Saturday, December 3, 2011

Recording Tip 32: Keep an eye on playback levels. Listening at varying volumes.

We all know listening too loud for too long rarely results in a great mix. It’s tempting to do, and even veteran mixers get tripped up with this at times. Loud playback levels have a sense of authority so there’s a natural tendency to listen loud when uncertain about a mix, especially if clients are in the room. The problem is it’s rarely helpful when mixing.   

After my own battles with this I finally developed a system which helps me from listening too loud and gives consistent results. The way I did this is to find a consistent position on my volume knob and mix to where it should be 85dB when at that spot.

The concept of listening with a specific volume pot setting is something I learned from the legendary mastering engineer, Doug Sax. I was in a mastering session with Doug when he told me he does almost all of his work with his volume pot at a specific place. He knows his set up well enough that once he’s got proper eq, level and compression, and the volume pot is at a certain position, the resulting sound will be a certain dBSPL. If it felt too loud or too soft, he would make adjustments to what he was doing to achieve the level he wanted rather than changing the volume. Of course Doug’s role and mine are different. But the end game of getting consistent results apply to both of us so I took this concept to mixing and have found this to be very helpful. It’s not a complex idea, but really makes a lot of sense.

At this point you should be saying, “There’s no 85dB spot on a volume knob.” And right you are. So how do you know at what dBSPL level you’re listening? You can find an old classic Radio Shack dB meter but I have found the apps for my iPhone to be very accurate. Of course you don’t have to use a dB meter at all. A lot of mixers don’t. The goal isn’t a dB number, but finding a consistent monitoring level. Once I got my setup figured out, I rarely turn the dB meter on. Like Doug, when the volume pot is at it’s place, I know how loud the mix should feel.

So how did I find this spot on the volume knob? I called up several mixes I had done in the past which I liked, and played them back. With the dB meter on, I turned up the volume pot until I found a spot where I got a 85 dBSPL playback level. I then took a pencil and marked that spot. I now had a place I set the volume pot for the majority of my time mixing.

My Method

I begin mixing on my main monitors at decent volume...about 90dB. At that volume I’ll get basic levels and pans and begin to apply eq and compression. Once I’m going, I’ll listen a bit louder, up to 100 dB or more to feel the presence and power of the mix. I’ll then go back and forth in level for a while and when things are feeling pretty good I’ll back the level down to 85 dB and listen a bit more. Once I feel pretty good with what I have, I’ll switch my smaller monitors.

My mains are the old Mastering Lab Tannoy 10” Golds, run by a Yamaha P2200 amp with the Mastering Lab modification and a Bag End subwoofer. I also have a secondary main system, The Rock by Unity Audio. These are a great bang for the buck. They’re powered monitors and I highly recommend them. I also have a third set, the TOA M120, but instead of having them next to the mains, I have them off to the side of the room like a separate stereo system.  

They ended up over there not by design, but by necessity. When I bought them I was in my old studio and there simply wasn’t enough room to place them in front of me. So in desperation I got a small wooden shelf and put them on top of my power amps which were off to the side of my room. My intention was just to stick them somewhere and deal with the problem later. Surprisingly, I immediately loved it….another of those happy accidents. By having them off to the side, outside of the normal listening field, they are similar to how most consumer stereo systems are setup. After all, people rarely sit right between the speakers when listening to music, so it makes sense to listen that way when mixing.

So back to now I’ve already gotten through the basics of the mix and it’s time to do nitty gritty of the balancing work. I go back to the Tannoys and set the volume knob at the pencil mark and by watching my master level, adjusting my compression on the master buss, I work the mix to hit 85 dB. By doing this I found that not only were my mixes better, but volumes from song to song were more consistent.

So now my mix is at the right level, both in the master bus and at or near 85 dB on my main monitors. At this point it’s time for automating the mix. Once I get a pass I like I’ll switch to one of the alternate monitors and work from there without changing the volume knob. The reason I don’t change the volume knob is because I’ve set the amp for those monitors to match the volume of the mains so it feels consistent. This is important for you to do as well. If you have multiple monitor speakers, adjust the amps so there’s no big change in volume when switching from one set to another. Most often by making a pass on each my monitors the mix will be very close. Now while I try to keep the volume knob at the preferred setting, of course I’ll turn up or down at times. But I’ll always come back to that spot for most of the work.

One thing that is critical to know concerning volume is that there is there is a difference between true level and apparent level. A mix that is very aggressive with heavy compression and severe eq will sound louder even with the volume knob at the same place. Music with real dynamics, such as jazz or classical music may have peaks at or near 0 dB, but will not feel as loud as metal, rock or pop records. As a mixer, you should be aware of this and let the music dictate what you should do.

Now when it comes to listening in your studio, one of the most important thing one needs is a clean path to the monitors.

One thing I highly recommend is the Dangerous Monitor STThis little box has made a HUGE improvement in my studio. When I got it, it was like I got new speakers, a new amp, and a tuned room! It may be the best $1800 I’ve even spent for my studio. It’s not cheap, but it has helped my mixes in ways I never imagined. I realize it may be more expensive than some can afford, but it’s been very worth every penny for me. Whether you get it or not, be sure to clean up that path as much as possible. Remove extra connections, extra cables, etc. Monster Cables may sound better than the cables you have. But whether you buy them or not, again...remove anything unnecessary so there is only one good cable in the path.

So to restate the lesson for today; listening at loud volumes is good to get the mix in place. But spend most your time tweaking at moderate volumes, and do it until your mixes begin to be consistent. Like anything in music, there are no rules. Experiment and find what gives you great results. Once you find that volume, be sure to stick to it.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, It is definitely right to say that listening too loud for too long rarely results in a great mix. There are certainly a lot of details like that to take into consideration. This is a great point to bring up. Thanks.
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