening on headphones like these allows me to listen to the mix outside of my regular environment. I’ll generally go for a walk through a park nearby for a break and change of scenery. I generally listen to my mix twice through as soon as i’m out the door, taking notes on my phone or notepad of potential issues I hear, sometimes coming up with ideas i have to improve the mix, and then after two listens through the song I will throw on some songs from itunes that i’m somewhat familiar with. Often, if i’ve made a lot of big notes on my initial listens, the perceived problems that i’d written down are just a result of me changing my listening device drastically, and i find i’ll end up erasing some of my comments once i’ve heard some other music on the earbuds and gotten used to how they sound. When listening on earbuds outside of the studio, i often quickly recognize big issues that I wasn’t sure about before or that weren’t obvious.. such as the kick being too loud or quiet overall, if the mix is exciting enough, if the choruses lift enough from the verses, whether there are spots in the song that a certain type of delay or echo would work well on the vocal that I didn’t think about before.
As well, getting up and outside for a walk can give you a bit of a energy boost, and usually results in me rushing to get back to the studio to make the new mix changes, excited about hearing the song with a fresh perspective!
The Auratone (or mono mix / TV speaker reference)
When working in larger studios, there is almost always an Auratone 5c mono cube speaker sitting in the middle of the meter bridge, or a pair in stereo. A few years back the company Avantone capitalized on this by making the mixcube, a powered single cone reference monitor imitating the old school Auratone speaker, and since then several other companies have make knock offs of these style of speakers.. I believe now Auratone has even reissued the classic speaker since they’ve become popular again.
I have one of these in my mixing setup with the left and right channels summed to mono, and use it once i have a mix sitting fairly well on my main monitors and and feel that i’m getting into the last half of my mix. Keeping in mind lots of people use these in stereo, and i’ve been thinking about switching it up to a stereo mix cube setup, but for now am using it in mono, so will be commenting on that specific usage only.
The biggest benefits for using this mono mix cube reference for ME are:
- Mid range clarity – Listening on these speakers can really help to hear the mid range, probably a combination of the mono sum, and the single driver design. You can generally hear if certain instruments are too boomy, if instruments are covering up or masking other instruments, and get a sense of whether the mix is cluttered or not, hearing if all the instruments and parts have their own space and can be heard clearly.
- Relative balance between centre elements- hearing the balance between the lead vocal, kick drum, snare, and bass i find to be easier on the mono mixcube than stereo monitors or headphones. You have to remember, depending on how you’re summing the signal to mono the side elements may be lower in volume relative to the centre panned elements in the mix, so sometimes hard panned stereo guitars will appear too quiet, and generally the vocal and snare will seem a little loud when listening this way so if you switch and have the urge to change ALL of your levels, resist! It’s great for hearing if the snare is behind the vocal or in front, and if the kick and the snare feel balanced in terms of energy or not. And if the bass and kick can both be heard clearly.
- Final relative lead vocal levels- I often will do my final lead vocal volume automation or rides listening at a quiet volume on the mono Avantone speaker. It is easier for me to hear volume jumps or inconsistencies in the vocal (and snare) listening this way, especially at low volumes.
- Hearing if elements that contain mostly low end energy will disappear on smaller playback systems- Great for hearing 808 hits, bass guitar, and synth bass parts especially. If any instruments completely disappear while listening on the mix cube, you might want to consider a few things. How important are they? Would adding a small amount of saturation or distortion to the sound be an acceptable compromise in order to make it audible on speakers without a lot of low end? ie iPhones, laptops, some TV speakers…(FYI I’ll be going into detail on how i add saturation and distortion in a future post, look out for it soon!) Sometimes adding a bit of distortion doesn’t change the sound much but allows it to be heard on these smaller speakers, other times you may decide it changes the character of the sound too much, and if people want to really enjoy this song, they will just NEED to be listening on a system with low end.
There are plenty of other potential great references, an ipod dock, clock radio, home hifi stereo, multiple sets of studio monitors, there are just my current go-to alternative reference speakers.
What do you check your mixes on, and what do you usually learn?