Q It Up: Monitoring Your Mixes - Part 1

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95Q It Up: How do you monitor your mix? When mixing a promo, commercial, or any other voice over music/sfx type project, do you mix with the monitors turned up loud, down low, or somewhere in the middle? Do you use near-field monitors, or do you use large monitors hanging from the ceiling? Maybe you use them both. How do you prefer to monitor your mixes? Also, if you know, tell us what brand and model of monitors you use and/or which ones you prefer to use. Any other thoughts you have on monitoring mixes are welcome.

Look for the rest of the feedback to this month’s Q It Up question in next month’s RAP!

speakerJay Rose [jay[at]dplay.com], Digital Playroom: Audio for Media: We all work very hard getting music and effects to fall just right under the copy, and it would be a crime if listeners never got to hear them. On the other hand, it’s our careers if listeners can’t hear every precious word. Getting a good balance between the elements is essential. So is tight control of the spectrum: you need to know what’s going on in trouble spots like mid-bass or sibilance. This requires good, flat monitors.

It’s not the same when you’re mixing pop music. If a listener loses a word or two of lyric, or hears a different balance between rhythm and melody, most songs still work. That’s why I think a majority of popular music-store monitors aren’t much good for broadcast.

I’m a great fan of the older, but still manufactured, JBL 4412As. Not only do they let me hear what’s going on all over the band; they’re very accurate in the 1k - 2.5k range where consonants live. They also translate beautifully to other systems. (I mixed an Omnimax show on some in my studio. Then I took the master to the theater, with its mega sound system, for final tweaking... and didn’t have to touch the eq at all!) The 4412s are in the midfield, about 6' from my ears, in a fairly dead studio.

You can’t mix on cheapo speakers as a “real world” device and expect good results. That’s because one bad speaker’s problems won’t be the same for any other speaker, enclosure, or lousy amplifier. While I also have a pair of Auratones in the nearfield, I usually don’t bother with them: if you mix something right on good speakers, you can predict how it’ll play on the bad ones.

I’ve also come to rely on SpectraFoo, a realtime spectragram for the Mac. Unlike a spectrum analyzer, it shows you past history as well as current frequency balance. So it’s great for those “did I really hear that?” cases.

Kevin Dyer [kevin[at]cr101.com], KLLL, KMMX, KONE: I usually monitor for the mixdown using every volume level. Although I try to listen at a low volume since that’s usually how people at their desks at work have their radios. I use my headphones and the studio monitors. They are mounted on the ceiling, so I will stand back and listen to get a different perspective. Our monitor setup in one studio is just a Sony tuner/amp hooked up to the board’s output. They’re just regular home stereo speakers. We could have better, but we could have worse, so I’m not complaining.

Budman [budman[at]cwo.com], Bud’s Productions, The Netherlands: Good question! I wonder if I’m the only one listening to a final mix while sitting in my car. Normally, I rely on my headset (Sennheiser HD520 for me the perfect one. The set I have is over 6 years old, and I even had if fixed once) and Spirit + JBL speakers. The headset is always loud; the monitors kind of loud. Through the years I have found a good balance in how I like it to sound and how the customer wants it. As a production studio we have to know exactly what processing the customers are using and if it is an AM, FM or Internet station. For larger productions, I sometimes listen to the final mix in my car or even use an old transistor [radio speaker].

Jim Kipping [jkipping[at]texas.net], LBJS Broadcasting Co., Austin, Texas: I use my near-field monitors for my pre-mix. I have JBL’s at LBJS, but at the home studio, believe it or not, I use those 80 dollar a pop Optimus AV speakers you get at Radio Shack!! Their nice, heavy and pretty flat. Love em’. I don’t mix too hot, but once I get the mix as close as I can, then I do two things. 1) Listen to normal volume on the larger studio monitors, adjust. 2) I run it through my phone, or any small mono crappy speaker, and keep the volume very low. If I can make out the VO and still hear the music, life is good. If not, adjust, press, dub, master, ITS A WRAP!! Make it fun, it’s your job!!

Matt Mark [matt_s_mark[at]yahoo .com], Matt-Mark Audio Productions, Kansas City, Missouri: To avoid ear fatigue, we monitor ALL mixes at relatively LOW levels. If it sounds good low, then we crank it up to MODERATE. We use several types of near-fields: Genelec 1030, Mackie HR824, Auratone Sound Cubes and some “tiny” pairs from Radio Shack. The smaller speakers give us a feel as to what the product will sound like on boom boxes, etc. Our monitor speakers set on a custom-made stand that can accommodate three pairs of speakers. We use Hafler and Crown amps.

Once our signal leaves the DAW, it goes to an Apogee PSX-100 D/A, A/D converter. From there, the signal goes AES to our Masterlink 9600 CD Recorder. We also monitor the analog outputs of both the Apogee and the Masterlink through a Dorrough Model 1200 Stereo Test Set Meter Bank and a Gold Line DSP Digital Real Time Analyzer.

Ric Gonzalez [Ric.Gonzalez[at] cox.com], Cox Radio, San Antonio, Texas: Oh boy! I’ve noticed this a subject about which a great many like to pontificate upon. I’ve worked with so many folks who all had the “right” way to mix. On small car speakers only (I knew a guy who actually had these mounted to his board), the cue speakers only, the big speakers only, your head phones only, etc.

But I’ve heard horrible mixes done many different ways. I’ve heard the announcer drowned out so all you could hear was the music and no VO. And not just in commercials, I’ve heard this from jocks during their on air breaks. I’ve been told by some PD’s that my mixes (on air and in prod) are perfect. While I personally wouldn’t say perfect, here is how I explain it. “It is something you must feel.” You could think of mixing in production like sex. We all have our favorite position(s). None of them are technically wrong, and hopefully it brings us all to the same...end result. So basically, there is (for me) no ONE way to get the best mix. I can do it in a headphone set. I can do it on a cue speaker. I can do it on the big JBL’s. I can do it in plane or a train, in a box with a fox. I can really do it anywhere and make it sound good on the air, Sam I Am, and so can you.

Now that’s the how. As for the what’s, I do have a preference on equipment. I prefer Fostex T20 headsets and JBL 4412A monitors. And the right microphone can help you cut through the music without having to lower the bed too much. I prefer the AKG 414B. Notice I stated that I “prefer” these pieces of equipment. I never said they are the only ones that are correct. Like sex...you may get your mix off other ways. Use the force Luke!

Jeff Berlin [jberlin[at]jberlin.com], Boston, Massachusettes: For monitoring, I use little powered Yamaha NS-5’s. These are related to the infamous “ear-shredders” - the Yamaha NS-10’s. They yield a mix that translates well to radio - the ratio between the voice, music, and fx pretty much sounds the same when listening in my car or at home as it did in the studio. Can’t say that’s the case with Tannoy, JBL, or Mackie monitors we use in other rooms here.

Craig Jackman [craigj[at]canada.com], CHEZ/CIOX/CKBY/CJET/CIWW, Ottawa, Ont., Canada: I monitor my mix as many ways as is practical. As I build a spot or promo, I’m using my main monitors, but generally I mix switching back and forth between the main monitors and the cue speakers on my little used reel-to-reel. That way I know all the elements sound fine going in, and the mix will sound fine in the real world. After 15 years of mixing on a mono cue speaker, I’ve just switched to stereo cue speakers, with very little difference. If I’m still not sure of the mix, I’ll make a cassette and check it in the car on the way home. Of course, if still in doubt, the final check comes from the stereo in the PD’s office. As far as volume, I try not to fiddle with that knob too much. A nice comfortable volume all day is much less fatiguing, and trains your ears so that they aren’t fooled by a loud or soft mix. In a classic rock or alternative environment, there are too many people hanging around who “have to feel it” anyway.

As far as the monitors themselves, it’s been a long time since I’ve had large soffit mounted or ceiling hung monitors. For space and budget reasons, I’ve been on near-fields for the past 5 years, and I’ve been through some good and bad in that time. The best monitors for me are the little Genelec 1029 near-fields combined with the 1092 subwoofer. It’s expensive, but compared to the Tannoy PBM-8s I had previously, the Yamaha NS-10’s or Electro Voice Sentry’s in the production studios down the hall, the Event 20/20’s or Tannoy Reveals that have shuffled in and out of various on air studios, the difference in clarity and low end punch is startling!

Don Elliot [voiceovers[at]earthlink.net]: My main studio at home has new 4411’s. They hang in a unilateral triangle to the sweet spot at the operating position. Auratones and JBL Monitor One’s are the mixdown speakers. Works for me. I got them both rebuilt for under $500. Considering that the cabinets alone are over $800 each, it made the decision easy. In LA, it seems the average life of a speaker is around 5 years before the cones and/or rubber rings rot out from the smog that they say we don’t have anymore.

I really learned mixdown early. I used to hang at RCA, Hollywood, when the Stones recorded there with Dave Hassinger and Al Schmidt. I also used to camp out at SunWest studios where a crazy kid used to roll Ampex four-tracks from room-to-room, swapping components to get one fully functioning machine. He’d sleep on the couch for a spell and then cut tracks again for hours on end. His name was Neil Young. Yes, “Neil Young will remember”!

And finally at Nashville West, a very hard-of-hearing hitmaker engineer named Charlie Underwood introduced me to Charlie Greene and Brian Stone who did Sonny and Cher. I did a song there with a group known as “The Rose Garden”. The tune had an intro and middle needing an “airport announcer” in it, complete with that big-hall sounding ambience to sound like an airport. The EMT (reverb unit) was on the fritz so I told Charlie to try hanging a Tele (Telefunken - now Neumann) in the men’s room for the natural sound-reverb that lived in that room. I went in and voiced it about 3 feet from the Tele, and it worked like a charm. But the mix was another matter. Charlie loved mixing in the big monitors and the reverb kept getting lost when he’d mix it too low, so we went to smaller speakers and pulled the track back and the voice up in the mix just far enough to keep the effect winning in the mix, and voila! A hit was born! (And YES... when we’d “A-B” the mix in the big speakers, it DID sound like there was too much reverb in the bigger monitors... this is what trips people up!).

All these folks had something in common. They’d kill their ears during sessions and would hardly ever mix down the same night because of threshold shift. The built-in limiter we have in our ears was hammered down so far that it would take a lot of volume to hear things adequately. That’s fine for monitoring during the performance or to impress the client. But to get a great final mix, there is a one-directional phenomenon that I can’t explain but have experienced as true: You can’t mix loud on good (and big) speakers and have a complex mix come out right on smaller speakers (or a radio for that matter). BUT you CAN and SHOULD mix on smaller ones, like Auratones for example. So then what happens is that, of course if it sounds great on the smaller speakers, it always will, but then the same mix will always work in the bigger ones. Try it both ways and you’ll see! Lower volume is the key to better mixes, too! There is something about compression ratios that are more audible at lower listening levels... the pumping becomes more apparent; probably because you have a shorter distance to go before the threshold of loss at lower listening levels, thereby making higher compression ratios very acoustically apparent! If you don’t believe me about the limiters in your ears, reflect on the following for a second: How many times do you get in your car in the morning and when the radio comes back on when you start your car, the volume seems MUCH louder than when you last were listening? It’s not louder. Your ears are fresh in the morning. You had set the volume to that loud point when you were in traffic, and your ears adjusted. Now you are fresh and there is no traffic, and it seems louder to you.

The absolute best monitors I ever heard were at Neil Diamond’s personal use studio, Westlake Time-Aligneds, driven by Manley amps. This, by the way, is where I did the two most recent production music CD’s, “The Zapper Package” of my “Don Elliot, The Legend” series of discs. I can almost smell the sound at that place! But again, the point is, they are SO good, that I have to mix down on real-world speakers similar to what the listener is going to use, or my stuff just gets lost.

No matter WHAT speakers you use, what you must learn is an ear-reference to air. In other words, if I get a certain sound in the production room, what will it sound like on-air? And then once you have hit it, stick with it.

Here’s the best of the bunch in my experience, including very cheap to very expensive: Genelex (various models), Electro-Voice Sentry 100’s, KEF 104 AB, and the really reasonable Yorkville YSM-1’s... (like $150 a pair).

Gary Griffey [radiogriff[at]hotmail .com]: I use headphones for monitoring during the creation of my projects. I prefer the direct interaction with the sound that headphones provide. My headphones are made by Optimus, and are the best low-cost headphones I’ve ever had.

When it is time to test broadcast quality, I use several different methods. I work part-time, so I have the opportunity to use the production room and facilities at night when everyone else is gone. I first use the consumer-variety Optimus monitors in the production room. These are suspended from the wall in front of me as I sit at the console, and are adjustable to center the image according to the listener. These are okay monitors, but they are a little bassy.

For spots that air on our AM, I will dub the spot to cassette and listen to it from a mono cassette deck. My thinking is, if it doesn’t sound great there, it needs work.

For spots on FM, we use the Scott Studios AXS system. So I will dub the spot in as usual, then go to the FM control room and listen to the spot from the AXS production screen on the FM monitors, which are huge, ancient Optimus monitors. This allows me to hear how things will sound to the jock. There is little difference between the sound from the board and the sound from the processors because of the relative antiquity of our equipment.

At home, I use what have to be the best computer speakers I have ever heard that didn’t come with a subwoofer. My home monitors are made by Labtec. Shortly after I got these, the company either went under or was bought, but they are great speakers. I will use my trusty headphones plugged into these speakers when working late at night.

If I had a choice, I would use JBL-brand monitors. I once heard these in action, and I would buy a pair in a heartbeat.

Steve Cunningham [synthman[at] loop.com], Acme Voiceworx: My monitors are loud, on Yamaha NS-10s to boot, so my mixes should play fine anywhere and on anything. They check out OK here...

Part 2 Next Month!

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet