When you picture professional producers, mixers, and mastering engineers like Dr. Dre, Bob Ludwig, and Rick Rubin, what are they usually working with? Massive mixing boards? Huge state-of-the-art speakers? Thousand-dollar headphones? Priceless vintage equipment? That sounds about right, doesn’t it?
If we all had access to gear like that, you might think life would be much easier — and you would probably be right — but there are still many ways to achieve a great mix on a budget. If you have a smartphone or a computer, you’re already well on your way to achieving a good mix.
When I first got into production, I knew how to make a quality mix in my studio headphones, but the mix turned sour when people listened on laptop speakers or with earbuds. I blamed the listener for not using good equipment, but it turned out that I was the one to blame. I wasn’t making great mixes for everyone; I was making great mixes for myself.
Keep in mind that most of your fans are listening to your music on cheap sound systems. Like all things in music, it’s important to be sympathetic with your listener. Today, I make sure my mixes sound good everywhere – and it doesn’t cost me a fortune, just patience. So, here are five affordable ways to make sure your mix sounds perfect — for you and your fans.
A solid pair of studio headphones doesn’t have to break the bank. For example, Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones cost $99 and feature pretty much all you need to get a good mix: 32 dB attenuation of outside sound, frequency response of 8–25,000 Hz, and a warm, clear sound. For $50 more, Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones are perfect to get you a professional mix.
Once you’ve got yourself a quality pair of studio headphones, you can get to work on your mix, making sure all of the frequencies, levels, and effects are balanced and clean. Test your mix several times in these headphones. Put it in mono. Turn the volume down. Turn it up loud. Make sure it sounds good, but be aware that this is only the first step. Unless all of your fans have the same pair of headphones as you and exclusively listen to your music with them, you’ve got a few more steps before you can trust your mix to be perfect.
You might be thinking, “Why would I work on my mix with crappy earbuds?” Well, the truth is that most people listen to music with whatever random pair of earbuds came with their cell phone.
Oftentimes, a pair of earbuds will expose flaws in your mix that you might not have noticed in your studio headphones, such as abrasive frequencies. Take the time to listen to your mix over and over on earbuds, and tweak the mix as needed to make it sound good.
A lot of people like to throw on a playlist on their laptop while they clean, cook, study, work, or kick back with friends, so spend some time with your mix on your laptop speakers.
Make sure everything is present. For example, if you have a wicked bass line that’s mostly below 200 Hz, it might not show up very clearly on your laptop speakers. If the song’s dynamic build or chord changes depend on hearing that bass line clearly, but it’s absent on laptop speakers, that means you have more work to do.
In this particular situation, you could either boost the midrange or introduce a new instrument like a piano to double the bass line changes and make them audible. Just make sure you’re ready for certain frequencies to get tucked under the mix when you switch from headphones to laptop speakers.
Cell Phone Speakers
After making sure your headphone sounds good in your studio headphones, earbuds, and laptop speakers, it’s time to do the phone test.
When friends are showing each other new music, or just hanging around the house, they often will just play the song on their phone speakers. In this case, not only will your music be played through small phone speakers, but it’ll probably also be in mono.
This might sound like a headache for a lot of mixing engineers and producers, but the truth is that this is a great challenge. Remember, if your mix sounds good in mono on cell phone speakers, that means you’ve done a great job!
Rinse and Repeat
After going through these four steps, go back to step one. Some of the changes you make to help your mix sound better on laptop speakers might need some subtle tweaking in your headphones.
If you’d like, you can replace some of these steps with other audio interfaces. For example, if you don’t have a smartphone, use alarm clock speakers or an old boombox. It’s important that you plan for the lowest common denominator. The point is to make sure your mix sounds balanced and perfect through all interfaces your fans might be using.