Your Results Will Be the Inverse of Your Listening System

All else equal, your results will be the inverse of your listening system…

This is critically important, so it bears repeating: All else equal, your results will be the inverse of your listening system.

My students have heard me say this, repeatedly, for years, and it holds true for all aspects of recorded sound: Frequency spectrum, transient content, dynamic range, stereo imaging, reverb levels, and so on down the list. If your listening environment has too much bass, you’ll mix with not enough bass. If speaker placement’s too wide, you’ll mix too narrow. Speakers too distorted? (And yes, speakers can distort!) You’ll mix too clean. Room too live and reflective? You’ll inadvertently compensate by underusing reverb.

My early experience…

In my younger days, I listened and worked on affordable ($1000/pair) nearfields, routed through a similarly affordable ($500) passive monitor controller. The speakers were somewhat flattering: smooth midrange, wide imaging, and so on. But my results were inconsistent. I’d always need to reference my work on other systems, and go through several rounds of revisions. Even with that process, I wasn’t fully satisfied. Sometimes my work would be mostly on par with label releases, other times I’d significantly miss the mark, and not be able to diagnose the reasons why.

I thought the solution was hiding in more outboard gear, or better plugins, or learning new tricks about saturation, widening, etc. I bought a Manley Vari-Mu, an API 5500, and upgraded my plugins with new tools from FabFilter and SoundToys. Make no mistake- these are wonderful tools from wonderful companies. But they did not solve the problems with my work.

Then I thought perhaps I needed to just work harder, nitpick smaller differences (e.g. a half-decibel of EQ on the mix bus, or slight ratio changes on a vocal compressor). This is helpful in its own way, but wasn’t getting to the root of the difficulties holding me back.

Eventually, after far too long, I bought a pair of Focal Solos, a matching subwoofer, a Dangerous ST, and a bunch of acoustic treatment. My room was still tiny and terrible, but even in that worst of spaces, the sound immediately improved. The Focals had sufficient power for a small nearfield (150 watts to the woofer, and 100 to the tweeter), the subwoofer provided response down to 30Hz, the Dangerous immediately clarified imaging + treble frequencies, and the acoustic treatment did its best to fix an unfixable room.

A couple years later, I moved to a significantly larger control room, and bought a pair of full-range Dunlavy SC-IVas. This was a similar leap forward: More accurate frequency response, more precise imaging, and none of the usual low frequency distortion from the ports on most nearfields and subwoofers (the Dunlavys are sealed boxes).

A few years after that, I built my current room, a 400sqft, precisely designed and tuned listening space. My first mix in that new room was *immediately* improved from my previous work, even though I was not yet fully used to the sound of the new space.

Common problems in smaller home + project studios, (and corresponding impacts on your work):

Problem: Smaller speakers can’t reproduce lower frequencies effectively.

Impact: Mixing with too much sub energy, often corresponding with not enough upper bass and low midrange. (If you can never hear enough 50Hz, you’ll ipso facto always hear too much 150-300Hz.)

Problem: Strong peaks and deep nulls throughout the lower frequencies, from a poor room design or insufficient acoustic treatment.

Impact: Difficulty balancing the low frequencies in the mix. Will often end up with too much, or too little. Will hear problems that don’t actually exist in the audio, and over-process in an attempt to fix.


Problem: Weak, underpowered nearfield speakers. Reference tracks will often sound lifeless, overcompressed, or distorted/crunchy.

Impact: Mixing with too much transient content, not enough compression/peak control. Wrongly perceiving good mastering as being too loud or too limited.


Problem: Listening too loud. Weaker speakers self-compress, and perception of frequency response will be skewed toward hearing too much bass and treble, not enough midrange.

Impact: Mixing with too much midrange, not enough bass and treble. Mixing with too much transient content, and not enough compression

Some Solutions:

  1. Follow basic guidelines for room positioning and treatment:

    • In most smaller rooms, set up so that the speakers are on the short wall, firing down the long dimension of the room

    • Position yourself precisely in the middle of the room’s width, at approximately 38% of the room’s depth. This is the point in the depth dimension with the most accurate frequency response, and the least severe peaks and nulls.

    • Treat the important areas: Bass trapping in the corners (as much as you can afford, both $$$-wise and space-wise). Absorption panels at the first reflection points on the side walls, and a ceiling absorber overhead

    • Position your speakers so they form an approximately equilateral triangle with your head at the mix position.

  2. Adhere to good listening practice:

    • Don’t listen too loud. Levels 79-82 dBC will be more than enough for most smaller rooms. Listening at that level will help your perception, guard against fatigue, and keep smaller speakers in a more linear operating range. You can measure your listening SPL with an SPL meter, or with one of several iOS and android apps.

    • Listen at a fixed, calibrated level on your monitor controller. This helps ensure you’re judging differences in the music, rather than day-to-day differences in your listening level

  3. Consider digital correction solutions, such as Sonarworks Reference or IK ARC. These tools aren’t panacea solutions, but they can help mitigate the worst of a room’s frequency response. And, at minimum, the measurements you take will arm you with a detailed picture of your room’s frequency response.

  4. Use reference tracks, level-matched against your mix. This is a common recommendation, but a good one. That said- in a good listening space, you won’t *need* to do this as frequently or for as long, because you’ll naturally make better decisions.

Conclusion

The best money I’ve spent on my studio, with the greatest and most immediate ROI, was absolutely the money spent on the listening system. It immediately makes the listening picture more accurate, which directly translates into better decisions every step of the way. I’ve seen the results of that improvement over the past couple years: Better sound, hundreds of millions of streams, regular major label work, a workflow that’s both faster *and* better, and clients that are happier than ever.