EPISODE 01: THE MOST IMPORTANT TOOL
1. ALL ABOUT THE TOOLS
It’s all about the tools, right? You go on YouTube, you browse the internet, and you find a billion videos and websites talking about the latest plugin, the latest DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), the latest “magic digital powder” to make your mix sound like a record. It’s all about the tools. Simple as that. Give me the right tools, and I’ll make you a record. Right?
Well, not really. Not at all, indeed. Let me tell you, I had to learn the hard way. And by the way, I love tools as much as the next guy. But I learnt that one tool is really, really crucial, much more than any other. It’s not what you’re thinking. Not a phenomenal Equalizer. Not a great Compressor. Not a fantastic Reverb. This is a tool that you probably have already, but it’s not set up right. If you don’t get it right, then it will be very, very unlikely that you will be able to make great sounding mixes. No matter how many expensive EQs or Compressors you buy. This tool is the real foundation for your quest to mixing greatness. So, what is it? Here’s the answer: a GOOD LISTENING ENVIRONMENT!!
2. WHAT IS IT?
Well, by "listening environment" I mean anything that contributes to transforming the sound from what exactly you SHOULD hear to what you ACTUALLY hear. Let me clarify. Imagine you could magically connect your ears straight to the output of your computer while it is playing your mix back. That’s what you “should” hear, as that would be an exact "translation" into analog sound of the raw digital data that make up your tracks. That’s also what you “want” to hear, because in order to make good mixing decisions you need to know exactly what’s going on in your mix, right? Now, unfortunately what you “actually” hear is quite different. Because there’s many things in between the raw digital data to actual physical sound waves, and even more things from sound waves to your brain, which will interpret those waves as “sound”. So, what are these things? Here's the main ones:
3. IT’S YOUR ROOM
That’s right. It’s your room. The most important tool in your arsenal, by far, is your room. We’ll see shorty why this is the case, but let me tell you that the vast majority of people don’t have a good listening environment because they don’t have a good enough room. Having very good speakers is absolutely pointless if you don't have a good, neutral room. And most people don’t realize it, because it's not so obvious. It’s like having poor vision. Let me tell you a short story. I used to have less than perfect vision. Obviously I was wearing glasses, and with glasses I could see well - or so I thought. Then I decided to get rid of glasses and fix my eyes with a simple laser operation. I did it just because I wanted to get rid of the inconvenience of glasses. But boy, after the operation, I was totally amazed at the fine details of the world I had missed all along. It was a revelation! And this is why it’s hard to realize you have a room that is really harming your ability to mix. You think you hear what you’re supposed to hear, but you don’t. You think that your room is neutral, but it’s not, not even close. That’s what happened to me. I used to mix in a pretty bad sounding room for quite a long time. Of course I didn’t know it was bad, and my mixes, naturally, sucked. And worse of all, it was very hard to learn how to mix better. And I couldn’t understand why. Then I realized I had a room problem, I fixed it, and all of a sudden my mixing ability made huge, quick progress.
So, improving your listening environment, and especially trying to get your room as “neutral” as possible, is the BEST INVESTMENT YOU CAN POSSIBLY MAKE to develop your learning ability and, eventually, your mixes.
Now, please say that last sentence out loud and repeat it 100 times.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
4. TRUE COLORS
So, what is really the problem with "bad sounding" rooms? The problem is that what you hear is not exactly what is "real". Let me give you an example. Let's say you're a painter, and you want to paint a nice green field with red flowers and a blue sky. Let's say you have something like this in your mind:
So, you go ahead, pick up your brush, pick up some colors from your paint cabinet and start painting. Here's the colors you have at your disposal:
The colors, obviously, are totally messed up! Your red flowers are actually purple, the sky is not blue but green and your green field is actually pink/orange (or whatever that color is ...). You get the idea. You did not actually paint what you intended to paint simply because you were seeing colors that were altered by your badly illuminated room!
And that's exacly what happens when you have a non-neutral sounding room. You don't hear what's really going on. You think your mix sounds great, it sounds great in your room, and then you go out and play back in your living room or in your car, and it sucks. Well, it's no surprise. How can you possibly mix well if you don't hear what is really going on?
5. HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
So, how do you know that you have a serious problem with your room acoustics?
Let me give you a few short, straight to the point, non technical answers:
So, in what way your room will affect the sound you hear?
6. UPON REFLECTION
So, here’s some of the most typical problems. I repeat, problems that ALL untreated rooms have, to various degrees:
Of course every room is different and will produce a different frequency response. But this is just to show tha magnitude of the peaks and valleys, and this is pretty much typical. So don't think that your room is much different than this, because chances are it's not. A good sounding room should not have those peaks and valleys. It should have a pretty even response, especially in the low frequency range, where the problems are more difficult to deal with. We are talking many decibles of difference! It's like seeing red instead of blue, and yellow instead of green. Yes, it's that bad. How are you supposed to mix your music if you don't hear what is REALLY going on? Unfortunately, this is not just the most serious problem about your listening environment, but also the most difficult to deal with. But there’s ways to do it, and we will see how.
2. ROOM REFLECTIONS
This is an easier problem to deal with, so don't panic. Once the sound comes out of your speakers, it will bounce back and forth the walls, like light bouncing between mirrors. There are different kinds of reflections.
Ideally, you would like to hear only the DIRECT sound from your speakers to your ears. Instead, you also have EARLY reflections, which is the sound bouncing off a wall and from there to your ears. Then you have LATE reflections, which is the sound bouncing back and forth many times, and finally getting to your ears. So, what is the problem here? The problem is that all reflections arrive to your ears at slightly different times (differences measured in milliseconds), and the overall result is what we usually call "reverb". Now, reverb is a nice thing, and we definitely want to use it in a mix as an effect, as we will see later, but the problem here is that the reverb you are hearing is not actually in the "raw sound" coming from your speakers, but it is "added" by your room. And that can definitely make it much more difficult to mix, because everything becomes more confusing. Again, you are not hearing exactly what you need to hear in order to mix well, because your room gets in the way.
7. SO WHAT?
Ok, to sum up, we know that:
- Your room is, by far, the most important tool, because it influences so much your ability to listen to your mix in a truthjful way
- The vast majority of rooms create very, very significant problems, in terms of resonances and reflections
- If you don't take care of it, your ability to produce good mixes (and to learn how to mix) is severly compromised.
Now key the question is: Can you do something about it? The answer is yes. And you don't have to spend a fortune. We'll take a look at options in the next episode.