If you’ve found your way to this article, you’re probably feeling pretty frustrated and confused right now. Ten minutes ago, you were in your home studio with an incredible-sounding mix, and now you’re in the car listening to the same track, only it sounds like an atrocious flabby mess. Did I copy over the wrong file? Is my car stereo broken? If you can confidently answer “no” to these questions, then congratulations. I am pleased to inform you of an endlessly frustrating reality—your mix does not “translate” from your studio to your car stereo. But that’s not all. You also have now been formally initiated into the underground society of bedroom mix engineers, a lifetime curse. The mix gods are looking down on you, laughing at you, laughing on you, and their thunderous bellows will echo throughout eternity.
The scenario above highlights one of the most frustrating struggles we face as mix engineers—getting your mix to sound good no matter on what system it’s played. Here are five tips to help you get your mixes where they need to be.
Tip #1: Treat Your Mix Space
A major reason mixing in a home studio is tough is that you're likely not working in an ideal acoustic environment. Getting a mix to translate well across playback systems is difficult to do even if you are working in a properly treated studio, and it’s leagues harder to do in a bedroom studio environment, especially if there’s no acoustic treatment at all. The Auralex Alpha-DST Roominators Kit comes with everything you need to treat most small spaces of 100 square feet and fewer, including 32 charcoal-gray panels, 32 purple panels, and four charcoal bass traps. I like this kit because it includes the necessary paneling to treat the early reflection points that can obscure the high- and mid-frequency ranges, and it also includes bass traps to tighten up the low end. If you’re having major discrepancies between how your mix sounds in the studio and how it sounds in the car or on larger speakers, I can almost guarantee you’re having problems in the bass and sub-bass ranges, because these are the most problematic areas of the frequency response in many DIY mix spaces. Even in a well-treated room, the low and super-low end of the spectrum is not an easy area to judge. It comes down to knowing how your room should sound when the mix is right, and that leads to my next tip, which is always to use reference tracks.
Tip #2: Use Reference Tracks. Always. (Obi-Wan Voice)
This tip requires very little, if any, financial investment, but it may be the practice you adopt that propels you forward in a way that simply acquiring new equipment never will. I’m talking about making it your discipline to always, and I mean always, check your mixes against genre-specific, contemporary reference tracks when you’re working in the studio, as well as when you’re checking your mixes on consumer audio systems, like car stereos. This practice is absolutely necessary. If you are trying to evaluate your mix without a reference point for how each frequency range should sound on a particular playback system, then you are essentially taking shots in the dark. I could go on for hours about how to select reference material to mix against, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Pick songs that are culturally relevant and that sound good to your ears. If you’re working on modern styles, particularly in the pop, electronic, or hip-hop genres that tend to feature tricky extended bass frequency content, pay close attention to how the low end sounds and feels on your system when demoing the reference tracks versus your mix, and make adjustments accordingly.
Tip #3: Work with a Sub
You cannot correct that which you cannot hear. As stated above, the very low frequencies are a notorious problem area, and if you aren’t working on a system that can adequately reproduce this range, you have no chance at all. Take a look at something like the JBL LSR310S 200W 10" powered subwoofer that features a built-in crossover to extend the low-frequency response of your system.
Tip #4: Check Your Mix in Headphones
Another good way to help find your bearings in the studio is to bounce back and forth between your studio monitors and a pair of trusted monitor headphones while mixing, to find a balance that sounds good on both. Again, this is an especially helpful practice when managing the lowest frequencies in your mix. Check out the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Monitor Headphones for a reliable pair of studio cans that won’t break the bank.
Tip #5: High-Pass a Lot
Bass and sub-bass frequency management has been a recurring theme in this article, and that is for good reason. Modern musical styles have a ton of low-end content, and sound designers have created powerful tools to shake the club accordingly; which is great, but the beast must be tamed. If you have 808s in your mix, you should high-pass them anywhere from 20 to 60 Hz with a fairly steep slope. You generally want a high-pass filter on the master, as well, and you may find that you need to roll it off at a higher frequency than you might think, especially if you’re having major mix translation issues. Start around 20 Hz, but you may find you need to go as high as 70 Hz, depending on source material. Try steep and more gradual slopes and monitor a frequency analyzer after the EQ so you can see what’s happening to the mix visually, even if it’s difficult to hear on your studio system.
Mixing is tricky even under ideal conditions and trying to correct problems on a system you can’t trust is like sonic Russian roulette. Your mix environment is likely never going to be perfect at home, but there are steps you can take to improve your monitoring, and pitfalls to avoid if you’re having major problems. I hope you enjoyed these tips, and I encourage you to leave any questions or comments you may have in the dedicated section, below.