Music business and lockdown—has the industry gone digital?
Anyone who loves music also loves good sound. And we music producers are of course particularly sensitive in this regard. It starts with the choice of studio speakers and ends with the choice of the perfect new guitar. Of course it can't be just anything. After all, we spend hour after hour crafting the perfect guitar sound or mixing that one snare drum exactly how we want it to be. And then we do the well-known and dreaded auto test, connect our smartphone to the system, turn it up and... somehow the mix sounds completely different than in the studio. The guitar sounds scratchy and not as warm as we originally thought. The snare has no punch and sounds more like a tin bowl. That can be pretty frustrating. Sound familiar?
Here’s the good news: The problem is almost definitely your listening situation. Because if the mix sounds good in the studio but nowhere else, there are problems with the frequency response of your studio loudspeakers and your room. For example, if you always have too little bass in your studio, then you mix in more bass accordingly. This, in turn, makes your mix boom everywhere outside of your studio. This is because it has far too much bass, which you need in your studio to compensate for the bad sound of the speakers.
To make sure you mix better in the future and that your music sounds as good everywhere as it does in your studio, I'll show you the biggest mistakes you can make with your studio speakers. And, of course, how to avoid them.
This is the most important of all rules. Still, I regularly see young producers (and, ironically, some hobby hifi enthusiasts who spend way too much money on speakers) who are unaware, or haven’t looked into this yet. Just as glasses belong in front of both eyes so that we can see properly, studio loudspeakers belong “in front of” both ears so that we can hear properly. This may sound banal, but the details are particularly important. The distance between the speakers and the ears must be identical. Ideally accurate to the centimetre. Otherwise we have what is known as a “transit time difference” in the sound and the stereo image tilts in one direction.
In fact, most people do it intuitively. But what is often forgotten is the inclination of the speakers. The speakers must point towards the ears. Many place them parallel to the screen or television. Because it looks good. But unfortunately we are already changing the frequency response of the loudspeakers drastically because we are changing the beam angle of the boxes to our ears. A few degrees of inclination already have a strong impact. For example, we immediately no longer have a clearly defined stereo image. Put simply, your speakers won't work as they're supposed to if they're not pointing to your ears. Just like glasses don't work if you wear them crookedly. Something is already happening – but you can't see it clearly.
That's why you set up studio speakers (and ideally all other speakers as well) in an isosceles triangle pointing towards the listening position. On the one hand, this guarantees that we don't have any runtime differences in the sound and, on the other hand, that the speakers are pointing straight at our ears and we have a clearly defined stereo image with a linear frequency response.
All you need to set up your boxes properly is a folding ruler and a bit of patience. As the name suggests, in an isosceles triangle, the sides are all the same length. In my studio this is 130 cm, as seen in the above graphic. That depends somewhat on the size of the speakers and the size of the room, so it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. You can and should experiment with this. The main thing is that the distances should remain relatively identical. The more precisely you measure, the better the end result will be.
Let's return briefly to the subject of beam angles. Of course, this not only applies to the inclination of the studio loudspeakers, but also to the height. Studio speakers should never be placed on a table for a number of reasons. What is often used are combination studio tables with keyboard extensions, where the loudspeakers are far too high. It is important that the tweeter of the speakers is at ear level. Unfortunately, just the woofer (assuming you have a two-way speaker like KRK Rokit or Yamaha HS) is not enough. If this is not possible for space reasons, you can angle your speakers downwards so that they shine on your ears. Ideally, you want to use separate speaker stands, with which you can not only easily measure a stereo triangle, but also adjust the height.
Symmetry is extremely important when it comes to speaker sound. We have two identical ears and ideally they should hear the direct sound of the loudspeakers in the same way for a good sound experience. That's why it's important for a studio to be symmetrical. You may have noticed this in pictures from larger studios. The sound is reflected from the walls. In order for this to happen evenly and with some degree of control, we need symmetry in the room in order to be able to carry out targeted acoustic measures. I will explain what these are in the next section.
Basically, you should keep in mind that a room sounds best on the long side. So you shouldn't use it in its width and have a wide wall behind you, but have the long walls on the right and left. This is because the sound bounces back down the walls, and we don't have a wall directly behind us to bounce the sound straight back into our ears. In a long room, the sound “wanders” away from us, which is good because we mainly hear the direct sound from the speakers and less reflected sound from the walls, which distorts the sound image.
Room acoustics is an extremely complex subject. But fear not, the basics are pretty simple. In order to "build" a good listening situation, you should familiarize yourself with the basics, but you don't have to become a pro right away. Relatively good results can also be achieved with simple means. There is a relatively general basic concept of a listening room, which you should adopt as best you can. Basically, we only want to hear the sound that comes from our speakers. Almost all of the sound that is reflected from the room should not get back into our ears, as it falsifies the sound image. There are a few specific points in the room where you should have sound-absorbing surfaces. The so-called points of first reflection. You can either buy ready-made sound absorbers or build your own very cheaply and easily. There is all sorts of information about this online.
Figure 1 shows where the first reflection points are and how they reflect sound into your ear.
In the simplest case, you have attached a couple of sound absorbers (green) at the points of the first reflections and have already achieved a reasonably usable result (you can see this in Figure 2). By the way: Of course, the ceiling is also part of it. So you should also have an absorber above you at the listening position.
The optimal variant is seen in Figure 3. It includes additional bass traps in the corners and a diffuser on the rear wall. However, this is a very extensive construction effort. Before you just do something like that on the fly, you should read up on the topic of room acoustics a little more deeply.
So, let's summarize what you should consider in order to have a monitoring situation that sounds as linear as possible:
And? Were you able to find a weakness in your studio? Then I wish you a lot of fun optimizing. And of course making music afterwards.
Finally, I have a tip for you: The best thing to do is to learn from each other, exchange ideas with other producers and give each other feedback. Take a look at the musician search here on mukken, where you will find other musicians and producers with whom you can talk shop about studio technology.
Speaking of talking shop: If you are still curious and want to learn more about the world of music production, you can find my music school course on “Music Production” here. And of course there are also many other posts on the mukken blog about music production, such as this one about sound layering, where you can learn a lot.
Originally published on May 9, 2022, updated on May 9, 2022