One of the more frustrating aspects of writing music for beginning producers I find, is that they struggle to get their songs to translate well to other listening environments. Most people know that you need a good listening space and some nice monitors to make this easier, but let’s be honest, who really has the funds for this when they first start producing music?
Of course, the old standby is to listen to your songs on as many playback systems as possible and try to recognize where you’re having issues with translation (I.E. too much bass, too many highs making things harsh, etc). But even this can be problematic for some people. Maybe they don’t have a car, or close friends have banned them from their stereos after a hundred such previous attempts.
But, all is not lost, there’s still a few useful tips that can even out some of the more obvious errors in your mixdowns and make your songs sound better in more places than just the speakers (or headphones) you used while writing the song. Here’s a few I’ve found particularly useful over the years:
– Get out of the sweet spot. Sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes getting up out of your chair in the ideal listening position and walking around your studio/bedroom/living room can show you a lot that’s wrong with your song. Typically you’ll find that you have some bass build up in the corners of rooms, for example things sound way boomier than they should. Sometimes this accentuated bass can show you just HOW overly loud your low end is, especially if you use commercial recordings to compare your song to.
You can stand there and see if the lower subs are are just way too excessive, or perhaps the opposite is true and your song still feels way too light on the low end when you’re in the corner (dunce!). I even use this trick still with some tracks I’m writing, it’s sort of my worst case club scenario as I like to think of it. I know my monitoring is really flat in the sweet spot, but by getting up and standing somewhere I know is abnormally too loud on the low end, I can get a feel for how the track might sound on a poorly tuned live sound system. I’d never base any of my mixing decisions solely on what I hear there, but it’s a good gut check when wondering how bad something can be.
– Get out of the room. One thing I find really useful as well, is just getting up out of the studio and going into another room close by while the music is playing. Sometimes this can help you hear an issue in your mixdowns you might not have noticed. Often I want to make sure that the main element (vocal, lead synth, main hook, etc) of the song is what is mostly audible, though of course since bass frequencies tend to travel easier you’ll also have a lot of your kick and bassline too.
For things like vocals you can use this to make sure that none of your synths are drowning them out, and that you can clearly make out what all the words are. A lot of times when you’ve been focusing on the vocals intently on your own, say when tracking them or comping, you sort of memorize what they are saying inadvertently. That can influence how well you can judge the intelligibility of them when in the sweet spot, and this is one way to double-check that you’ve got the balance right in that critical mid-range band.
– Make some noise. Another useful trick is intentionally trying to mask what you are hearing to do the same thing. Sometimes I’ll open a window, or even put a fan on in the background, just to be sure that in the real world where the average person doesn’t have perfect isolation, everything in the song is still coming through loud and clear. At the very least the most important parts, certainly you’re going to lose some effects and quieter sounds when listening this way. As always, focus on the important stuff first!
– Stick it in your ear. The last idea isn’t really much different from listening to your mixes on multiple systems, it’s just easier to do. Try out multiple different pairs of headphones, as the overall frequency response can vary drastically from pair to pair. DJ headphones or anything with the name ‘beats’ in it tend to over emphasize the highs and lows, while crappy ear buds like the ones that come with iPods and iPhones tend to bring out the mids more.
It’s fairly cheap to pick up 3-4 different pair of headphones and use those as your multiple listening environments. Try and get a different kind for each one you buy if you can, over the ear, in ear, slightly more money, and the cheapest you can find. Just remember that you don’t want to put too much stake in what any single pair is telling you is problematic, the key is to average that among all the of the headphones combined. If the bass sounds great in 3 of the 4, then it doesn’t usually make much sense to ruin that by making it sound good in just the one pair that sounds problematic. For instance.
More than anything just remember that you don’t HAVE to use high end studio gear to make incredible sounding music. It certainly helps and speeds up the process considerably, but it’s not necessary. People have been creating professional sounding music on the cheapest and lowest end gear since music-making began. It just takes patience, the right attitude, and a little bit of ingenuity to overcome your obstacles.