Ok, so you love electronic music and feel the need to be part of the beautiful community of EM composers and producers. You went to your trusty secondhand music shop at the corner and bought yourself a MIDI controller, you got your DAW, some VSTIs and you are now down to make some cool beats and your first track. It’s great! You can feel it taking shape and becoming awesome! Then you export it and you listen to it the next day in your car, or at your friend’s on his/her super-awesome hi-fi system, or even on the one you produced it on and… it basically sounds like crap. Yeah, I think it is safe to say we’ve all gone through it. What’s wrong? It was Track Of The Year just yesterday! Well, some of it has to do with psychology and I can’t help your dirty mind, but do not fret: there IS something you can do. It’s going to take some time and possibly a little money, but a modest investment in these two will get you exponentially great results.
So, how do you get a good sounding mix? It’s a million-dollar question! Some of the best sound engineers around still don’t know the full answer, but I will try and explain here as best as I can the basics in a 2-parts article:
hire a ghost producer. Ha. Ha. Ha. Now let’s get serious and down to business!
PT. 1 – Monitors, audio interfaces and acoustics.
With this guide I want to raise awareness about some problems people usually overlook or ignore all the way, and to point out feasible solutions based on the budget a beginner producer could afford. Many people will tell you “Man, you gotta get these monitors” or “that audio interface” and they might even be right, perhaps, if you didn’t consider the fact that even the most expensive piece of equipment is worthless in a room with a bad acoustic response. For this reason, the first step of this small guide to good sounding mixes will focus on this issue.
Yes, you should buy some studio monitors, preferably active, because they are designed to reproduce a near perfectly flat frequency response. About all of today’s monitors are active and this means they have built-in amplifiers: usually one for each speaker (so 1 for the tweeter and 1 for the woofer in a 2-way monitor etc.). When placing them you have to keep in mind that their acoustic sweet spot will be the vertex of an equilateral triangle, the other two vertices of which will be the center of each monitor’s cone. This means you need to put the monitors equally distant from cone to cone and to your head, directly facing it. Also, if you have accessibility you should keep them at at least 1-1.5m away from the wall behind them, and avoid hollows at all cost (cover them, wall them up, whatever, I don’t care… just make them go away!). Your ears should be at the same height of the tweeters or somewhere between them and the woofers: you may need some stands to make it so. Any other setting will alter the overall perceived response of the monitors by a varying degree, depending on the room and on how far from this scenario it stretches.
Now that the basic acoustic setting of the speakers is taken care of, let’s talk a little about audio interfaces: you’re definitely going to need one, as internal sound cards have nowhere near the quality of an external interface; I’m talking about noise picked up from the computer, digital to analogue conversion, drivers latency, not to mention pre-amps if you’re recording. Although interfaces are not strictly related to the acoustics in your room they are needed to properly record external audio and to accurately drive the monitors. They come in a variety of brands, features and budget range and most of the time it’s safe to say that you get what you pay for. The more inputs/outputs the interface has, the more it will cost. However, what finally determines output audio quality it’s the DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) and to a lesser extent the type of signal you’ll be using. A balanced signal will actively remove nearly 100% of interference the wires might pick up and travels through tri-polar cables with XLR or TRS Jack connectors, whereas unbalanced signals are susceptible to external disturbance and use bi-polar cables with RCA or TS Jack connectors. Cheaper interfaces such as the Focusrite Scarlett Solo will send out only unbalanced signals. As opposed to these points, when considering audio quality it is irrelevant how many inputs or outputs the interface has per se: most of us won’t need 4, 6 or 8 INs and 4 OUTs or more; or at least not yet for a very long time. So you should read carefully about these aspects when choosing which one to buy, and pick what’s best for your needs, otherwise you could end up paying a premium for something you’re not even using.
Finally, we’re down to room treatment. Acoustics are a complex subject but you can have huge improvements with a few corrections: the ideal room would have a mid-sized rectangular diagram with your system placed on the shorter side, but even if your room doesn’t fit these characteristics try and find a place in it that match them as close as you can. This section could be a hundred pages long and still not cover it all, but I’ll try and keep it short and clear. The least you can do is to isolate your monitors from their stands or your desktop: there are some excellent pads for sale designed to do just this (eg. from Auralex). If you care to invest big money in this process (and I can’t help but advise you to if you can afford it!) you can have professionals analyze your room and come up with a treatment plan specific to your case. For those of us, like me, who are on a budget it’s possible to do this on our own with some time and patience. For starters, you can get some good omnidirectional mic for little money (the Behringer ECM8000 is perfect for this task), or borrow one from a willing and generous friend (who’s lacking a friend like this?!). Put it where your head would be when producing, patch it to one of your interface’s input and use a software like REW (Room EQ Wizard, for Mac and PC) to make calibrations. The program will give you a series of graphs and data related to the frequency response of your room and reverberation: all of these are useful to make a room correction. The paths are now two, and they depend upon budget and time: you can use another software like Equalizer APO (PC only), which will operate on your interface’s driver and create an output EQ curve either based on data from REW or manual. This option, though cheap, is not clean at all as it involves fiddling with your driver (you can roll back, to be fair) and only takes care of one part of the problem anyway: frequencies. In order to achieve a true flat spectrum and precise sound you will have to consider also time response for each frequency, and that is a form of reverb known as modal ringing or resonance. Sound will bounce on your walls in a slightly different way depending on pitch, leading to some frequencies building up compared to others and last longer: this will result in a “muddy” sound (typically in the low-end) and you will perceive them as louder too (we’re talking 30dB even). No software can take care of that, and this takes us to the second path: placing acoustic panels ourselves so that not only frequency response is the flattest possible but also modal ringing is as uniform as possible along the spectrum.
Usually you’ll need to put one or two acoustic panels in the points of first reflection on the side walls, on the ceiling above your head, on the floor under your chair (you can use a carpet), and possibly on the wall directly behind your monitors (but this depends greatly on the location of the bass ports, if they have any). You can easily find the formers by sliding a mirror along the walls until you can see the opposite monitor’s cone appearing inside of it while keeping your head in the sweet spot. Then you’ll need to put some bass traps (special angular panels) in the corners: the ones beside your monitors and possibly the ones behind you. This is because low frequencies tend to build up and resonate in every corner of the room, especially if these are wooden. You should cover all windows and glass surfaces as well, with panels, curtains, or at least a piece of cloth: glass highly resonates with a harsh timbre that greatly affects that frequency band which people hear best. You may need 6 to 10 panels in total and in Europe this will cost you anywhere between 100€ and 400€, depending on your country, store pricing and the quality of them. This is a solid investment, though, especially if you’re planning on going pro in the future.
Anyway, you should be aware of the fact that even with a full treatment your home studio will never match a professional one, designed to be it from the start. But you can get pretty damn close!
I understand this whole process is no walk in the park and I’m giving just general guidelines because these matters are really sizeable, but there are at least a couple of great tutorials on the web for each and every one of the aspects I mentioned here, which will guide you through every single step and cover it in detail.
Stay tuned for part 2!
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