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FLAVA IN YOUR EAR
By Erik Hawkins
Aug 1, 2006
The importance of a professional monitoring system for auditioning and mixing your music cannot be underestimated. If you're unable to hear your music with detail and accuracy, you will be unable to produce mixes that translate well to the outside world. Your mix may sound amazing in your studio but sound like it's running through the “tin can” effect on other sound systems. The objective of a fine mix is for it to sound excellent everywhere, not just in your studio. To ensure that level of sonic quality, top mix engineers and producers employ several monitoring techniques, including near-field monitoring, multimonitor setups and dedicated monitor control devices. Most of these techniques transfer well to the home studio and are relatively simple to implement given the know-how.
MASTER FADER MONITOR LEVEL
In days past, the master fader and the monitor level control knob were both built into mixing consoles. Today, those controls come on two entirely separate devices. The master fader is in your digital audio sequencer software program, and the monitor-level control knob is usually found on the face of a well-designed audio interface (such as MOTU's 896HD or Digidesign's 002). Understanding the relationship and differences between those controls was a challenge when they were on the same mixing board. Now that they are part of two different worlds — virtual and real — the exact function of each control is even less clear, especially if you're new to the intricacies of signal flow.
An all-too-common mistake is using the software program's master fader to control the signal level going to the monitors. Instead, employ the audio interface's monitor-levelcontrol knob for that task. The master fader and the monitor-level knob are discrete controls, so you can adjust your listening volume independent of the software program's optimum signal-level output. You'll want to carefully set the software program's master-fader meter to show signal peaks just below 0 dB for the best signal level possible when bouncing to disk. To avoid damaging your hearing and disturbing the neighbors, however, you'll most certainly want to turn down the volume of your monitors using the monitor-level knob.
Good audio interfaces have a master output that's tied to the software program's master fader and a monitor output that's tied to its own monitor-level knob. The master output (most often, analog or digital outputs 1 and 2) is useful for recording your mix straight to an external mixdown deck (such as the Alesis MasterLink, a DAT recorder or a vintage 2-track tape machine). The separate monitor output goes to your powered studio monitors, speaker amp or monitor-control device (which is discussed later). Well-designed audio interfaces also feature a separate headphone output with its own headphone amp, allowing your headphone level to be adjusted independently of the monitor-output level. Both the monitor and headphone outputs run parallel to the master output, so that adjusting their volumes does not change the master output level.
SPEAKER CHOICES AND POSITIONS
Most home-studio owners purchase one nice pair of powered reference monitors and think they're set. To know how your music might sound outside the studio, however, you should also have a set of small, inexpensive speakers positioned alongside your main monitors. Most listeners will not hear your mix with the kind of accuracy and detail you hear over your main monitors. A pair of minimonitors (also called desktop monitors) will let you hear what your mix could sound like to the general public (for example, over television speakers or a cheap radio). Between your main monitors, a pair of minimonitors and a studio-quality pair of headphones (such as the Sony MDR-7509 or Ultrasone Proline 750), you can create a good picture of how your mix will sound in the real world without leaving your studio.
The size of the low-frequency drivers (the woofers) determines your monitors' low-frequency output. The larger the woofer, the more bass you'll hear in your mix. Consequently, you should stick with a 6-inch woofer or larger for your main monitors. Generally, the best enclosure-size-to-bass-output ratio for your dollar comes from monitors with 8-inch woofers (such as the Mackie HR824 or Event Studio Precision 8). Of course, you can add a subwoofer to augment monitors with small woofers, but for most music-production applications, having the bass in your face is preferable to having it under or to the side of your workspace. The minimonitors should have a 3- to 4-inch woofer (such as the Edirol MA-7A or M-Audio StudioPro3). For the sake of quality and convenience, the minimonitors should be self-powered, just like your main monitors.
Your main monitors should be arranged for the best near-field listening position possible in your studio. The speakers should be upright (not sideways) and level with your head. When seated in the “sweet spot” between the speakers, your head and the two speakers should comprise the three points of an equilateral triangle. Place your minimonitors just to the inside of your main monitors (see Fig. 2). Make sure that the speakers are as far away as possible from any walls to avoid potential low-frequency interaction with your room's physical structure. (However, to enhance a speaker's bass response, you can sometimes back up a monitor closer to the wall — experiment with what sounds best for your situation.) Remove any impediments that interfere with a clear line of sound from the speakers to your ears. Watch out for possible reflective surfaces (such as a large mixer or laminated tabletop) just beneath the monitors that may cause high-frequency reflections to bounce off and sully your sweet spot.
The point of near-field monitoring is to remove as much room coloration from your listening position as possible. Though it's no less important to tune your room for better acoustics (see the “DIY Acoustics” article in the November 2005 issue of Remix), a proper near-field setup can reduce much of the room tone that you would normally hear if you were seated farther away from your monitors, outside the sweet spot. Today, well-designed studio reference monitors also feature frequency fine-tune controls for tailoring a speaker's response to best fit your listening environment. For example, to compensate for a room that adversely emphasizes low frequencies, you could roll off the monitor's low-frequency response by a couple of dB. Foam speaker-isolation wedges (such as the Auralex MoPAD) are also readily available. Those allow a monitor to be decoupled from what it sits on, preventing the speaker from transferring sound to the surface in a way that might adversely affect what you hear.
With two sets of speakers and headphones, you should have an ergonomic way to control your monitors. The system should be designed so that you can remain seated and centered in the sweet spot while you fluidly switch between monitors to check your mix. Classic analog mixing consoles were designed with just such a monitor section. Today, very few software control surfaces include a monitor section (an exception is Mackie's HUI), and among audio interfaces that feature a discrete monitor output, none sport two separate monitor outputs. Fortunately, there are now a few solutions available for the monitor-control challenged, including the PreSonus Central Station and Central Station Remote (CSR-1) with a combined price tag of $900 and the Mackie Big Knob at a more budget-minded price of $390.
Both the Central Station and Big Knob feature all the amenities required to properly control your monitors: multiple inputs, multiple monitor outputs, two headphone outs, monitor mute, dim button, mono button, stereo meters, an ergonomic design and a talkback microphone (for communicating with headphone-wearing musicians in another room). Big Knob is a tabletop design where all your cables are plugged directly into the rear of the unit. It's ruggedly built in typical Mackie fashion and features a phono preamp that's perfect for those of us who still like to put a record on the platter every now and again. For the extra money, Central Station features a couple more inputs (including digital), a finer meter and a diminutive footprint.
THE FINAL MIX
When you're seated in the optimum listening position, your monitor controls need to be within easy reach, right alongside your computer keyboard, mouse and mixing control surface (see photo on page 47). For example, if you're trying to set the perfect level for the hi-hats in your mix, you must be able to switch back and forth between the two monitors without moving out of the sweet spot. If you have to constantly move your head to reach the controls that toggle your monitors, you'll lose your perspective of how the hi-hats sound on both sets of monitors at a particular moment in the music. Music is filled with sounds that are continually in motion, both harmonically and rhythmically; toggling between the monitors while simultaneously adjusting a part's volume and EQ is the best way to nail a part down in your mix. When a performance sounds good within the context of the entire mix, on both sets of monitors and over your headphones, it will likely sound good over almost any sound system.
No matter how “flat” and “true” your studio reference monitors are purported to be, you must still become familiar with how they sound in your listening environment. The best way to do that is to listen to commercially available hit songs (audio CDs, not compressed MP3s) in the style of music that you produce. That music should be the benchmark against which you compare your own mixes. You can even go so far as to A/B your track with a professionally mixed and mastered song, switching back and forth between your mix to hear how your track compares. If you hear a frequency range or an instrument that causes your song to sound askew compared with the commercial track, then that is something that needs to be fixed in your mix. Both Central Station and Big Knob have enough inputs to connect a CD player. Alternately, you can import a reference song directly into a DAW session for supereasy access right from a mixer channel. If you have a DJ CD setup, you might also burn your song to CD-R and try it out in a mock mix.
Mix mostly at low to medium volumes. When you do play your mix loud, keep the duration of time short. If you slam your ears and damage your hearing, it will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to produce accurate mixes. Take breaks every hour or so to give your ears a rest. And for a completely different perspective, listen to your mix from another room while going about your business to hear if anything sticks out. That is a favorite trick of professional mixers. Also, make sure to check the mix in mono (with the monitor control's Mono button). Sometimes a track can sound great in stereo, but there can be phasing problems when heard in mono (as on AM radio or in an elevator).
Combining all of those techniques with a well-designed monitor control station and properly positioned monitors can greatly improve your mixes. Of course, you'll still need to study how your monitors sound in your studio and how their sound translates to the outside world. But in time, and armed with the minimonitors and a good pair of headphones, you'll be able to nail a mix without ever needing to audition it outside of your studio. You'll just know that it's going to sound good wherever it's heard because you have good monitoring technique, and you know the sound of your room and your monitors.
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