Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Recording Tip 26: If you keep getting your mixes wrong, it's probably your room

There’s probably nothing more important in the mixer’s arsenal than having an accurate room. But before you go spend a thousand dollars to have some guy come out and tell you how screwed up your room is, know this; plenty of flawed mix rooms have had fantastic sounding mixes made in them. And...there are lots of rooms which measure as “flat” which sound awful. "Flat" does not equal "good!"

That being said you really need to get your room reasonably close to flat as you can. The biggest problem you are likely to experience is bumps or dips in the lower frequencies. This usually happens from 500 Hz down. You may have a either a bump or a dip, or even God forbid, both!

If your room has large bumps or dips in it you'll never really know what you're doing. And even if you're aware of these problems, you'll never be confident in what you're doing and be inconsistent with your mixes. This can really be a huge issue of the bump or dip is in the key of the song! For example if you're in the key of "C"and your room has a dip at 132 Hz (that's the frequency of a low "C") every time the bass player plays the root, it will sound like they played softer! Not good!

One thing you can do to help find out of you have bumps or dips a home-brewed frequency test. Pull up the oscillator plugin on your DAW and sweep your room. (No, I’m not saying to start cleaning...though your room probably needs it!) What I mean by that is to slowly move (sweep) the oscillator frequency from the lowest frequency up to the highest. Listen carefully listen and see if you find certain frequencies which are suddenly louder or softer than the rest. Listen at the mixing position and then have some one sweep while you move around the room. If you find you have certain frequencies getting louder or softer then you have a problem. Some kind of room treatment is needed.

Specific explanations is beyond the scope of this blog, but the article from the Universal Audio site which I tweeted on Tuesday is an excellent help for this. There’s also an article in Sound on Sound which is great.

There are plenty of other resources by manufacturers on the web such as the Auralex site. One product I will say I’ve heard amazing results with are Tubetraps. They can’t solve every solution. But I have heard them work wonders more than once not only in a control room, but also in a roomy studio.

Now it's one thing to have a so-called "flat" frequency response room...it's another thing to have a room which sounds good. I like a room that’s not too dead or too live. I don’t like feeling I’m mixing in a box of cotton nor in a room with lots of reflections. If I had to error, I’d error on the deader side of things, but again, not too much.

Just remember the best pieces of equipment are your own ears. Start by spending a lot of time listening carefully to good mixes of albums you know well. Move your speakers around, try pointing the room a different direction. Bring a couch in...or take it out, rug, no rug...you get the idea. Listen for a smooth transparent bottom end and good clarity in the mids and highs. And make sure you’re listening to a known quantity of a great sounding album that’s musically along the lines of what you do. Diana Krall’s last album is one of the best sounding albums you’ll ever hear. (Mixed by Al Schmidt and at mastering had NOTHING done to it. No level adjustments, eq, compression..NOTHING) However, if you’re mixing rock bands or rap that shouldn’t be your reference. By the way, if you want to get the Diana Krall album, buy the CD. It's well worth the sonic difference!

Ok...let’s say you’ve done all the work and feel good about your room. Now what do you do?
Run these reference albums while you mix and switch between that and what you're doing. Do your best to make your mix sonically like your reference. Of course those mixes will probably sound better than yours. But at least get the relative sonic balance, from highs to lows, similar to your reference. Then take it out to your other listening posts...car, a friend’s studio, wherever and begin to learn your room. Now of course even in a great room you are the biggest variable. Depending on your work on a particular song you may be happy or not. But begin that process.

Of course you may choose to hire in an expert to analyze your room and treat it. If you are in a city with a good music community and reliable people who do such things, it could be a good use of money, but I’ve yet to do that. I’ve done my own work and have good results. There is a company in town which recently called me for a second time trying to get my business. They’re very expensive and their rooms sound fantastic. However for some reason whenever I’ve worked in them I’ve never been happy with the bottom end. I can’t explain that...but it is what it is. So again, even a “flat” and well treated room doesn’t always work for me.

Bottom line..again...use your ears! And before you shell out your cash on experts or gear, listen to great mixes and try doing your own work. The solution you need may cost you nothing.

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