Discussions around studio monitor speakers should be added to the unholy trinity of conversation topics (sex, politics, religion). Most people swear by the pair they use, and roll their eyes upon listening to anything else.
Let’s just start by saying that you probably all have a „standard“ pair of nearfield studio monitors. Most likely some type of Yamahas (with a white woofer cone), or Dynaudio, KRK, Adam, Focal, Genelec, Tannoy, Mackie.
You have learned to deal with them, more or less. And you won’t hear a recommendation from me at this point. None of them are „perfect“ – for mixing, nearfields are just one of several reference points.
What I’m proposing is that you add another pair of monitors, and not only will those be the most important monitors you will ever own, they will also help you to draw better conclusions from what you hear on your pair of nearfields.
„Another pair of monitors? Oh shit – thats expensive, right?“
No, it’s not. Maybe 50 bucks on eBay. Not more.
What you need to add is a very honest small portable – „honest“ meaning from the time before manufacturers started using „psychoacoustic“ digital gimmicks from „super mega bass“ to „maxx bass“.
There are thousands of different models that would fit the bill, and you might have to try a few.
Actually, look at what mom is listening to in the kitchen. And steal it.
If mom insists on keeping the kitchen radio where it is, there’s a good chance you can get one for 5 bucks at a flea market/garage sale.
Here’s the profile for your new monitor system:
• 1990s portable audio system, can be mono or stereo
• not the „super bass“-type breakdance ghettoblaster…
• single woofer, no ported speaker design (1-way)
• keep EQ flat
• switch off „bass boost“ or similar
• smaller = better
• mono or stereo, both works
• small enough to fit in a 19“-rack
• external AUX input (1/4 Inch-jack or RCA)
• less than $ 50 on eBay
Examples for specific models:
I keep getting e-mails asking about specific models that fit the bill. But really, go on eBay, buy a few and test them. I use a Sony ZS-D7 that cost me €40 and does a great job, but there are many other types and brands.
Some of you might have heard about the Sony ZS-M1 that Chris Lord-Alge uses – these are getting super expensive now and are almost impossible to find – I think Chris bought them all.
Sony ZS-M1 (impossible to find, CLA bought them all)
anything small called Sony ZS- (I use ZS-D7)
Tivoli Audio (entire range – expensive hipster kitchen radios)
clones of Tivoli Audio aka „kitchen radio“ (Aldi, Lidl discounters sell these on a regular base)
The old masters of engineering used the original „Auratone“-speakers for similar purposes, and there are a bunch of Aurotone-clones around (active/passive, and even some DIY-plans floating around the web). Don’t get too nerdy on this though…
You: „nothing to worry for me, I’m already sorted – I always listen to my mixes on a pair of computer speakers!!“
NO!!! Not modern computer speakers or iPod/iPhone-dock speakers!!
You: „why not?“
1. The inexpensive ones are generally lacking in quality.
2. The great ones (like any thing B&W) don’t have that 1-way speaker „kitchen radio“ vibe – exception: check out the Bowers & Wilkins Z2, it’s discontinued and getting very affordable on eBay, while being a 1-way system (two broadband speakers and bass-port). Also has Airplay.
3. many use psychoacoustic technologies that make your mix sound better than it actually is (boosting bass and treble, fake stereo width, etc.)
4. most involve a cheap frequency crossover (separating tweeter and woofer information), which at this pricepoint, introduces bad phasing and comb filtering.
• listen at the lowest possible level (example: you can still hear the fan-noises of your external harddrives)
• you should always be able to comfortably have a conversation without speaking up while the music is playing
• at these levels you will be able to do 8 hours of mixing without a long break
• you will find that the mixes you create at these levels sound full and huge at loud levels
• the more you start turning levels up, the more your judgement will be clouded
• Listening at loud levels is a form of drug consumption: the joy of loud levels overrides your ability to objectively judge the mix
Keep in mind: we are talking about mixing here – I’m totally aware that during production, „beat-making“, songwriting, arranging etc. many of you are inspired by loud levels, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Mixing is not creating though – we’re trying to improve the sonics of something that has already been created, and to make sure it translates to a wide variety of situations.
There’s no better feeling than turning up a mix that has been created at low levels – I know you’ll be tempted. Resist it!
When listening at loud levels works:
• five minutes before you have a break
• at the end of your work-day
Switching between Speakers
Remember what I’ve said above – divide mixing time as follows:
50% moms kitchen radio
10% full range audiophile speakers
• that said, switch back and forth between the different systems A LOT
• you need to be able to A/B/C-switch between these 3 sets of speakers
• they need to be levelmatched (= when you switch the speaker set, the perceived level remains exactly the same)
• a „dim“-functionality that allows to switch between two pre-set listening levels is very helpful
Traditionally, in professional studios this is something the Console Centre Section of a large format console does.
• DAW manufacturers have forgotten to include the functionality of a console monitor section (with a few exceptions like Cubase)
• there are a number of „monitor controllers“ on the market in all price ranges
• a small mixing console can also do this job, used recording consoles can be a bargain these days
• if you don’t have a console or monitor controller, passive speaker switchers are inexpensive and do the job
• the minimum recommended setup can switch between two speakers:
1. your main nearfield speakers, optionally with a subwoofer
2. a small portable stereo or kitchen radio with aux input (one way speakers, no speaker ports, traditionally studio have been using the Aurotones or a small Sony Portable)
• an extended setup would utilize 3 or more sets of speakers
Why place the portable / kitchen radio off to the side or behind you as opposed to in front of you?
It’s a philosophical thing – the portable shouldn’t be in your mental focus. The mix needs to catch your attention on muddy speakers that are not pointing to your ears directly. Thats the whole point of the little kitchen radio in an odd place.
Good Mixing translates the production for the consumer. As I said in this chapter, I want you to mix like somebody “walking by“, not like you’re the performer on stage. We need to stay very objective and use many tricks to not get involved too deeply. Even more important when we are mixing our own production or song.
That said, once you got the basics sorted out on the portable, by all means move on and get the subs working! More on that in a later chapter.
Do you usually start your mix listening on the portable?
During the first 50% of the mix, I do anything on the portable that doesn’t require a „magnifying glass“ into the low-end (below 60Hz) or high-end. Later on, more nearfield and full-range, but even when you end up much less than 50%, make sure to always keep coming back to the portable.
How do you deal with „ear/mind fatigue“?
Take a walk, breaks are important. Leave the studio environment and reset your brain as often as possible – for me every two hours, up the point when the mix really starts coming together and I’ll dance around the room like a mad man.
I’ve always done my mixes at quiet levels but never understood why, aside from listening/ear fatigue. What is the science behind it?
Room acoustics are linear, frequency curves of a room stay the same regardless the levels. The difference is in the perception.
By mixing at low levels you have a competitive advantage – you want the consumer to identify how great your song/mix is even when they hear it somewhere on the street, in the kitchen, in the background at a restaurant, at any level. You mix from a consumer perspective. It makes you focus on the things that are important in the mix. Rarely do we get the chance to sit a consumer between two great speakers that are fully turned up.
It’s a real challenge to get a Kick to have punch and attack when listening at a low level, and to level the vocals consistently so you can understand every word. But once you get these right on the portable, you have a real winner at hand.
Aurotones and their clones – should I buy one to save some money, or get two?
both works – and if you buy two still keep them very close together, you can test the effect of panning/stereo decisions in a “narrow window” then.
What about listening in your car?
Listening in your car is worth talking about. As many of you already know – it works very well for checking mixes.
1. if you’re listening to music in your car a lot, you know how it’s supposed to sound and will spot problems in your mix instantly
2. you’re listening outside your studio environment, and similar to consumer habits
3. cars are pretty good listening rooms, even from a room acoustics perspective (no parallel walls to begin with)
4. probably the highest quality listening for consumers, considering Hi-Fi culture is not mainstream any more (as it was in the 80s)
Do you recommend having fixed listening levels and how would you achieve that?
I personally use the DIM button to switch between lower and higher listening levels. It’s great to be able to program the relative DIM level.
My general recommendation is to listen as low as possible, for as long as possible.
I wouldn’t go OCD over measuring exact listening levels.