There’s a common theme when engineers and mixers work on music that’s meant to be consumed by the public, and that theme is to mix for the lowest common denominator. In other words, mixers should be actively working to make their music sound best when played back on the lowest quality or least expensive systems. The thought goes that if the mix sounds awesome there, how can it not sound great everywhere else?
Of course, to that end, Apple AirPods are by no means the “lowest common denominator”. They’re actually very pricey as far as consumer listening products go – costing the same as a budget soundbar or 2.1 stereo system. So why would we use them as a benchmark for the mixes?
Well, the truth of the matter is, Apple is a behemoth of the consumer electronics space, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down anytime soon. AirPods are as common now as Beats by Dre headphones were a few years ago. They’re the “new norm” for many listeners, and they come with their own unique set of challenges and benefits to those of us looking to make modern mixes that sound great for our audiences!
How We Got Here
The road to the Apple AirPods has a lot of parallels that we can pull from as the music industry has grown and changed over the years. Just as the iPod revolutionized music portability and streaming services made music more accessible, Apple headphones including the AirPods have always been about making music listening more convenient.
The design of the AirPods isn’t all that different from those early Apple headphones that you used to get with any iPhone, iPod, or MacBook purchase. The inexpensive speakers in a well-designed, well-molded body have worked well for Apple for over a decade. But innovation in recent years has grown to encompass wireless functionality, noise cancellation, and most recently – Lossless Audio & Spatial Audio.
It’s clear that Apple has begun putting listeners’ experiences – not just their convenience – at the forefront of their products. Those of us who understand the implications of this shift stand to reap the biggest reward with our fans.
Consider The Listening Environment
If you plan on mixing for Apple AirPods or really any other earbuds – it’s important that you consider your listener’s surroundings as you do so. While noise cancellation is growing in popularity, it’s still not the norm. Couple that with listeners who could be in a silent office, crowded subway, or at the gym and you’ve got a recipe for plenty of interference.
Fortunately, Apple has taken care of the hard part for us. They’ve designed headphones that should stay in listeners’ ears just like a good in-ear monitor might. While not custom molded, Apple AirPods tend to be some of the most comfortable options on the market and they’re lightweight enough where they don’t fall out every 30 seconds for active users.
As the mixer on the project, your focus should be on getting the biggest and best aspects of your mix to shine their brightest on systems as small as the AirPods. When a runner is busy with their feet pounding the pavement, they want to feel that kick drum and hear the open airiness of your top end. Use this to your advantage – focus on those elements first and leave the quiet/subtle aspects for the end of your mix session once you’re certain you’ve got the core elements locked in.
Dither & Mixdown
The second place you’ll want to focus your efforts is on your mixdown – particularly if you’re mastering your own work. The mixdown is the perfect place to add any additional compression needed to glue your tracks together, but it’s also the perfect place to add dither.
Dither effectively adds low-level distortions to your audio to smooth the sound out when downsampling your audio. This can be extremely effective when creating a final mix for streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify where the platform will often try to add the same for you if the wrong file format is loaded. By including it as part of your mixdown, its sound implications are within your control.
And that’s really it. There are no major adjustments anyone should be making to get better sounding mixes on Apple AirPods, especially if it means sacrificing sound on other systems. Stick to your standards, make your music sound the best on whatever systems you’ve got access to, and as a result, any mix should sound great on the AirPods whether you had access to a pair during mixing or not!
Sweetening Songs for Mainstream Success
One of the biggest opportunities that bands miss when working in the studio is the chance to add sweeteners and stingers in real-time. Some engineers or producers may take the initiative on their artists behalf, but often it’s a creative decision that doesn’t get the discussion it deserves.
If you’re interested in learning more, make sure you check out The Producer’s Guide to Synthesizers & Sweeteners – our all-in-one eBook geared to help anyone get started!