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5 Essential Ways to Listen to Your Mixes

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According to a study by Nielsen in 2014, 93% of the U.S. population listens to music. Even when we’re not actively rocking out to our favorite artists, you can’t escape hearing songs in stores, restaurants, bars, at the gym, or even on the street. And, not surprisingly, all of it influences us — at least subtly. The Association for Consumer Research has gone as far as conducting experiments in attempts to find links between music and shopping behavior. So, if our mixes have the potential of being heard almost anywhere, how do we make sure they’ll translate well?

First and foremost, if you don’t have a decent set of monitors, it’ll be difficult to do any critical listening. Typically, your main pair should have a flat response, meaning they don’t color the sound too much. It’s really important that they prove to be reliable and present your mixes as accurately as possible. Thankfully, it’s not hard to find reviews online — some quite informative and time-saving — on most brand name speakers. But also remember to try out as many as you can in person and find the one that works best for you. “I really have learned to trust my speakers and trust my room,” says Jeff Juliano (Jason Mraz, John Mayer, Paramore, We the Kings). “I can’t let any more indecision in my life than I already have.”

1. Boomboxes and Baby Monitors

I’m half kidding about the baby monitors but you really should attempt to listen to your mixes on a handful of different speakers. “I think nowadays you have to be mindful of the wide variety of systems that consumers listen to,” says Grammy Award-winning engineer Ted Young (The Rolling Stones, Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth). “I’ll bounce out MP3s and listen on my laptop. I have a little $30 Bluetooth speaker that’s great to listen to. I’ll check mixes on my iPhone — even though I’m convinced there’s some sort of built-in limiter that makes everything sound awesome when you turn it up all the way. So, if it doesn’t sound awesome on your phone, then it probably doesn’t sound awesome.”

And Young isn’t the only one who takes advantage of these devices. “Two things that I do is listen through laptop speakers and through my iPhone,” remarks John Siket (Phish, Yo La Tengo, Dave Matthews Band, Blonde Redhead, Sonic Youth). “Laptops have become the ‘AM radios’ of the 21st century.”

“For me, I have four reference points for mixing outside of my monitors,” notes Chris Badami, owner and chief producer/engineer of Portrait Recording Studios.  “(1) My car — this is always my go-to first. The car test never fails. (2) A basic iPhone/iPod dock or Bluetooth speaker. (3) Laptop/iPhone with ear buds. (4) I have an old boombox from the ’80s that I always reference through as well. To this day, I have to make sure it sounds good through that.”


2. Roam Your Room

Even in a professionally treated room, you might find something you missed if you position yourself somewhere other than where you normally would. Don’t forget to “listen on multiple speakers from different angles in the room,” says Andrew Maury (RAC, Penguin Prison, High Highs, Panama Wedding, Ra Ra Riot).

Jason Agel (John Legend, Prince, Björk) adds, “I also move to the back corner of the room and chill on the couch while I check email and bullshit like that. I’ll kind of inattentively listen and see if anything jumps out at me.”

3. Observe Outside

“I feel like understanding ‘the experience’ of a mix means creating a few trustworthy perspectives of observation,” says Joe Rogers, producer and owner of Room 17 studio. “I like to listen from just outside the door of my control room to identify elements that seem to push through the mix and understand how the balance of space feels beyond the initial impact in front of the speakers. I also think it’s really important to stay focused to how others will experience the mix. I found my own emotional connection within music listening to mainly cassettes and CDs on a variety of cheap speakers, including a pair of Aiwas that lived in my bedroom through all of high school and college. Recalling the reward of those experiences makes it important for me to also understand my mixes on a variety of popular modern mediums, including on ear buds, through laptop speakers, and in cars. Once the mix leaves my room, that’s how it will be heard so it’s incredibly important for me to understand how it will translate for people and assure it delivers the emotional response I hope to create.”

Or, in a more literal sense, actually leave the studio. “Listen outside with headphones,” notes Maury. “I find something about the surrounding ambience and physical space outside offers a different mental noise floor that yields a different perspective.”

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4. Listen Like Laypeople

You can also take on the role of another listener and not just a mixer at a certain point. “Show a non-music expert the mix and get their unfiltered, uneducated opinion,” says Maury. “[If you] show new listeners the mix to get their opinion, you will hear it differently as you judge it through their ears as it plays.”

Not that it’s always easy. “I’d say that listening as a non-mixer is impossible, so I don’t even try,” remarks Agel. “I was an attentive listener as a fan and always will be. Most people aren’t. You want to make your artist and producer (if that’s not you) happy and don’t try to do too much. Mixing as an attentive listener shouldn’t have a negative effect to a non-attentive listener.”

5. Various Volumes

Just because it’s loud, doesn’t mean it’s great. Remember to turn your playback volume down when mixing. “I try to listen at a low volume when mixing, which is crucial to really hearing what’s happening,” says Badami. There are of course times when cranking up a track loud can be helpful — especially when it comes to certain genres — but an excellent mix will be excellent no matter the playback level.

When your overall volume is set low, not only will you experience less ear fatigue, but you’ll also be able to catch what’s not working in the mix right away. (Plus, if you have neighbors, they’re probably sick of hearing the same song over and over again by now.)

Michael Duncan

Michael Duncan is a record producer, engineer, and writer who lives in NYC.