Welcome to Pro Tools on da cheap - I’m in no way an expert, and what follows is just “what works for me”. Have I missed something, made a glaring error, or flown in the face of common wisdom? By all means, post a (hopefully polite and cheery) comment and join the discussion.
Pro Tools gives you the ability to record pristine audio. With a decent microphone and a little experience, you can capture stellar tones from guitars, voices, and other instruments.
But the most important piece of gear in the recording process isn’t your computer or a vintage guitar or a $3000 microphone. It’s your ears (and the brain that’s connected to them).
The entire recording chain, from placing microphones to adjusting the tone to mixing the final product entails constant decision making, and most of those decisions will be based on what you’re hearing. And the headphones and speakers you listen on, and the room you record and mix in - the shape & size of that room, the wall and floor and ceiling surfaces, all have a massive impact on what you’re hearing.
For most of us, the technical goal of recording is to produce finished songs that sound great on our stereos, in our cars, on our iPods, and on the systems of our audience - be that a few friends or a global network of fans. The only way to get there is to be able to hear your mixes with as much accuracy as possible, without environmental factors coloring the sound as you work.
There’s a tremendous amount of science involved, all of it explained on the web and in books and magazines. I’ll try to explain some key aspects in a nutshell.
Sound waves travel through the air. They bounce off some surfaces, and are absorbed by others. When they bounce around a room, they reach your ears at different times - the direct sound from your speaks may reach you at the same time as notes that were played milliseconds earlier (after bouncing off, say, your ceiling and then your back wall). You won’t hear this as an “echo” - the delay is simply too short. It’s what you won’t hear that’s the problem - sound waves bouncing around like that have a way of canceling each other out. Again, you can research the real physics of this, but trust me, it’s a lot of physics.
Bass sounds have some special problems as well - some frequencies can “pile up”, creating places in your room that sound very bassy. Meanwhile, other frequencies are getting cancelled out, and when you’re mixing, you’ll find yourself automatically doing things like cranking the treble while dialing out specific bass frequencies. Then you take a mix to your car or living room, and it’s a mess.
That’s why high-end studio mixing rooms look so crazy… they’re designed and built to create a specific listening environment. Something most of us can’t do in our homes. In fact, most of us devote very little real estate to our home recording, working in the corner of a bedroom or a few feet of spare basement. We try to make good mixes in rooms that are tiny, cramped, scattered with random furniture and surfaces - the total opposite of what’s optimum. How can we get around that?
There’s not a lot you can do if you’re working in a 10×12 bedroom. Especially one with a bed in it. But regardless of the room, you can at least try to position your work space in the best part of the room, and give the room some reasonable acoustic treatment.
So, we’re talking about soundproofing, right?
Wrong. Soundproofing is related to keeping sound in - and out - of a room or building. Which you can’t afford. I won’t go into it here (but feel free to google it). You need thick, dense walls and ceilings, no windows, specialized weather stripping, isolated walls… you’re just not going to soundproof a bedroom. Sorry.
There is a treasure trove of info on the web regarding making the most of your room; I’ll cover some of the basic “what’s worked for me” stuff here, and try to show you an inexpensive starting point.
Let’s start with where you sit:
Optimally, you want to be in a rectangular room with as high a ceiling possible. And you want to work facing the “long” way into the room - you want to be oriented where the side walls are closer than the front/rear walls, if that makes sense.
It’s generally agreed that in a longer room, say 18 - 20′, to follow the “38% rule” - that your mixing position - the place you sit when you mix music, specifically the spot your head and ears are - should be 38% from the front wall of the room - where there is more space behind you than in front, the idea here being that speaker reflections from the rear wall are lessened. (And this seems universally agreed upon: don’t mix in a corner!)
Right away we have a problem - most of us put desks against a wall; it’s usually the best utilization of space, and most of us are using rooms in the 10′ to 18′ range - if we’re lucky. I personally mix with my speakers about 8″ from the front wall, my screen about a foot away. Not great, but it’s also my office and where my guitars live.
Next comes the distance from you to your speakers (and we’ll talk speakers on the next post). You want to create an equilateral triangle between your ears and the speakers, like this:
Also, the tweeters of your speakers should be at the same height, roughly, as your ears. If you use speakers specifically made for music mixing (and that should be your goal), there should be specific placement advice included with them - check it out.
One of the most important things you can do for room treatment is to eliminate early reflections at the sides. If the side walls of your room are within eight feet or so of your ears, you need to deaden them.
You can use a few squares of that studio-specific sculpted foam rubber (”Auralex” is a major brand). Better yet are 2′ square panels sold by several on-line vendors, made of high-density fiberglass wrapped in burlap. Or you can build your own, using insulation products. Not just any old fiberglass though - you want a dense fiberglass (like Owens Corning 701) or a material called “Rockwool”.
For much more information on sourcing and building some inexpensive room treatment, RUSH yourself to Ethan Winer’s forum. Ethan is a nationally recognized expert on this sort of thing, and he graciously spends a tremendous amount of time helping people like you and me sort this stuff out. Make sure to read the “read this first” link!
HOW DO I KILL THOSE EARLY REFLECTIONS?
You’ll need something like 2 absorbent panels, about 2″ thick and two feet square. And they need to go in a specific place - the place where the sound from your mixing speakers bounces off the wall and into your ears. Here’s how to find it - you’ll need a helper though.
Get a mirror - something about 8″ square is great, though your mom’s makeup mirror would work. You’ll also need some post-it notes or scraps of colored tape. Sit in your work position, and have the helper hold the mirror against the wall to your left. They’ll slide the mirror around, and you, while staying in your general mixing position, will watch the mirror. Whenever you see speaker cones or tweeters in the mirror, have your helper mark the wall with tape. As the mirror is moved around, you’ll eventually mark out the small section where your speakers are reflecting back to you. That area, and a fair space around it, needs to be deadened. Figure out the best place for mounting hardware, and install the hardware.
Before you hang your panels though, do this: listen to a familiar CD that you consider a great mix, one with lots of detail and subtlety - the kind of sound you wish you were making. Listen for detail, for hidden instruments or subtle high-hat work.
Then, quickly, hang those panels and listen again - chances are you’ll say “HOLY CRAP” - the stereo field will seem wider and deeper, and you’ll hear subtle things you never knew were there (unless you’re just totally into 70’s punk, and even then…) That’s what early reflections can do - they kill detail and compress the stereo image. So kill them first.
Small mixing rooms tend to need lots of sound absorption, and we haven’t even gotten into “bass traps” and such. Visit Mr. Winer’s forum and learn more. Maybe you scored a case of dense fiberglass and made those 2′ panels - learn the best place for the rest of it. Most rooms need the bass deadened or “trapped” next, and bass tends to build up in corners and the junctions of walls and ceilings. If you work right up against the front wall (like me) you may need to deaden that wall.
You can go nuts with this stuff - and Mr. Winer will have you hanging a LOT of fiberglass. Take it easy, because the next most important thing I’ll cover in my next post, and it’s way sexier than fiberglass.
SOME LINKS TO EXPLORE:
An article on setting up a listening or mixing room.
A great source of pre made acoustic panels (and the stuff to build your own!) is ATS Acoustics - check out their closeouts page for killer deal!
ACOUSTIC FOAM PANELS?
A lot of people swear by “Auralex” brand foam. From what I understand, you’ll get better results by making your own panels from rigid fiberglass. And, beware the eBay stores selling “acoustic foam” - foam rubber needs to be really dense to work at all for this application, most of that stuff is just plain-old-foam, molded to look cool.