Ever wonder why your mix sucks compared to other commercially released tracks when played on different systems? The most likely culprit….your monitors. Mixing without trusting your monitors is akin to driving without your glasses. Without hearing a proper representation of your music, how are you supposed to make key processing decisions? No matter your budget situation, here are some steps to drastically improve your monitoring and your mixes.
Buy the Best Studio Monitors You Can Afford
Everyone starts somewhere, and some decent monitors are essential, especially if you somehow mix on headphones. It’s a common mistake to make many small upgrades to your speakers over time, but the best solution is to save up for longer and get yourself a better quality speaker. Read as many reviews as you can find, and just as importantly, test the speakers out yourself (ideally in your actual listening space). Everyone has different speaker preferences, so listen for what works best for you. Remember, you’re not looking for colored, ‘good’ sounding speakers, you’re seeking a flat, neutral studio monitor that tells the truth and nothing but the truth.
How to Setup Studio Monitors – Speaker Placement
Sound bounces around rooms in all sorts of ways, which can really mess with what you’re hearing. There is some science that can give you a basic idea of where you might want to place your speakers in the room, so start there and more importantly, test different placements out and see what works best in your situation.
Start with these parameters
- Don’t place your studio monitors against the wall (the wall may act as an amplifier of reflections and bass)
- Don’t place your studio monitors in the corner of a room (sound waves build up strongest in corners)
- Do setup your speakers equidistant between right and left walls
- Do your setup around 1/3 of the room front to back to allow ample dispersion
Where to place a subwoofer?
Since low-frequency sound waves travel omnidirectional and are not as sensitive to placement as tweeters, you can feel free to place a subwoofer in a convenient location of your choosing. Try a few places and see if you notice more or fewer nodes in you listening position.
Now that you’ve got the best room location scoped out, you need to set up your speakers properly to provide the most accurate listening experience.
You’ll want to keep your monitors upright and vertical (rather than turned horizontal on their side) to ensure the tweeters have a direct line to your ears. Ideally, you’ll want to put the speakers on monitor stands. When monitors on are a desk, in addition to the vibration it will induce, the desk reflects sound back to your ears. With or without sounds, foam or rubber monitor pads are great for decoupling the speaker from its support, reducing sympathetic vibrations.
- The distance between the speakers themselves and your listening position should form an equilateral triangle. Use measuring tape to ensure this is the case to make sure the left and right sound sources reach your head at the same time.
- The monitors should be slightly angled inward (think 60 degrees), forming a direct line to your ears. Use a laser pointer if it helps
- Try to set the height of the tweeters at the same height as your ears, adjusting the stands and your chair as needed
Even though it is possible the least ‘fun’ of all gear to spend money on, be sure you left some room in the budget for some acoustic treatment in your home studio as it is one of the most important contributors to your listening environment.
Understand there are entire professions and books devoted solely to the subject of acoustic treatment, so for a more detailed approach, be sure to educate yourself or hire a professional. No matter what you’ve seen or heard, that cheap egg crate foam is not sufficient for proper absorption. Acoustic panels should be much thicker in order to absorb lengthier sound waves. There are plenty of online tutorials demonstrating how to make acoustic panels if you’re on a tight budget.
The main locations you’ll need to place panels are first reflection points, which are on your left and right side between you and the monitors, and on the ceiling, creating a ‘cloud’ of absorption. Placing panels at these points will eliminate or reduce the problematic first reflections.
Setting bass traps in the corners of the room is very important for absorbing low-frequency information. The bass traps need to be extra thick to tackle the huge wave lengths of low frequencies. Bass traps will reduce nodes and build ups of the low-end, allowing you to more accurately judge your mix.
Following these, the front and back of your room could probably benefit from further absorption or possibly just a diffuser to ensure sound waves aren’t returning directly back to you.
Headphones vs. Monitors
Headphones are being used more often for mixing simply due to the fact that more musicians and producers and creating music in their home studio where high levels of noise would not be permitted. Headphones can be an excellent tool for detailed editing as you’ll notice things not fully apparent on your speakers and can be a huge asset for judging the low-end when your monitors just don’t quite go down to 20hz. The problem with headphones is their imaging is absolute and you aren’t hearing how panning and volume decisions react in a ‘real’ environment.
The solution? Use the best of both worlds! Feel free using your headphones for tasks that you’re more comfortable on, especially if your room/speakers are hard to trust. Just be sure to check your monitors often so you know how your mix sounds coming out of real speakers (and in mono).
Room Correction Software
Even with the flattest speakers and acoustic treatment, the sad truth is nothing in the real world is flat, including your room. Luckily room correction software has improved and can make a big difference to your mixes. IK Multimedia Media makes the ARC II system, and I’m a personal fan of Sonarworks Reference 3 software. The software is super easy to setup with the included measurement microphone and inserts into your monitoring chain, ensuring what you hear is more neutral than before.
One of the newest and coolest pieces of software is Sonarworks Headphone Correction Software which corrects many of the most popular brands and models of headphones on the market. Since headphone frequency responses vary drastically, it is truly one of the most intuitive pieces of software to level the listening field between parties. As more and more users use the software, when sharing music between creators, you won’t have to worry how ‘valid’ their feedback is due to their compromised listening situation.
As I mentioned, this is just starting guide to make sure you avoid any of the pitfalls many home studio musicians make when setting up their studio. This topic is huge and after setting up the basics, you’ll want to continue to improve and learn the nuances of your monitors and room.