As audio professionals, it’s important that we keep our work sounding great not just in our own rooms, but in all the rooms and spaces your mix might be heard. This challenge is no small task – radio and streaming can happen on tons of different devices, meaning you’ve got to account for a boombox or loudspeaker as much as you need to think about small earbuds and phone speakers.
While I don’t expect you to listen to your mix in all of these environments, any good engineer is going to have some kind of translator in place to keep things consistent for their audience. Let’s take a look at some of the best ones:
Playback in Mono
Perhaps the simplest solution for a clear and consistent mix is taking the approach of mixing in mono. By starting from mono, you can place things in the much narrower field that you’d be presented with in a single-speaker setup. Panning won’t sound as wide when you mix this way, but it forces you to make precise panning decisions, especially in a dense mix.
By the time you’ve flipped a mono-mixed track to stereo, things really start to open up wide. There are rarely situations that a mono mix won’t sound instantly bigger this way, and you’re guaranteed not to lose anything during the transition like you might when folding down a stereo mix to mono.
At a minimum, mixers should be prepared to flip back and forth between the two options to A/B as they go. Being cognizant of your mono mix is a great way to account for smaller speakers and single-speaker sources as you go. If you do need to inject a bit more width (in mono or stereo) make sure you’re doing it with a mono-compatible spatial widener.
Mixing at Low Volumes
Another great way to ensure you’ll have a full and transparent mix on any system is by mixing at the lowest possible volume. Start bringing your monitors down until just the peaks start popping out at you. Strain your ears to find that lowest point.
What stands out? The vocals? The drums?
Whatever it is, know that it should be the dynamic driver of your song, and if it’s not, work on fixing it.
This low volume approach isn’t necessary for your entire mix session either. Just like A/Bing between mono and stereo helps translate your mix, so does dropping the volume down low. If you can catch someone’s attention at a low volume, you’ve got a better chance they’ll turn it up to hear more. You can also safely bet that those dynamic pieces at low volumes will jump right out of the speakers and drive the song when you crank it up loud!
If you’ve got the space for them, multiple pairs of monitors are some of the best ways to compare your mixes in different situations.
Each pair of monitors will have their own sound and coloration. Active monitors will have different sonic characteristics than passive ones. Speaker sizes, two-way vs three-way monitors, and crossover frequencies are all going to affect how your monitors interact with the same source audio.
Those massive main monitors you see in major studios? They’re great for hearing music at full spectrum, but many engineers will bring their own mid-size pair to compare to as they work. Subwoofers also tend to have a big impact on what you’re hearing.
Even if you don’t have the funds necessary for multiple sets of speakers, you can supplement any setup with a pair of headphones. You can use cheap earbuds, professional studio cans, or anything in between – we’re after variety. The more you have to listen through, the better your chances are at catching something you might have otherwise missed.
The Rough Translator
The final option for translating your mixes comes with a caveat: you can use reference mixes as long as you acknowledge they’re mastered and your song isn’t. I say this because loudness alone is going to make your mix sound weaker than a professionally mastered song.
Using reference tracks as a tonal guide more than a volume guide is a great way to get punchy drums and thick guitars based on a reference. If you want to add some compression to your master bus when comparing that’s fine too – BG-Mix is actually a great start if you plan on mastering the track yourself (our can be bypassed when you’re done comparing if not).
Build Workflows That Translate
If you’ve done something great once, replicating that success should be easy. What I mean by this is that the majority of the mix decisions you make could be made again on a similar song and gets you pretty similar results (enough to where you’re just making tweaks to dial everything in).
As producers and mixers, we’re tasked with knowing which of our workflows translate well, and that means learning what can be reused throughout our sessions to save us time and effort.
If you’re looking to seriously cut down on the learning curve required of great music pros, come join the JST VIP community. Membership perks include free plugins, guides on everything from drum mixing to guitar tracking, live stream trainings & mix critiques from yours truly.
See you there!