So, you are getting ready to mix. For me, sitting down to mix is always the most exciting part of the music-making process, but I have heard many engineers and other colleagues lament that it is a necessary evil they wish they could avoid at all costs (and often do, at the cost of paying someone else to mix for them). Mixing can indeed be tricky, and like so many creative pursuits, walks a fine line that balances science and art. It requires developing a knack for knowing when to rely on one (often the creative/artistic side) while throwing the other out of the window (I’m looking at you, science). One of the best approaches for avoiding the aforementioned trickiness is to eliminate as many variables from your environment as possible, using our old friend science, from the last sentence.
In the Beginning…
Let us start at the very beginning (which I hear is a very good place to start). Your mix begins the moment you start placing your mics in front of their source, be it a singer, a guitar cabinet, drums, or a glockenspiel. Every decision you might make about compression, EQ, and even effects, will be influenced by how your sound was captured. Basic mic placement and learning to experiment will help greatly with this, but the other major factor involved is one that affects the process from creation to recording to mixing and beyond: your room.
"Mixing can indeed be tricky, and like so many creative pursuits, walks a fine line that balances science and art."
Your typical room is rectanglular, which presents its own set of challenges. The first step is how you lay your room out, and this is one part of the process where we have to listen to science. When picking a spot to set your desk up, you should always place it facing one of the shorter walls. Facing the shorter wall will result in fewer reflections than facing one of the longer walls, and start you off from a better place, acoustically.
The next step is one that can often be one of the most challenging, as space is always at a premium. While you want your desk to face one of the shorter walls in the room, it should never be placed directly against the wall itself; in fact, the mixing spot in most professional studios is roughly 30% away from the wall it faces. Clearly this is an ideal, but the more space there is between your desk and the wall, the fewer reflections from that wall you will encounter.
Treat Your Room Right
Ah, the dreaded “treat your room” talk. Room treatment remains one of the most important things in a studio, and typically is the most important element missing from many home and project studios. It has to be made clear: room treatment is very different from sound-proofing. The purpose of sound-proofing is to reduce the bleeding-through of sounds, whether from the inside out, or the outside in. Room treatment seeks to change how specific frequency ranges behave in your space. While some room treatment options might reduce inter-room bleed, it is not going keep your neighbors happy when you are mixing at 2 AM.
However, very few rooms are lucky enough to sound great as they are, and are typically plagued by standing waves, which cause specific frequencies to resonate louder than others, as well as making them last longer. While anyone who tells you that you can get your bedroom or basement to sound as pristine as a pro mixing environment might also have a bridge they want to sell you, you can vastly improve your environment and correct some very major problems that will help with your mix’s translatability (that is, how easily you get it to sound good in multiple rooms, your car, your headphones, and so on).
One of the biggest names in room treatment is Auralex, and with good reason. The company offers multiple options that address many common room issues, so it can get a bit daunting looking through them. A good place to start is with some of this manufacturer’s Studiofoam Pyramid 24, which will help reduce standing waves, as well as early reflections. This product is designed to be arranged easily in different patterns to accommodate different room types.
Right angles, as you will find out, can be your worst enemy. The corners in your room naturally allow for bass buildup, making the already challenging task of getting your low end to sit right in the mix even more frustrating. Installing bass traps right in the corners helps get that buildup under control and, coupled with standing wave reduction, will get you in pretty good shape.
For convenience, there is a variety of complete room systems from both Auralex and Primacoustic that give you tools to treat the common problems of your typical room. If you find yourself in a position where you cannot treat your room, or find yourself mixing in different, untreated rooms, IK Multimedia’s ARC System 2 provides a unique solution. Basically consisting of a calibration microphone and accompanying software, the system measures the acoustic response of your workspace, and compiles a corrective EQ curve. Then you simply place the plug-in on the master track of your DAW, and you can overcome the sonic quirkiness of your room.
The Sweet Spot and Conscious Decoupling
So we have your desk placed and your room treated, and I can hear you asking, “Now can I start mixing?” Patience, young Padawan, we still have some setup to do. We are just getting to the crucial stage of setting up your monitors. You have gone through the trouble of selecting the pair of monitors that is right for you, so it makes sense that you should optimize their performance through proper placement and setup to dial-in the sweet spot.
As you might guess, the “sweet spot” is the area where your monitors and room are going to provide you with the most accurate and detailed image possible. Ideally, this is exactly where you want to be sitting to make all your mix decisions. There are a few methods you can employ (outside of monitor selection, of course) that can help optimize the sweet spot, and first and foremost is placement.
The basic rule for monitor placement is to set them up in an equilateral triangle with your ears. If it has been a while since geometry class, this basically means the distance between each monitor and the distance to your ears should be the same, so you’re going to have to bust out the ole’ tape measure to check. You want the monitors to be angled slightly toward you, and, most importantly, have the tweeters at ear level. Having the monitors too low or too high can create reflections from your desk and blur your sonic image, so make sure your stands are either at the right height for your setup if they are not adjustable.
A word that gets used a lot in acoustics is decoupling. Boiled down, it means that if something is making sound (like your monitors), it should not be sitting directly on top of any surface. Using monitor isolation pads helps eliminate any vibrations from traveling from your monitors to the surface on which they’re sitting, which can help tighten your low-end frequency response. If you don’t want to drop the cash on a set of pads, even cutting up an old carpet or blanket will help.
I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue that treating your room or picking up a new set of monitor stands is as exciting or glamorous an investment as, well, almost any other gear is, but those expensive new monitors or audio interface are not going to perform to their potential if your room is not set up properly. All the outboard gear and plug-ins in the world won’t improve your mix the same way an optimized mixing environment can. Beyond that, investing in gear or software without setting up your room will limit their benefits. A proper setup will help you get the most out of your other resources, most importantly your ears, and improve the quality of your mixes.