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Microphone Month

Low end problems in your mix? It may not be the monitors.

Today’s question is common. It’s an ode to chasing your tail. We include most of the text unedited for the full tail-chasing effect.

“Everything I record sounds fine in my studio, going through my monitors, but when I listen to it on any other system there seems to be way too much bass. (I mean so much bass that speakers have actually started vibrating across the room). Obviously, my system is not giving out the correct amount of bass or the 60 or so other radios/walkmans/car stereos/home theater systems/studios I’ve played my recordings through are wrong. I’ve gone through 3 sets of monitors so far (Originally I had a set of Mitsubishi monitors, then I had the Event 20/20 using a Hafler power amp, and now I just purchased the Event Tria system) all with the same results. I’ve tried changing out the wiring, moving the speakers closer to & further away from the walls, different electrical outlets, everything I can think of but I still cannot get the right/real amount of bass through any of my systems. Any suggestions to fix this?”

We see this type of thing all the time. The marketing-driven nature of our culture has us believe that whenever something is wrong, we just need a better widget. Of course this does turn out to be the case much of the time, but quite often we just don’t know where to look for the real problem. While the monitors may be in question here, it is now evident there are other problems. Here are four interrelated things to think about:

  1. No matter what monitors you decide to use, you will have to get used to them. Spend time with them and learn how they differ from the “real world” so you can compensate accordingly. This takes time. Unfortunately, with some monitors it just isn’t possible to fully acclimate yourself to them. Worse, it usually takes quite a while to figure that out. No easy answers here. You need to start with good monitors (most people WAY underspend on monitoring because they WAY underestimate how critical it is) and then work with them until you know what they give you and you can interpret it properly or get rid of them.
  2. Have more than one pair to reference while recording and mixing. Always be checking yourself in as many places as you can. This helps keep you on track and helps build that inner knowledge of what the monitors are giving you. Even switching between just two different pair of “reference” monitors can reveal many things you would otherwise miss. It’s not a bad idea to have a cheap consumer system handy just for a periodic point of reference (at least until you get fully used to your studio monitors). Also experiment with monitoring at different loudness levels. This has a big impact on the perceived level of bass frequencies.

    (Those first two are general points that apply to all monitoring. These next two hone in on the question at hand a little more specifically)

  3. Most near field and low cost monitors have little or no ability to give you accurate information at very low frequencies (the kind of frequencies that vibrate speakers across the room). It depends on the speaker, but once you get below 40 to 80 Hz you need to ignore what you are hearing (part of this is due to point #4 below). Adding a sub can help (as you did with the Tria system), but you are still at the mercy of the acoustics of the room (point #4 again). Personally, I often find I mix better without a sub. I just listen to the nearfields and try not to make radical decisions about stuff going on in the low end because I know I can’t hear it accurately (back to point #1). This may sound frustrating and futile, but once you get used to it, it’s actually quite liberating. All that low end coming out of a sub (or a typical hi-fi stereo) can actually mask other things you need to hear anyway. I’m trying to put 20 years of experience into a paragraph here. It isn’t easy. This stuff takes time. That’s what skill is all about. Be patient with yourself and keep working at it.
  4. The acoustics and geometry of a room play a huge part in your ability to hear low frequencies correctly. In fact, this is arguably more critical than the speakers themselves. You can put a $20,000 pair of monitors in a bad room and they’ll sound bad. Moving the speakers around the room, as you have done, is worthwhile and can make a difference. Don’t give up on that idea, you may not have found the best spot yet. Move yourself around too and listen to what happens (there are some past tech tips covering this in more detail). However, when it comes to low frequencies, sometimes placement of you and the speakers just can’t solve the mechanical characteristics of the room. Standing waves and other acoustic phenomenon are too severe to overcome. You can install bass traps (usually work best in corners) to kill the low end, which at least keeps it from canceling at the listening position (the net result is you hear more bass even though a lot of it is being absorbed). You can also try changing the volume (space, not loudness) of the room by moving furniture in and out (sofas, bookshelves full of books, etc).

If you seriously try all of this and it doesn’t get any better, I would suggest ice fishing.

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