Archive for the 'Recording' Category

Ableton Live 9: additions and wishlists…

A few weeks ago, Ableton announced the latest update to their Live studio and performance DAW, Live 9. Having  been a Live user since version 1.5, I am always interested in the latest update to the DAW I find most inspiring; although, after all the bugs and issues I had with Live 8, I might wait for a dot update before upgrading. Anyway, I’m sure you’ve all seen the new features, but I thought I might list a few of the things I’d like to see in the next update…

I’m aware that I do not know Live as deeply as I possibly should, once I find a way to do what I need -no matter how convoluted- I tend just to use that rather than look for alternatives. So, if there are things in my wishlist that I Live can do already, please comment and let me know!

The wishlist:

While all these updates are nice, there are a few things that I’d like to see in forthcoming releases:

Mono tracks. I don’t need all my tracks to be stereo. I’d like to select whether a particular channel is mono or stereo so that I’m not using twice as much processing power when I’m running effects on that channel.

Groups within groups. Yes, there are ways to route things, but I’d like to be able to nest a few things. For example, I often use two or three different tracks for the bassline. I’d like to be able to group those, then have that group in another group with the kick drum so I can compress the low end together.

An easier way to turn clips into songs. I always start out in session view, separate channels for different sounds and instruments, then a few variations within each channel. Once I’m there, I’d love to have an easier way of getting those variations into the arrangement view would be nice. A ‘paintbrush’-style tool in the arrangement view that allows me ‘paint’ sounds down on the timeline from the ‘palette’ of sounds that are available in the session view of that channel would be absolutely fantastic.

‘Pinging’ an external effect to set up device latency. How fantastic would it be if the external effect device just had a button that said ‘ping’ or similar, which would then send a test tone to the external effect and learn how long it takes for the audio to make the round trip, ideally to within a tenth of a millisecond or better. Perfect.

There are a few more little niggles, but that should cover it for now. As for what is in Live 9, I bought the full version of Cytomic’s The Glue quite a while ago (excellent plugin, can’t recommend it highly enough!), so the new Glue compressor is just typical of my musical investments, but reassuring that I backed a winning horse I suppose! The audio to MIDI feature is what I think will make the biggest difference to my workflow though: looking forward to recording those solos and ear candy ornamentations with the guitar, changing them to MIDI and playing about with synths, electric pianos and anything else I’m not very good at playing! Bring on the release of Live 9!

Oh, and Push as well, that looks handy…


Deadmau5 says: “We all hit play”

Whether you are a fan of Deadmau5 or not, his success and high profile mean that people to tend to take notice when he says something, particularly if that something may be seen as courting a bit of controversy.

Deadmau5’s recent comment in his united we fail blog post regarding big name EDM djs and producers not really doing much more than hitting play for their live sets led to a flurry of opinions on Twitter, followed up with plenty of articles and blog posts. Here’s mine.

First and foremost, as I’ve said in a couple of previous blog posts (here and here) all I care about is the music; if all you do is press play, I’m not really going to complain, just keep the good tunes coming. As a solo EDM producer, my live sets in the past have been based on triggering pre-programmed clips in Ableton Live using a Livid Block controller, bringing pre-made kick loops, basslines etc. in and out. I did start to get a bit more sophisticated when I got my Machinedrum and then my Monomachine, but, for me at least, trying to program sounds in real-time just slowed the development of the set right down. I’d rather have more pre-made sounds and loops, and keep things moving along.

A lot of the comments on Deadmau5’s blog posts seem to be mixing up live sets and dj sets; I don’t think Deadmau5 was suggesting that djs turn up with a prerecorded 4 hour mix and hit play. However, I do disagree with his comment about beatmatching not being a skill. There is more to it than ‘counting to 4’, although it is a skill that most people can learn quite quickly with practice; take a look at this episode of Faking It (may be geographically restricted).

That being said, I have no problem with people just hitting the ‘sync’ button. I learned on vinyl, but those sync lights are always glowing on my X1. All the modern developments in technology simply change what the digital dj can do with their time; they can remix tracks on the fly and start to blur the line between a live performance and a dj set.

All in all then, what difference does Deadmou5’s blog post make to the world of music? Probably none. While a bunch of people were arguing and debating his comments, they were mostly djs, producers, music magazines or blogs. Will his comments stop people going to his gigs or end the continuing penetrance of David Guetta into the pop charts? I doubt it.

Audio ‘Engineering’?

In the April 2012 issue of Sound on Sound, the Sounding Off article –a regular column in which people can raise issues and air their thoughts- was written by Jez Wells, a lecturer in music technology. Jez currently has a fellowship with the Royal Academy of Engineering and is interested in collating the training, experience and skills that those who might currently be called ‘audio engineers’ have. It is an interesting read and makes some interesting points. You can find some of the responses to his column on his blog, and they do make interesting reading. Below are some of my thoughts (you might want to read the column first!):

My training is in research science, but I’ve always had a keen interest in music; starting from the childhood piano lessons, through playing guitar in indie bands, until I discovered deep house music and moving more into production and putting together a home studio. I was an assistant professor in viral immunology, but now work solely on music.

To begin with, I have no problem with the use of the term engineer in an audio recording context, regardless of whether someone has a degree or attained chartered status. You can be a great artist without going to art college, and look at the great science that has been done in the past by hobbyists, and the clergy in particular.

I also think that the quote in the article that said “the audio ‘engineers’ you describe are generally not scientifically trained” was perhaps off the mark. I don’t know of any engineers who are scientifically trained; that is not their job, and it shouldn’t be.

Science is an abstract concept, which uses experiment to derive a set of conclusions, which establish a working theoretical framework. Engineering is concrete; engineers take this framework and apply the knowledge to a tangible output. The scientists come up with the rules of fluid dynamics, the engineers build the plane, the scientists work out the laws governing transmission of forces, the engineers build the bridge. Building a bridge is not a place for experiment.

As for the comment about miking a guitar amp, for from being non-scientific, that is the essence of scientific discovery. Pure experimentation is what science is. If you look at the philosophy of the scientific method as put forward by people like Karl Popper, knowledge can only come through experience. If you don’t try that other mic at that other distance at that particular angle off the axis, you can’t know if it will sound better or not.

The major sticking point I see with the term ‘engineer’, is that is purely, and perhaps arbitrarily used to define the people either side of the glass. You can make a very convincing argument that hearing a guitar part and knowing that it needs a 3 dB peaking cut at 2.6 kHz and that compression from a Distressor will sound better than from an 1176 is an artistic skill, rather than an engineering one.

My own personal thoughts are that the recording engineer is artist, engineer and scientist; it takes intuition, technical knowledge and knowing how to experiment to do the job. Engineer is just a job title. They may not be able to play the musical parts, they may not be able to build a mixing desk, they perhaps inhabit the middle ground, maybe they should be ‘artineers’…

The Art of Noise

For the rest of the time when we’re not trying to introduce some form of hiss or distortion to make our tracks sound like they were recorded to tape sometime in the 1960s, it seems like we’re trying to get rid of it. In particular, location and field recordings are often particularly problematic: as soon as you start recording outside of your nicely treated acoustic environment, acceptably quiet recordings become harder and harder to achieve.

While this may not be a problem for a lot of music production where, either the noise will be masked by other sounds, or the noise may be an integral part of the production and the reason you set foot outside of the studio in the first place. Where background noise, hum and hiss can really cause problems though, is in location recording of interviews and dialogue for broadcast, podcasts etc.

This post will cover some of the ways you can use the tools of the modern audio editor to try and reduce the impact of noise on your recordings. I currently use Steinberg’s Wavelab 7 as my audio editor, but you should be able to work in any program that can host VST plugins. Before you start solving problems though, you need to take the time to listen to your recordings and work out what the problems actually are…

Reducing Hum

Ground loops and other issues can often lead to the characteristic 50 or 60 Hz mains hum (depending on where you are) being present in your recordings. The advantage of hum problems is that you generally know what the frequency is; it can sometimes drift around by a few Hz, but it’s quite straightforward to locate and quite narrow band. Buzz is related to hum, but, as there are peculiar distortions involved, can be harder to pin down as some of the frequency content can be enharmonic.

The easiest way to start to deal with hum is by using a parametric eq. For 50 Hz hum, add the first band at 50 Hz with perhaps 12 dB of peaking cut with a very high Q; if the hum moves about a bit, you may need to reduce the Q. As the hum will also be present at the harmonics, you will also need to cut in a similar way (although with smaller gain reductions) at those harmonics. So, if you are in the UK and have 50 Hz hum, cut at 50, 100, 150 & 200 Hz etc. One side effect of using very high Q values is potential phasing problems around the corners, so you will need to listen for artefacts in your signal, to make sure that your not causing more problems than you solve.

Reducing Hiss

Hiss is perhaps the most common of problems, and more difficult to solve than hum, as it can often be very broad-banded, rather than the specific frequencies seen with hum. As such, if you try to solve these issues with eq cuts, you may find you are taking away much more of the signal than you would like. A better solution is to use bespoke broadband noise reduction algorithms. My personal choice is the Sonnox Denoiser (part of their Restore bundle, although the Wavelab versions are cut down from the full plugins) that comes with Wavelab 7, but the freeware Audacity also includes a noise reduction process, which requires the sampling of a noise ‘fingerprint’, which is then applied to the file. If the audio with which you are working has already been edited, you may be able to work with the gaps between words, although noiseprints of >1s often yield the best results.

For most of these processes, their use is always a balance of noise reduction against damaging of the wanted audio: dulling of the high frequencies is a common problem associated with noise reduction processes and, at some point, you just have to make a judgment call as to what degree of noise or quality reduction you are prepared to accept. Perhaps the easiest thing to suggest, at least where the signal to noise ratio is good, is to use an expander with a medium to long attack time to push down the level between words. I prefer to use an expander over a noise gate, as I find gating leaves the results sounding too unnatural. Adding some wide eq cuts at the higher-end of the spectrum can help, but this again can lead to dulling of the wanted sounds. Also, be wary if you use any compression to even out the vocal levels, as this can bring up the noise level between words.

Suppressing other noises

The noises we have covered so far are, in some ways, easier to deal with as the noise is constant, reducing the requirement for complicated detection algorithms. Dealing with sounds such as doors closing, passing traffic, digital clicks, air conditioners switching on, vinyl crackle etc can be much harder to deal with. Some low-end rumbles can be dealt with a high-pass filter or some low-end eq work, but things may not be this simple…

Automating eq’s and filters in your DAW and dealing with these things manually may well be the best solution if you can’t justify, or can’t afford the expense of specific tools such as CEDAR Audio’s products for Pro Tools, BIAS SoundSoap Pro 2 or the Sonnox tools etc. One more affordable VST Plugin for some of those random noises is Waves’s W43 multiband plugin, an emulation of the Dolby Cat43 processor: an invaluable tool for location dialogue editing, which is, at heart, a multiband expander. At the cheaper end of the spectrum, Magix Audio Cleaning Lab or BIAS’ slimmed-down SoundSoap LE 2 or SoundSoap 2 may suit you, but perhaps the most complete package at a price that can be justified outside of the pro-studios is Izotope’s RX2 package.

Summing up

There are many types of noise that can interfere with your recordings and can cause problems with either reducing them, detecting them in the first place, or both. As with many audio processes, there is always a balance to be struck between a problem-solving edit and negatively impacting the wanted audio. One strategy is to chain multiple processes -perhaps a filter, then a noise removal plugin, then expander- to remove noise, rather than try to do everything in one step.

Noise removal and audio restoration is, unfortunately, like so many things in life, the best tools often cost the most; you will get better results with bespoke tools than from using freeware. If you do spend a lot of time editing audio such as location dialogue/interviews for podcasts etc., I do recommend Steinberg’s Wavelab Elements 7, a cut-down version of the full Wavelab, but which still includes the Sonnox tools for noise removal. I would also recommend reading this outstanding article from Sound on Sound on the various noises that can creep into a recording and how to remove it. I also recommend this article (with audio examples); although it focuses on Pro-Tools, the techniques are broadly transferrable; there is a good post on noise removal using Audacity here.

Perhaps the best solution is to try not to record noise in the first place: check your studio set up for ground loops (unplugging laptops and running from the battery can often make a huge difference); record using a pop shield; if you’re recording interviews, stand to shield the hot side of the mic from traffic noise and wind by standing in the way and try and use an appropriate microphone windshield. This, unfortunately, is often easier said than done, and some cleaning up is required, while there area number of almost miracle-working tools available, use your ears to make sure you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro Headphones Review

DT-880 Pros are pretty well reviewed already –they’ve been around for a while, after all- so why should you read this one? Well, first of all it’s another opinion and, secondly, as far as I can find, no-one has talked about their suitability for house music production on the road using an Apogee One as an interface. I’ll assume that you’ve read some other reviews and product descriptions, so I’ll not repeat all of the basics and just concentrate on my experience with these headphones.

DT 880 Pro: Build Quality, Comfort and Appearance

Let’s start with comfort. Despite being a bit heavier than its main competitors, the Sennheiser HD650s and the AKG K701s, these are comfortable ‘phones. There isn’t too much downward pressure on the top of your head; the inward pressure feels reassuring, with a feeling of closeness without causing any discomfort, even after long listening sessions. The material used for the padding is smooth and soft, and doesn’t make your head too sweaty, which is always a bonus.

Appearance is pretty good too. The ‘phones come in a nice foam-lined zip up case and look the part. If I have any complaints, it’s that the cradles that support the cups look like a bit of a design afterthought, and the exposed cabling looks thin and fragile, but then, these headphones are cheaper than both the AKGs and the Sennheisers.

Build quality and potential long-term functionality is where I start to have issues. First off, the cable is non-detachable, being moulded into the bottom of one of the cups, so any wiring issues are going to be complicated to resolve, with higher repair bills, as described in this review. If I’m being honest, I don’t think any phones at this price point should have moulded cables, particularly those with ‘Pro’ in the name.

I’m also not sure about running that thin little cable from one cup to the other by tucking it under the detachable headband. Those cables seem very delicate, and I’m genuinely quite concerned about them snagging on something at somepoint, having them pulling out of the cups, and expensive repair bills resulting. Not sure that this feeling of breakability inspires confidence in a pair of working headphones. Compared with my Sennheiser HD555s, which were a third of the price, this cup to cup cabling arrangement seems poor.

The size adjustment is also a bit clunky, with the cup, brackets sliding back and forth in not a particularly smooth way. This is something I expect to be doing a lot of, as, with the ‘phones fitted to my head, putting them back in the case means that the moulded cable is at quite an extreme angle, and under a lot of stress, due to the snug fit in the case, so, to minimise that, I have to push the brackets back in again. Then, every time I resize, I’m concerned I’m going to catch the cables with my fingers.

DT 880 Pro: Sound

The sound performance is where the DT 880 Pros redeem themselves. These are the best ‘phones, from an accuracy perspective, that I’ve heard. The HD650s are perhaps more exciting to listen to, with the more ‘hyped’ bass response, but for critical mix decisions, I’d feel more comfortable trusting these; everything just seems more flat, and ‘egalitarian’ in the mix. Bass is low and extended, but feels well controlled. These are exceptionally good sounding headphones for the money.

Listening through an Apogee One after allowing a good length of burn in time, playing a variety of tracks showed this to be a good, reliable performer, from Alison Krauss to Maya Jane Coles, via KT Tunstall, Teenage Fanclub, Jacqueline du Pre and The Pretenders. I enjoyed the level of detail, accurate soundstage and the depth of the mix that was presented. Great performers.

DT 880 Pro: Deep House Production

So, the real reason for using these ‘phones, those late night deep house production sessions when using monitors is out of the question. After firing up Ableton Live 8, plugin 112 dB’s excellent Redline Monitor plugin into the master effects, I got to work. I can’t remember the last time I found it this easy to dial in a good kick sound. I usually layer two or three, and filter and eq to get them working together, then compress. I had a sound I was happy with in next to no time. Balancing and eqing my layered clap and snare hits was a breeze, and before I knew where I was, I had the bass sitting comfortably in a hole and, to me at least, a reasonably complete groove going on.

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I would rather mix on good headphones than cheap monitors in an untreated room; these ‘phones have raised the bar as to what good monitors in a good room are. I can see myself spending a lot more time mixing on these, the level of detail available to make those critical decisions and hear those little distortions is fantastic. Combined with the Redline plugin, I really do have the confidence to make mix decisions on these.

DT 880 Pro: Summary

Well, the sound is spectacular, I feel happy mixing on these, and would much rather mix on these than speakers that are getting to a less than modest price point. The issue for me really is that feeling of delicacy, and, if there is a problem, a large repair bill. Despite the protective case, I can’t picture myself travelling with these ‘phones, which is a shame as it would be fantastic not to have to waste hours remixing everything when I get back to the studio. Unfortunately, I think I’ll stick to my K271 mkIIs for the road, even with their lack of bass response, purely as they feel more robust and have a detachable cable. Oh, and their closed back so I’ll annoy fewer people in coffee shops!

Update- For the Price of Cheap Monitors

After writing the aforementioned blog, I came across a post in the IDMf site, which reminded me of an article I had seen in Sound on Sound magazine (my go to source for all things audio tech). While looking searching for the article I was sure I had seen and not just imagined, I came across these two articles:

Should I mix on high-end headphones or low-end monitors?

Mixing on headphones

And thought that, given my recent blog, that it made sense to advertise their sage advice here. I have to say, you rarely go wrong with SoS!

For the Price of Cheap Monitors

When it comes to choosing a first pair of monitors, today’s producer is spoiled for choice. The number options around the £250-£350 mark is almost overwhelming. When I was getting into production again a couple of years ago, I thought that a pair of monitors was one of the first things I had to have, so rushed out for a pair of KRK Rokits.

They did the job I suppose. The bright yellow cones certainly gave my ‘studio’ as it was then some gravitas; but now, with hindsight, I’m not certain that was the best way to spend the money… While I’m well aware that all of this advice is subjective, and that five people may well give you five different answers, I’m tempted to say this: If your budget is under about £300/$500, don’t buy monitors, buy headphones.

Now, as with all rules, there are exceptions. If your room is already acoustically treated, or it’s full of soft furniture, irregularly stacked book cases and heavy curtains, you might be fine to go and spend your whole budget on monitors, but, with my room at least, coupled with the fact I needed to know how far down the low end of that kick drum went, I wouldn’t have gone with small monitors, I’d have bought a pair of Sennheiser HD650s from the outset.

Yes, headphones have their shortcomings: they exaggerate the stereo field for example, you might pan more conservatively than you would on speakers, and reverb decisions might be different as you won’t get the benefit of your room reflections. Plugins like 112 dB’s Redline Monitor can help, as can a headphone amp like SPL’s Phonitor or 2Control, which can feed some of the left signal to the right, to simulate the ‘crosstalk’ you would get from speakers. Although, with the amount the SPL units cost, you could invest in some good monitors and acoustic treatment! Still on my wishlist for late night production though.

A set of monitors will make your studio look more like a studio, but you need to be aware of the limitations of cheap monitors in untreated rooms: limited bass extension, problems with flutter echoes and reflections, peaks and troughs in the level of various frequencies across the room. All those things can be compromising your mixing decisions. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t get around some of these limitations by spending a lot of time listening to commercial mixes and learning how your room sounds. In my, albeit humble, opinion, however, at low budgets headphones have fewer cons than monitors. Try out a pair of HD650s or Beyer-Dynamic DT-880s one day and see how you get on…

This post was first published as a news item for NowThenRecords.

The Maschine Mikro

Following the success of Native Instruments’ Maschine comes the Maschine Mikro, a stripped down piece of hardware for those with either more limited wallets, or those needing a bit more in the way of portability, but with exactly the same power of the Maschine software.

If you’ve not checked out the Maschine before it is, fundamentally, a groovebox: everything you need to make a complete tune (once you add a computer…), albeit with the advantage of a full-size screen, rather than squinting and menu scrolling on the grooveboxes you may have used before. Having myself previously struggled with a Yamaha RMX-1 and a Roland MC-303, I’m quite glad in the change of working method! However, as Maschine has no real synth engine of its own, it perhaps has more in common with Akai’s MPC range of sampling boxes, although Maschine does have the useful ability to host VST instruments and effects.

The take-home point is that the Maschine hardware is just a controller: it needs to be connected to your computer running the Maschine software to do anything. My main reason for buying a Maschine Mikro was that I was in the market for a new pad controller and percussion library anyway, so Maschine seemed like the perfect choice, with the alternative workflow of the Maschine software an added bonus. The pads have a great feel to them and have encouraged me to develop my finger drumming skills, and the smaller footprint fits in my studio setup more easily than the original Maschine.

The included sounds are very comprehensive: they range from world percussion, through 60’s acoustic kits and on to contemporary electronic kits. In addition to the drum and percussion sounds, there are also a number of synth and musical samples, ready to be mapped to the pads.

I’d almost forgotten how inspirational it was to just play some sounds in live, and add all those deep house conga fills in in real time. There are loops and grooves that I just don’t think I’d have come up with I’d been programming with the mouse. Also, as mentioned before, Maschine can host VST plugins. I’m imagining that I will be taking advantage of this in the near future, as I get to grips with Logic Pro, and may well end up using Maschine as a VST ‘wrapper’.

For me though, the most useful feature is one that allows Maschine to fit in with my workflow in Ableton Live. Before arranging, I work predominantly in the clip view. Maschine allows you to drag loops you’ve created in the Maschine sequencer plugin into an empty clip in Live as either audio or MIDI. This allows me to create a whole bunch of loops in Maschine, then work with them as audio in Live. That way, if you don’t want to mess around with learning the Maschine sequencer and its scenes and so on, you can use it solely as a loop creation tool and continue to work in your sequencer of choice. So far, I’ve had a couple of bugs with this, which hopefully NI will address in future updates, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by moving a couple of warp markers.

To summarise then, the Maschine software is fairly intuitive and deeply powerful, with a superb range of included sounds, which can be supplemented with additional -pay for- packs. The Maschine Mikro loses some of the real-time control that you get with the original, due to the cut down encoder complement, and you’ll spend more time looking at your computer as the Mikro loses a display. For the money though, I think it’s a pretty inspiring piece of kit. I’ve had mine for three months and feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

This article first appeared on NowThenRecords‘ website.

EDM: The Most Democratic of Arts?

If it was Slash who made me first pick up a guitar, it was Noel Gallagher who made me want to join a band. In a recent interview, Noel was heard to say “any f*cker can make dance music”. This quote led to some major activity on Twitter, with the consensus being that he was probably right, but that there is a difference to making dance music, and making good dance music, which is probably fair. Tim Exile put it well when he tweeted that “making dance music is the new gaming”. I have to say, I think it’s great; it means that electronic music is one step closer to becoming the purest, most egalitarian and democratic art form.

You can now have more studio power with a cheap PC and a Computer Music cover disc than The Beatles had. Even if you go back to perhaps one of the last big shifts in accessible recording, the Tascam Portastudio, you were still looking at a sizeable investment, particularly once you added microphones and effects units etc. Now, even with freeware VSTs, you can make some professional quality tracks. I spent significantly more money than I had on my Virus TI, but my freeware Juno and SH-101 still see frequent use.

Everyone has always had the ability to make music, even if that was just banging out a beat on a rock and a bit of old bone. Now though, nearly anyone can not only make music, but also record it and distribute it to the world. You’ve got to admit, that’s a pretty impressive step forward. The issue now though has become, not making your music, but getting people to listen to it.

I’m glad that electronic music production is more accessible. If you’re willing to put the hours in searching Soundcloud, you can find some outstanding tunes, some of the experimental electronica can be fantastic, but, for the dj, you might find that one track that differentiates you from the Beatport top ten-playing crowd…

This post first appeared as a news article for Now Then Records.

Of Monitors and of Monitoring…

So, you’ve been producing on your headphones or some old hi-fi speakers, and you’re ready to go out and get yourself a new pair of studio monitors. This is going to be the addition to your studio that really changes your productions: you’ll be able to hear all those little details you couldn’t hear before; you’ll eq better, compress better and pan better. You’ve got a budget of, lets be mathematical about this and say £x, so you go out and buy a new pair of monitors that cost exactly £x, the best pair of monitors you can afford. Is that the right thing to do? In most situations, probably not.

It might be easier if you think of your budget not as how you have to spend on your monitors, but how much to spend on your monitoring. Being able to hear what is going on in your mixes is perhaps the most important thing to get right when trying to make informed decisions about your productions and making mixes that translate well to other systems. What you hear isn’t just a function of your monitors, but of a whole chain, from the DA conversion in your soundcard, through any monitor controllers, the monitors themselves, how the monitors are placed and what the rest of the room is like. You may well find that you get the best monitoring environment if you apportion a, sometimes not insignificant, part of your budget to some of these other variables, rather than blowing the whole lot on the monitors themselves.

As you might guess, this is a pretty big topic, and so there will probably be a few posts on more specific aspects of the subject. I’ll try and give a bit of an overview here of some of the things that have worked for me, which don’t cost a huge amount of money and, hopefully, don’t require that you rearrange all your furniture to get yourself a decent monitoring environment.

The first thing, that has probably made the biggest difference for me, is to try and get rid of any hiss and hum that might be emanating from your speakers. Ground loops can be a big problem here. If you can, get hold of a power filter/surge protector (the latter is a good idea anyway) with multiple outlets. These don’t have to cost an arm and a leg and can help get rid of some ground loops. Different power outlets can often be at different potentials, leading to current flow when different bits of gear are plugged into different outlets. By plugging computer, soundcard and monitors into the same outlet, you can sometimes get rid of some problems, just make sure and count up how many amps you’re drawing! If you’re using a laptop, sometimes disconnecting the power and running on the battery can make a huge difference. For critical mixing tasks, this can sometimes be a big help.

Try and mount your monitors on proper stands with as much mass as possible, some can be filled with sand for this purpose. If your monitors are just sitting on your desk, you can get problems as the sound from the speakers bounces of the desk and mixes back in with the sound coming at you directly, this can cause comb filtering. Additionally, placing some foam ‘wedgies’ –the type with the pyramid patterns are good for this, and not too expensive- at the acoustic ‘mirror points’ on the side walls to try and break up as many reflections as you can is often a good first step on the road to more thorough acoustic treatment.

Additionally, if you’re using stands, it can sometimes be easier to achieve a good monitor placement. You’ll want to try to get the monitors forming an equilateral –or sometimes isosceles!- triangle with your head, pointing in slightly (if you can’t really see the sides of the monitor cabinets, that’s usually pretty good) with the tweeters at ear level or the monitors tilted slightly so a line coming straight out of the tweeters is aimed at your ear height.

If you can, try not to have your setup with speakers tightly in the corners of rooms or against a wall, although sometimes this is unavoidable. If your speakers have ‘placement correction’ controls –they often high pass filter the bass or allow cut or boost of the low and/or high frequencies- experiment with those to try and find the best settings. To do this, you’ll want some reference material. One easy way to test things is to draw an ascending chromatic scale in your DAW playing back a sine wave in a soft synth. Sit in your monitoring position and hit play, the notes should sound at equal volumes. If you hear louder or quieter notes –due to interference creating room nulls and resonances- you can adjust the settings, or at least be aware of which notes are problematic and make informed mix decisions. The excellent Sound on Sound has a bass staircase mp3 here. Additionally, playing back some tracks you know well can be a big help and never underestimate the power of listening to your mixes on as many systems as possible!

That probably covers it for the quick and easy fixes for now, but chances are good that we’ll revisit a lot of these things in future posts. If anyone has some more easy solutions and suggestions to improving your monitoring, I look forward to hearing them!

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