Listen Different

This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!

There’s nothing in the world like a great pair of…monitor speakers.  It’s true.  Whether you’re into Adam, Genelec, K-Rok, Events or Mackie, even if you’re old school and can’t get by without your trusty NS-10s, whether sub or no sub, there’s nothing like a beautiful set of monitors (in a properly treated room!) with an incredibly clean, accurate sound to not only get you in the mood, but make that mood shine through when other people hear your brilliant opus.  You need that accuracy, and you need to be used to your go-to monitors.  You need to know their ins and outs, their strengths and weaknesses, and what tends to happen to a mix when you use them.  You need to be loyal enough for long enough so that you really feel comfortable and master your monitors.

But comfort can be a dangerous thing, and no one, not even your mom, will ever listen to your mixes on your monitors in your room.  Maybe not even your client.  So your loyalty, while strong, should flex.  You may need, as they say, to have an open relationship with your monitors.  In fact, in order to really get your mix right, you might need to be rather promiscuous with your listening.  Of course that includes the obvious:  if you’re in a big studio, you’ll have loud speakers, mid fields, near fields and great headphones to check mixes against.  But don’t stop there.  If possible, how about another set of nearfields, maybe an alternate pair of mid fields?

Of course, that kind of buying power is rare, and in reality, you might have to settle for one set of really great, perfect-for-you monitors.  That’s ok, because there’s more to do anyway.  Check the mix on your go to headphones.  Check on it $10 computer speakers.  Check on the laptop speakers.  Download an mp3 to your phone and listen with earbuds, then listen without.  Does it still sound like a record?  Listen on a boom box – a crappy one.  A famous studio/label who shall remain nameless is said to have had a small broadcast station, which they would tune in to while sitting in an old truck in the front.  Listen in mono.  Get a cheap “pillow” speaker and try that out.  DEFINITELY listen in your car.  Listen a LOT in a LOT of cars.  Make a CD and take it to every boom box in every department store in town.

When you’re not in the studio, make a lot of notes.  When you are, make small tweaks.  Return to your favorite monitors and check to see that your adjustment didn’t throw things out of whack there.  Usually you can find a balance between disparate systems with small tweaks, but be careful of chasing your tail.  Just check and check and check, and at some point, stop.

This advice is especially for those self-mixed musicians, producers and dreamers who don’t have access to the Bob Clearmountains and Chris Lord-Alges of the world (or their gear).  Your lack of the absolute BEST resources need not stop you from achieving great and translatable mixes, and where that begins is with multiple listening environments.

While you’re at it, go ahead and get multiple ears on the mix too.  E-Mail an mp3 link to some people who will listen differently than you.  If you can stand it, bring somebody into the studio who is NOT an expert.  Yes, bring the lay people in on it!  Let your kids, your mom, your dog and your neighbor’s best friend’s plumber in on the fun.  Don’t try to get technical terms out of them, just listen for their reactions.  They won’t say “the vocal is a bit muddy, can you trim 100 HZ a bit?”  They’ll say something like “what’d she say?”

That’s not to say you should leave your expert friends out.  Don’t be afraid to send the mix all around, including to feedback groups you trust out in the social media world.  Just make sure you make small tweaks, and remember that you may not be able to please EVERYBODY.  But try.  And listen, listen, listen.

Oh, and that means listening to other music.  That’s obvious, right?  Certainly you tune your ears a bit with known tracks before starting a mix session.  But have you been listening to those tracks on those other systems too, learning what the mixes you like do in those situations?  That can be quite enlightening and pretty encouraging too, because no, the great mixers’ stuff doesn’t necessarily sound that great on a pillow speaker!  If it sounds better than yours though, think about why.  What do you hear, and how can you get it?

This kind of critical listening is just that – critical – and you will be glad you upped the ante on perspective.  There is a limit, and at some point you need to go ahead and finish and move on, but there’s great value in listening around, as it were.  Try it, you’ll like it!

I’m a producer, vocalist, pianist and listen differenter.  Look for me on Twitter or Facebook at @AaronJTrumm.

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