Kim Lajoie's blog

What to do if your speakers suck

by Kim Lajoie on February 27, 2012

Your speakers probably suck.

They’re not 100% flat. They’ve got a narrow sweet spot. They do weird things in the crossover range (no, I can’t hear it either). And even if your speakers are pretty good, they’re only as good as the room their in. And I can guess how good that is.

Yes, I know you want to buy better speakers. It’s on the list. As soon as you get that awesome new plugin. And that sample library. And then there are those bill to pay. And Moog just released a tiny new synth that’s almost affordable.

So, realistically, you’re pretty much stuck with your crappy speakers. For the time being, at least. Does that mean you’ll never be able to engineer great mixes? Does that means all your efforts are in vain?

Of course not. There are two strategies you should use to make the most of the speakers you’ve got: Knowing your speakers and using other speakers.

Knowing your speakers.

You can do some great mixes on ordinary speakers, but you have to know them. In fact, knowing your speakers is far more important than the quality of your speakers. Quite simply, you can do great mixes on ordinary speakers, but you’ll struggle with “great” speakers that you’re unfamiliar with.

And just like most aspects of engineering, the truth isn’t sexy. It’s easy to do, but you have to do a lot of it. It’s listening (ok, sometimes listening isn’t aways easy). Listening to as much music as possible. Listening to as wide a variety of music as you can. And listening as often as you can get in the studio. Your mind will automatically build and adjust its expectations for how music should sound. And you’ll find yourself getting closer with each mix.

Using other speakers.

What, you were expecting some voodoo magic? If your speakers aren’t telling you the whole truth, don’t rely on them. Check your mix on other speakers. In other room. Even in the different listening positions of the same room. Get different perspectives.

It’s just like listening to a story by someone you don’t fully trust. You’ll check other people’s accounts of what happened before committing to your own understanding. It’s the same with speakers. Maybe you listen to music recreationally outside your studio – either on iPod earbuds or headphones – bring them in and check your mix.

Now, this is not to say that you don’t need better speakers. Better speakers are better (as long as they’re in an appropriate room). Get them when you’re ready.

But don’t think your gear determines your skill. It’s the other way around.

-Kim.

 

8 thoughts on “What to do if your speakers suck

  1. romik says:

    I use MBPro’s internal speakers to check how my mix sounds against a reference track and although bass fundamental frequencies can’t be heard I still try to make bass and kick heard by boosting higher frequencies. Also I tend to use reference tracks that were rewarded a Grammy for engineering. What I noticed recently which I found very interesting in recent Alison Kraus’s Paper Plane engineered by Mike Shipley is that a lead vocal track is ducking the rest of instruments. I noticed it when listening on my MBPro’s internal speakers.

  2. Elliot says:

    I make my music in a small, oddly shaped, mostly-untreated room that I may not significantly change. I’ve got small, decent monitors (funny, in the USA the work speakers tends not to be used) and the overall sound isn’t great. I’ve learned that I get more accurate results at low volumes than when played loud.

    And a good set of semi-open headphones can be very useful when mixing.

  3. romik says:

    @Elliot

    I also balance at lower SPL, but when I work on punch in rhythm section I want to feel air hit me in the chest.

  4. Kim Lajoie says:

    If you know your MacBook Pro’s internal speakers well, they’ll give you a good indication of whether you’ve got the balance right in the mids and top. It’s probably a similar sound to using stock earbuds.

    Also, listen carefully. What might sound like vocal-keyed ducking might actually be mix-bus compression.

    -Kim.

  5. Kim Lajoie says:

    I know ‘monitors’ tends to be a more popular term, but I think it’s too easily confused with the term ‘monitoring environment’ (which includes the speakers, the room and other options like headphones). I think it’s a bit misleading to refer to speakers as monitors, because they’re really just one component of a monitoring environment (and possibly not even the most important component).

    -Kim.

  6. Angela Johnson says:

    This is so true. It makes me think that I need to work a lot more on knowing how to use my MacBook so I can make the most of it.

  7. Kim Lajoie says:

    You can do a lot with your MacBook (or any computer, really)! Like any gear, the more you learn about it, the more you’ll be able to do with it.

    -Kim.

  8. Pingback: Audio perception and ABX testing | Kim Lajoie's blog

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