Mixing Low End in Headphones and Imperfect Rooms
Acoustics are a deep topic and to do proper treatment can be challenging and costly. In this blog post I am going to focus more on how to work with compromised listening environments than how to fix them.
Listening through the bias
Everything in your audio chain is colouring the sound to a certain extent. When we are mixing and mastering ideally we would like as neutral of a listening situation as possible. Unfortunately this is costly and pretty much impossible to make perfect.
Everything the audio runs through effects the sound to a certain degree. The D/A convertors in your audio interface, the amp, the speakers, the room, where speakers are positioned and where you are listening all changes the quality of sound. In most cases we can't substantially remove the listening biases so let's figure out how to understand and work with the biases.
2 Key Points:
Reference tracks and listening on multiple playback systems and listening environments
Figure out how to effectively use reference tracks. The problem when mixing on say speakers like NS-10s is that they sound very mid rangey. If you scoop the mids and accent the hi's and low's to compensate and listening on a hifi system there won't be enough mid range and the low and hi will be too much. Do not try to fix the speakers problems, room problems, headphone problems when mixing. Calibrate yourself to the problems! Use reference tracks to do this.
Choosing References - There are 3 types of reference tracks to use for mixing and mastering.
Songs that you have heard thousands of times on several systems. This type of reference doesn't need to be genre specific to what you are working on. The purpose of these are to inform you of how the system or room is colouring a song that you are very familiar with and for you to take this bias into account when mixing.
Find reference songs that are genre specific to the material you are mixing. These should be tried and tested hits in your genre and they should have comparable elements to your mix. I am not trying to copy these references so much use them as guidelines for what is not enough or what is too much. Mostly I just don't want to be disappointed after playing a reference and then playing my mix or master.
You should also have a reference track of the demo mix and "in progress" mixes of the song that you are working on. This is surprisingly important to make sure you are maintaining the songs excitement through the mixing process and not making it worse. Also I do bounces at various stages of mixing and I import these in progress mixes into my current mix session to make sure that I am improving the mix in a good way and not going off the rails.
I like to have the references right in my DAW session and I suggest to not use mp3 or mp4 with a lower quality than 256KBPS. Youtube rips are not a good reference.
Level Matching - A problem with comparing audio of references to your mix a reference will likely be louder because it has been mastered.
Make sure you that you are referencing your mix against the reference track at the same perceived volume. You will likely need to turn the reference down so that when you switch there isn't a volume difference.
Also make sure you reference isn't running through any extra processing from your master. Route the reference to Ext. Out 1/2 so that the signal bypasses any master processing your may have on your mix.
You don't need to copy the reference track. It is more about giving you guidelines for what is too much and what is too little. In the end I just don't want to be disappointed when I hear a reference and then switch back to my song. If I feel let down there is work to do.
Reference by Mastering the Mix is an easy solution for referencing. You can import multiple references into this plugin and volume match them with a click of a button. Also you can solo the low mids or hi's and compare frequency bands. It will also give analyzer comparisons to dynamics and stereo activity.
If you have Ableton I have made a custom rack for referencing the mix in: Mono,Sides,Low's,Mid's & Hi's
Put this rack at the end of the master channel and on your reference track or reference group if you have multiple references and key map quick keys for the rack
***** Make sure when comparing the low, mids or hi's that the cross-over of the racks are set the same on the reference as the master.
2. Listen on multiple playback systems and environments
Check the mix
on ear buds
on laptop speakers
In the car (the car is often great for hearing the dynamics of the bass when headphones and small monitors don't cut it)
On a PA system if you have access!
Check your mix on as many systems as you can to find the middle ground so your mix translates well across different systems.
The Problems with Headphones
Bass is not only heard but it is felt in the body. I find the feeling in the body helps me judge the low end punch and dynamics. Headphones don't give any low-end feeling in the body as the sound is just going into your ears. Solution: Bassroom - This is a plugin that analyzes your overall mix and make suggestions as to your the level and balance of your bass frequencies.
Phase issues with closed ended headphones. Solution: Opened ended mixing headphones that don’t create a comb filter in your head. The problem with them is they are more expensive and they don't have isloation. For example you couldn't mix in a coffee shop because they would be too loud for others and you would hear everything around you. Solution Sonarworks - Sonarworks software calibrates sound on your current headphones and speakers.
Headphone don't have Cross Talk like speakers do. When you mix on speakers you are naturally account for cross talk but headphones don't have cross talk and when you mix on headphones and then check on speakers sometimes you will get unpleasant clashes you didn't hear on headphones. Solution: put mix in mono to get the summation that you get with speakers (cross - talk) This is really good for Equalization work. This trick is effective with speakers also.
No Room Sound - We are used to hearing sounds in an acoustical environment and it can be fatiguing listing in a dead room or in headphones. Solution - Open-ended headphones don't isolate your from the room. Solution - take a break!
Reference tracks!!!!! calibrate your brain
Bass Mixing Tricks
Mono your low end
Apply Hi-pass filters to sounds that don't need sub information which will be most tracks. Move the frequency as hi as you can without losing valuable low information based on how it sounds.
Have a separate clean sub track from your bass sound . The sub should be primary a sin tone but subtly adding a bit of higher harmonics actively to the sound can help the sub translate on smaller systems like laptops. Saturation can be effective for this. Renaissance Bass by waves is a nice bass harmonic enhancer for fattening up the low end.
Side chaining the sub from the kick can be a great way to make room for the bass. For advanced users you can look at multi-band side chain and just side chain the low end of various tracks which makes the side chain effect very transparent and unnoticable.
Avoid layering the low end (sub) frequencies. The phase relationship between layers often weaken the integrity of the low frequecies.