When mixing and producing, your monitoring environment is your aural lens for sonic decisions. Is it lying to you? Get 5 tips to improve your studio monitoring.
By Josh Bonanno
Your monitoring environment is the window into the audio that you’re listening to and working on.
It’s the lens through which you view everything. If that lens is blurry, lying to you, or incorrect, what impact is that going to have on the music you are creating?
Once you comprehend the power that a good monitoring environment holds, it should be on every producer, mix and mastering engineer’s to-do list to make sure their listening and working space is the best it can be. Let’s talk through 5 super simple things you can do right now to improve your monitoring situation and ensure that your listening environment is working with you and not against you.
1. Learn what a “correct” monitoring environment actually sounds like
This sometimes gets taken for granted, but it is critical to have a baseline as to what a good, well-tuned and balanced monitoring setup sounds like. Like putting glasses on for the first time and truly seeing at 20/20 vision, you may not even realize what you’ve been missing. Without this reference benchmark, how can you know where to work to-wards with your own room?
Take the time to find and listen to a room that was designed professionally and built for listening to audio. That room could be a recording studio, a theater or a home hi-fi setup, whichever is available closest to you. Inside the room, spend time listening critically to music you know well. Take note of the frequency spectrum, low-end power and high-end detail, and the balance of instruments and vocals. Listen for reverb tails and how the effects trail off. You will likely hear things in the song you’ve never noticed before. This will become your road map and guideline for dialing in and perfecting your monitoring environment to become more transparent, trustworthy and correct.
Skipping this step is what keeps many producers and engineers in the dark and chasing their tail for much of their career. Not having a benchmark for hearing music correctly is the difference between trusting and understanding the technical moves you are making, versus constantly tweaking and second-guessing your work.
2. Optimize your current room
While this won’t be a deep dive into room acoustics, there are a few simple steps you can take to improve your space without needing a lesson in physics.
- Place your speakers in an equilateral triangle
You probably noticed in the professional studio that the speakers are strategi-cally placed and pointed in an equal triangle to the listening “sweet spot” with the tweeters pointed at your ears. Without even measuring, take a quick look and see if your speakers are oriented in a way that forms a triangle between your listening position and the speakers themselves. Use the tweeters as your guide. Later you can measure and treat it in a more scientific way, but setting the foundation will get you on the right path.
- Get everything else out of the way
Most high-end listening environments have little-to-no obstructions between the speakers and the final listener. Sure, there might be gear and a console, but the speakers almost always have a clear line of sight to your ears. What about your room? Is anything blocking part of your speakers from pro-jecting sound to your ears directly? If you need an extra visual cue, get a piece of string, tape it to your speaker cone, and hold it out to see if your computer screen, desk lamp, or anything else is directly in its path. If there is, move those objects to get the most unobstructed path for sound to travel to your ears.
- Make a plan to acoustically treat your room
In a traditional recording studio, you might notice acoustic panels hanging on the walls, and in a larger theater setup, you will see heavy curtains on the walls. These are all forms of acoustic treatment that alter the way the room sounds and reacts. In this piece, we will not delve deeply into acoustic treatment – there are plenty of resources out there that take a more focused look into the best practices for treating a room. But taking note of the fact that your room is lacking treatment in certain areas is important in creating a plan of attack in the future.
3. Learn your gear
A very practical thing to do is to spend time understanding the gear that makes up your monitoring environment, including how it’s designed and meant to be used. Speakers are obviously the main pieces of gear in a monitoring setup, but maybe you also have a monitor controller or integrated subwoofer. Even your XLR or TRS cables are worth considering. All of these units are going to impact your listening environment, and most gear has a large feature set that’s designed to get you the best listening experience.
Read the manuals of your gear to get a better understanding of these features. For example, almost all speakers are designed with a very specific dispersion angle for the speaker cone itself. That means that all speakers have an optimal listening angle and distance. It also means that the speaker’s orientation – whether the speaker is placed vertically or horizontally on your monitor stands – is crucial to a proper representation of the sound. This varies wildly from speaker to speaker, but the good news is that any reputable speaker company will give you that information in the manual.
Skipping this step will likely have you missing out on a lot of cool features, but more im-portantly, you could actually be harming your gear if you’re using it incorrectly, or at least not how the manufacturer intended. Obstructing parts of gear, using the wrong cables and connectors, and running certain parameters to their extremes are all examples of things that both limit the quality of your listening experience and also damage your gear. So, spend some time researching your gear, understand how it’s meant to operate best, and then integrate that information into your own room.
4. Understand how different monitoring levels affect your perspective
The Fletcher Munson curve shows us that our ears are not linear and listening at different volumes gives us different representations of the frequency spectrum. In general, humans are most sensitive to midrange frequencies, and at lower levels, the bass and treble frequencies will be underrepresented.
All else being equal, listening at around 85db SPL will provide the most “balanced” representation of the music. However, in a small, untreated room, 85db SPL will probably trigger the many resonances and modes in the room. This will end up creating an imbalanced frequency response.
In these cases, I suggest keeping the volume around 72dB SPL, allowing less of the room to be “activated” and more of the direct signal from the speakers going straight to your ears. Because you are now listening to more direct sound from the speakers and less of the room reflections, you are going to get a clearer picture of your mix.
Mixing at different volumes will give you different perspectives, so keep in mind that you’ll need to turn up the SPL from time to time to make sure the mix sounds “balanced” at a variety of SPLs. You can use an iPhone app like iaudiotool to measure your SPL at any given time.
5. Accept that headphones are the best answer
This may not be the solution you want, but sometimes, relying on headphones might be the best option until you can get your environment up to a standard that allows for critical listening and confident decision making. Headphones are certainly a different listening experience to speakers entirely, and they have their own challenges. But what you undoubtedly gain with headphones is consistency and reliability. Because headphones are not dependent on any outside factors like room acoustics or physical space restrictions, headphones prove themselves to be a valuable option for making critical decisions and listening in an honest way.
The good news is that with Waves Nx plugins such as Nx Ocean Way, CLA Nx, and Abbey Road Studio 3, you can legitimately have the best of both worlds. Nx plugins allow you to have the benefits of headphones, while still feeling physically immersed in the audio like you would in the studio. They remove the awkward “directness” of headphones and make the audio feel like it is coming out of speakers. In my mixes, I’ve felt they let me make decisions similar to how I would on speakers, and the results have translated better when I did eventually play the music in a proper listening environment.
For a more in-depth look at the challenges of regular headphone mixing and how the Waves Nx plugins dramatically improve the translation to speakers, check out my previous article here.
The better, more transparent and honest your listening environment is, the quicker, easier and more confident you can be when creating music in your space. These 5 steps are just the beginning steps on your journey to creating a better monitoring environment for yourself. Developing a strong foundation and making a plan moving forward is the first step in creating a space that is a joy to listen to and work in.
Josh Bonanno is a mix engineer, producer, and beer snob based in Nashville, TN. To hear his work and know more about what he does check out joshbonanno.com.
Interested in hearing how Waves Nx technology sounds? Try Nx Ocean Way Nashville now.
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