I think the hardest part of a mix is the end. That point where you are 90% of the way there, and it’s all to easy to cut out early, declare the mix over, and render that sucker down. Either we get impatient, or honestly we’re simply tired of the song. We’re over it already. Time to move on.
Before you reach for the Bounce To Disk option, you would be wise to consider a simple four step listening check. This process is fast, simple, and free, and it could be the very thing that takes your mix to the next level. What are the four steps? Well, they actually are one step just repeated four different ways. Simply put, you’ve likely been working on one set of speakers the majority of the mix. Now is the time gauge your mix in four different listening environments, each with its own set of clues.
Via Quinn Dombrowski Flickr
Step 1 – The Low Level Listen
Hopefully you’ve been already mixing at a reasonably low level the entire time. Why? Because your ears won’t be fooled by the hyped highs and lows characteristic of loud volumes. But what I’m suggesting you do first is turn your speakers way down (think light background music), turn off your computer monitor, and just listen to the faint noise of your mix.
What this does is allow for your ears to relax and your mind to simply take in the mix as a whole (not individual parts). You want to hit play and listen straight through the whole song, noting anything that stands out as irritating or out of place. Just make a mental note or write it down. That wasn’t so hard now was it?
Step 2 – The Cheap Speaker Listen
If you don’t already own a pair of cheap speakers (or single speaker) it’s time to grab one from a junk pile or a consignment store. I’m talking consumer grade computer or small stereo speakers. Hook these up to your audio interface, mute your main studio monitors, and listen back through the song a second time.
With this step, you’re listening for the midrange. Cheap speakers often give you plenty (or exaggerated) mid range and not a lot of bottom or top end. This is helpful because it can expose any glaring issues you might have in your midrange. Again, take note of what jumps out at you as obvious or annoying. Let’s keep this party going!
Step 3 – The Tiny Headphone Listen
During the mixing process you may have already been referencing a pair of studio headphones and that’s great. I switch to my headphones a lot during a mix. But now it’s time to grab your favorite pair of tiny headphones and get to listening. I usually employ the classic Apple iPod earbuds, but it doesn’t matter the brand. Just make sure they are small and fit inside your ears.
The interesting thing about a lot of these tiny earphones is the muted top end. You want to listen for how clear your mix sounds even without that upper range of frequencies. Do the vocals still sound clear, does the snare still pop, how about the kick drum? Again, just jot down any thing that doesn’t sound good and leave it at that. Time for the final step!
Step 4 – The Open Door Listen
The final thing I like to do is put my mix back on the main speakers and a moderate volume level, get up from my desk, open my studio door, and walk just outside. I literally stand just beyond the doorway and listen to the mix from the hall way. It’s crazy just how helpful this one step alone is.
For one, you lose all sense of stereo image, which is helpful to know if your EQ moves really hold up. Plus I always seem to get a good read on my lead vocal level. If the vocal sounds too loud or quiet from the doorway, I know it’s wrong. Again, just listen through the song the fourth and final time keeping tabs on anything and everything that is noticeably bad, wrong, or out of place.
Combine Notes And Make Your Tweaks
At this point you should have a handful of notes made from each of the four listening steps. The goal is to now take those notes and try to make some sense out of them. If the vocal seemed at a good level in 3 out of the 4 steps, but too loud from the doorway, you can simply turn the vocal down a notch, knowing that it likely will better from the door and probably about the same everywhere else. You’ve now just improved the mix a little bit.
The same holds true for any frequencies that jump out at you. That guitar solo seem a tad too harsh on the cheap speaker? Dial out a little bit of whatever frequency is the culprit. It will sound smoother on mid range heavy speakers and likely no different on other systems. You get the idea, right?
This four step process is all about gathering information, clues about your mix so that you can get it just right. It’s likely close, but it could be that much better if you just take the time to dig a little deeper.