Has there ever been such a wide range of speaker types for music consumption as there is today? Your fans have more ways to listen to your music today than ever before: smartphone speakers, bookshelf speakers, laptops, car audio systems, headphones, earbuds… the list goes on. In other words, they likely aren’t listening to your song with the studio grade speakers with which your music was mixed. Chances are, they aren’t listening in a treated studio environment either!
So, how do you know that your fans are hearing what you want them to hear? How do you know if your song is translating as planned from the mixing room to your fan’s old 4-inch bookshelf speakers? At the end of the day, you want your song to be enjoyed by all your fans, no matter how they’re listening to it. There are some practical steps that you can implement to your music mixing process to make sure that your song is heard as it should be on any speaker!
1. Put yourself in their shoes
One of the best ways to get an idea of how your song will sound on different speakers is, simply, to play it on different speakers! This is perhaps the most instinctive approach to hearing your song on a variety of systems. Listen to it on cellphones, Bluetooth speakers, car sound systems, and study how these speakers reproduce your mix and cover its frequency spectrum.
Most small speakers can cover high frequencies fairly well up to 18 kHz, but struggle with reproducing lower frequencies. Cellphone speakers, for example, drop off around 800 Hz. Unfortunately, many fundamental frequencies for instruments, especially basses, synths, and drums, live in this lower frequency range. Hearing your song from these small speakers directly during the mixing stage allows you to hear what happens to each instrument in this reduced frequency spectrum and make necessary changes. Do they drop out entirely or just lose some presence? This is the best way to make sure that all your instruments and vocals are still represented well in the mix, even with this reduced playback spectrum.
2. Simulate with EQ
Tired of always switching between different speakers to listen? One shortcut is to simulate smaller speaker systems through your own studio monitors using some high and low pass filtering on your mix channel. A great range to start with for this simulation is around 400 Hz to 6 KHz. This is a conservative filter to hear your mix through – if it sounds good through this filtering, then you’ve got a pretty good representation of how it’ll sound through many small speakers!
3. Drop that mixing volume down
Sometimes we perceive loud mixes as better mixes, and we even perceive bass and treble frequencies as louder at higher volumes. When you mix at lower volumes, your ears are drawn to the midrange, which is notorious for being muddy in mixes! Bring that mixing volume down and prevent yourself from being fooled by “highs and lows that pop”. Interested in learning about why that is? Check out the Fletcher-Munson curves.
4. Mix in mono
An important strategy for mixing is to mix in both stereo and mono. For speakers like cellphones and laptops, the wide stereo separation that you hear from your studio monitors is very limited or artificially enhanced – they are essentially a mono speaker. While mixing in mono with a stereo speaker setup seems like a limit to your monitors’ potential, this is a great way to see how your mix will translate with an essentially mono cellphone or laptop speaker. It’s smart to keep your primary and most important sounds panned to the center and leave the wide stereo panning for things like special effects or adlibs.
5. Find out where your instruments sit in the mix
Let’s revisit our “usable frequency window”. How do you make a bass drum stand out at higher frequencies? How do you make sure that groovy bass line that you laid down is actually heard from a small speaker? It’s important to enhance the low frequencies of these instruments, but a great trick is drawing people’s attention to that instrument by boosting it in frequencies that are well-represented in the “usable frequency window”. For example, boosting a kick drum at 2-4 kHz enhances its punch, making its presence in a small speaker much more audible. A boost to your bass guitar around 1 kHz helps it push through the mix. Think about which instruments are most important in your song and make those EQ enhancements in that usable frequency range.
EQ isn’t the only way to enhance these low frequency instruments. Adding saturation can generate some higher frequency harmonics that create an illusion of presence for these lower frequency instruments. This subtle distortion creates an aural perception of lower frequencies that are poorly represented in small speakers. Adding harmonic layers to an instrument can create a similar effect. Doubly layered harmonic basslines, for example, can be used to cover a wider frequency range, where one is dedicated for sub frequencies and a higher harmonic layer is added to enhance its midrange body.
6. Use your compressor
Small speakers simply have a physical limitation for recreating a large dynamic range. Music that has a smaller dynamic range often sounds more focused and clear through small speakers – this is the where your compressor comes in. Heavily compressed music helps reduce the dynamic range of your song, making it sound powerful, even through a cellphone!
This doesn’t mean squashing the life out of your mix with one compressor. Using multiple compressors on an instrument channel or vocal is a great way to compress strongly with better control. Parallel compression is another smart technique for creating a high energy mix in a smaller dynamic range.