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[Before we get into the meat of this month’s article, I’d like to start responding to readers’ questions. Please email me your questions or topics to be discussed. Recording, editing, mixing, production, management and even music publishing are all fair game. Fire away! [email protected]]
Let’s talk about acoustics and audio monitoring. So many folks bring me projects these days that are hampered by their ability to hear what is truly going on that it’s a subject worthy of discussion, and some effort and money on your part.
As you probably know, my company, Digital Bear Entertainment has had a succession of studios over the years. Some have been full recording facilities but the most recent was a world class mixing and overdub studio in Cambridge that I used for the last five years. It was a truly wonderful environment in which to get work done: warm and inviting, chill and productive, and mostly sonically accurate. I couldn’t have been happier. Unfortunately, the lease became untenable, so I am now building our seventh studio in a location I control. Clearly acoustics is on my mind at the moment, and it should be on yours too.
What is the most important part of a mix? Arguably, it’s the vocal – that’s the number one thing on which listeners focus. So, clarity in the mid-range is crucial. However, if you ask any musician, they’d likely say the low end. While I’d put the vocal first, the bass is clearly a very close second. As we all know, it’s that low end that’s so hard to get right. Why? Because acoustics.
Let’s think about what happens in your typical home studio environment. By typical, I mean a bedroom into which you’ve piled a bunch of gear. In this environment, your loudspeakers start to excite the room (which sounds like a good thing, but isn’t). First, things start to vibrate – maybe your desk, or the floor, or the walls, etc. – but they will translate the audio energy into noise that you will hear. Not good.
Then the audio will reflect back toward you, creating (depending on the size of the room) comb filtering or an echo. Think about your phaser pedal, the one that creates that crazy-cool sound by mixing the guitar signal with a delayed version so that the two waves partially cancel and partial reinforce. This gives that thin, spacey sound, which when swept and used creatively can be so cool. However, it’s really not helping us to have that sort of thing interfering with our hearing in the mixing environment.
Last, particularly at those pesky low frequencies, the audio can start to bounce back and forth across the room creating what’s called as standing-wave (meaning that it continues to bounce back and forth). At certain points throughout the room these waves will cancel and reinforce. This means that at some points in the room for certain frequencies you’ll hear that frequency very little or very exaggerated. In many worst-case circumstances, moving your head just a few inches can dramatically change the character of what you’re hearing.
What you get in these situation is unreliability. You can make a great sounding mix is such a place only to have it sound completely different, and often quite bad, in any other location. It’s maddening to try to make something sound good everywhere when you really can’t trust your instincts as you work! I can tell you from experience that these situations are all too common, and lead to sorrow and frustration.
There are so many products out there that attempt to solve this problem simply, and fail. I’ve seen speakers that come with sites on them so you can visually align your head with the “sweet spot,” and even one speaker that came with a built-in head holder to force you to be properly aligned. Can you imagine mixing all day with your head in a vice? Oy!
So how do you fix this? Understanding the problem is, of course, the first step. Also, since we’re all adults here, figure that when professionals and corporations invest tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in solving these problems, it isn’t because they’re rich and stupid. The investment helps them get product out the door with the highest quality, in the least time (which is money, after all) and with the fewest client complaints.
What does this mean for you? Invest less money in gear and save some to spend on your environment. For a home studio, this doesn’t have to be what the pros are spending. Egg crates and blankets are not terribly helpful, but some simple 2” acoustic foam is pretty good down to about 250 Hz. This stuff is readily available (hit Google) and not very expensive. You can use the mirror trick (hit YouTube) to treat the first-order reflections, and that’s a great start.
Also, understand the limitations of your studio. Even if you do treat your environment, you’re likely not going to address below 250 Hz. That’s where is gets really expensive. Use your studio for what it’s good at: making your arrangements, recording the tracks, and getting a rough mix. Then, budget for some time in a professional spot to make the last tweaks and get everything right. This is exactly what I’m doing now while I build DBE 7.
I’m constantly amazed at how much money people will put into gear without a dime of thought into the room. Let me say this now: NO AMOUNT OF GEAR WILL EVER WORK RIGHT IN A BAD ROOM. So save your money and invest it into your room first.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award winning mix engineer and producer Jordan Tishler runs Digital Bear Entertainment in Boston MA. Currently in the process of designing and building a new facility with renowned designer Fran Manzella, DBE will, once again, be the pre-eminent mix/overdub room. The SSL console and racks upon racks of analogue outboard gear, tape machine, and gazillions of instruments helps Tishler meet the expectations of artists including B Spears, JLo, Iggy A, MOTi, Justin Prime, SIA, and London Grammar. Contact me about producing your next record, or mixing the one you’re working on now! For more, visit www.digitalbear.com.