THE MOST IMPORTANT MIXING TOOL
Let's talk about the most important thing for anyone interested in mixing and mastering their own music. The single, most important tool of all. You might think it's about your audio interface, or your microphones, or your speakers, or your DAW or plugins. These elements are obviously important, but there's one that is definitely more important. One that can literally make or break your ability to mix your music at a high level.
Can you guess it?
All right, I'll tell you.
It's your room. More precisely, it's the acoustics of your room.
When you listen to the music coming out of your speakers, you are not actually listening to your speakers. You are listening to all the elements that, in your studio, influence somehow the sound before it arrives to your ears.
The sound starts its journey from the speakers. Some parts of the sound travels directly from the speakers to your ears. But other important parts of the sound bounce off the walls and are delayed. Some frequencies are absorbed or enhanced by your couch, your curtain, your furniture, or even the people's bodies in the room. Every object in your studio has an influence on the sound. Many things happen before the sound waves reach your ears. The sound is changed in very complex ways.
So, the bottom line is that you are NOT listening to a TRUE representation of your mixing decisions. You are listening to the sound as it is shaped by your listening environment (your room and everything in it). This is a big problem, since the difference can be dramatic. I speak by experience. Most people vastly underestimate how consequential this issue is. You can have frequencies that are increased or decreased by many decibels. You can have resonances of all kinds that completely mess up your ability to know what is actually going on in your mix. Having better speakers won't help you. Having better microphones or plugins won't help you. Just as you cannot paint a nice picture blindfolded, you cannot mix well if you are not able to hear the "truth" about your mixing decisions.
So, what can you do about it?
The first one is useful, but not really a solution.
The second one is ideal, but very difficult to do properly and quite expensive.
The thrid one is fantastic and very reasonable.
Let's take a look at them, shall we?
1. Mix with headphones.
This may help, but it's not a perfect solution, at all. First, because headphones are biased, even the very best ones. And, most of all, headphones cannot reproduce many crucial aspects of our listening experience. So, while it's a good practice to check your mix with headphones, mixing only with headphones doesn't really solve the problem. Indeed, it creates more problems. And, please notice, excessive use of headphones can damage your hearing in the long term
2. Fix the acoustics of your room
In an ideal world, this would be the best solution. Unfortunately it can be quite expensive. It's also pretty difficult to do properly and correctly from a technical point of view. Fixing the acoustics of rooms requires a very high level of expertise. It can be relatively easy for high frequencies, but for the low frequency range, which is the most problematic part, it's not only difficult but also very expensive. So, if you can do it, if you can afford to do it, by all means go ahead. It's a very, very good investment. There are companies providing all the tools and advice you need. But be prepared to spend thousands. Also, be ready for a non-perfect solution and a good deal of headaches.
3. Sonarworks Reference
I am not affiliated in any way with Sonarworks. This is important to know, because I am about to argue that Reference is the best investment I ever made for my studio, period.
So, what is it?
It's basically a measuring / corrective kit for your studio.
First, you measure the acoustics of your room through Sonarworks' measuring software and calibrated microphone (it's essential to have a microphone specifically calibrated for the task). The process is quick, easy and extremely precise.
Then you just run Sonarworks' software while you are mixing. It's a plugin that you can set on the master bus of your DAW, as the last plugin. The plugin changes in real time the frequency spectrum of your mix so that it compensates most of the problems, biases, resonances of your listening environment related to the frequency response.
Of course it cannot compensate for reverberation, but that's something you can easily and cheaply fix with some inexpensive room treatment. The great thing about Sonarworks Reference is that it helps you (a lot!) with the most difficult aspects of room acoustics, the ones that are complex and expensive to deal with.
Here's an image of how the plugin looks like:
Now the real question is: Does it work? Does it really help you?
Well, I was a bit skeptical before I tried it.
I liked the concept, but I was unsure about how actually effective it could be.
But I am not skeptical anymore.
This tool is pure magic.
It improved my ability to mix so much that it's almost unreal. My mixes have improved in quality. They translate much better in all environments. I get the results I want much faster. In a matter of hours I became much more effective and efficient as a mixing engineer.
And that's just because I can trust what I'm hearing. It's that simple. I hear the truth about my mix, and that leads me to make accurate mixing decisions.
Also, consider that my studio was already treated reasonably well, so I thought I only had some minor problems to fix. Nonetheless, the benefits I got from Sonarworks are enormous. I didn't realize that those "minor problems" actually created me a lot of difficulties that I wasn't even aware of. I can only imagine the even greater benefits for someone with a more problematic room. I think that the bigger the problem you have, the more benefits you get from Reference (and 99% of home studios have significant acoustic problems, even the ones that are somehow acoustically treated are not completely immune).
And, by the way, by using the same techniques, Sonarworks Reference can also improve the reliability of your headphones.
It's really a complete package.
As I said above, your room is the most important tool in your arsenal, whether you realize it or not. And if your most important tool is flawed, you cannot expect great results, no matter how good you are. If you are (like I was) trying to improve your mixes by spending thousands of dollars in fancy monitors, interfaces, microphones etc., stop wasting your money. Just stop. Fix your room first. Use some decent acoustic treatment. And, definitely, get Sonarworks Reference.
SONARWORKS REFERENCE 4.0
Price: 299 Euros for the Studio Edition with calibrated microphone
(you can find it at sonarworks.com)
Quality: 10 / 10
User Friendliness: 9 / 10
Value: 10 / 10
Necessity: 10 / 10
Anybody who wants to mix or even just listen to music in less than perfect listening environments. Basically, everybody!
Overall: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
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