Monthly Archives: February 2015

In Search of the Best Small Studio Monitors – Get the Most Out of Your Monitoring

Studio monitors are no doubt the heart of every studio, big or small, because aside from your own ears, they are the most important tools to use. It is crucial to find the correct kind of monitoring system for your studio, depending on your room size, technical requirements and personal preference. Read on to learn about important aspects of monitoring and tips for finding the best small studio monitors for you.

The Room

 

Room size is important when choosing a studio monitor. Photo Credit: MattLaws via Compfight cc

Room size is important when choosing a studio monitor. Photo Credit: MattLaws via Compfight cc

When purchasing studio monitors, you should think about what size your studio room will be like. For small rooms and bedrooms, a studio monitor with 5-6” woofer element will be enough for bass reproduction. 7-8” woofers are great for a little bit bigger rooms.

If a studio monitor with a large bass woofer is fitted into a very small room, it could introduce too much bass, which makes mixing decisions harder.
When choosing a room, the first thing should of course be to choose the most acoustically pleasing room. This is of course not always possible, and most rooms will always have at least some acoustic faults.

Lots of active studio monitors have switches behind them to adapt the monitor to the listening environment, and you should look for a monitor that has these room-treatment EQ’s in the back.
Ideally, you would want to take care of room problems with real acoustic treatment, such as placing bass traps in the corners and walls, but that is a topic for another day.

Monitors, I need you to be able to…

 

Think about what you need the monitors for. Photo Credit: wgossett via Compfight cc

Think about what you need the monitors for. Photo Credit: wgossett via Compfight cc

You need to think what you are going to do with the monitors. Are you going to produce music, mix it, or both? Or are you going to be listening to music mostly?
One of the important things to think about is how wide the bass response is in a monitor, and how far you need it to be able to reach.

Do you need to hear the 30 hertz range and make critical musical and mixing decisions that low? If you do, you should look for a monitor that is able to go down that low. Or pair your monitoring with a subwoofer, as they will get you to 20Hz. Usually, most active studio monitors go down to the 40-55Hz range.

For contrast, my trusted Neumann KH120 studio monitors go down to 52 Hz, and I make perfectly bass-rich music with them, with more punch that I could desire.

The midrange is another important factor to think about. Some monitors have a clear, “dissecting” midrange, while others have a muddier and “glued” midrange. In mixing, a transparent midrange is generally preferred, but good mixes are made with speakers with more duller and “vibier” midrange.

Lastly, the high end. Do you need the highs to be crystal clear or a bit toned-down? Do you want to be in total control of the upper “air” in sound, or are you fine with speakers that represent the high end of most commercial sound sources (such as laptop speakers, earbuds, tablets) clearly?

Generally, for solely music production, speakers don’t necessarily need to represent all frequencies with highest fidelity and transparency. I know of people who make music at home using domestic hi-fi speakers and mix it down later in a studio environment. But if you are mixing your own music with the same speakers you produce, you should be looking for a monitor that has an even representation of the whole frequency spectrum.

In the end, the decision of studio monitors largely comes down to personal preference.

Personalizing the hearing experience

 

Monitors are a very personal choice. Photo Credit: dominik18s via Compfight cc

Monitors are a very personal choice. Photo Credit: dominik18s via Compfight cc

Personally, I prefer very transparent monitors that don’t color the sound in any way. I like to hear everything as it comes from the sound source, the monitor acting as a vessel. Though, people I know use very different monitoring than I, which noticeably colors the sound as I wouldn’t necessarily prefer it to.

But it’s a personal choice!

Some people like a pristine high end, some prefer a gigantic bass punch. Different people like different things. Listen to a lot of different monitors if you have the chance prior to purchase. If not, at least research the likes that you think you would prefer.

What you prefer is key. You don’t need to like what others like. If you dig the sound and vibe of a certain monitor, go for it, and you’ll most certainly make awesome music with them. The speakers need to inspire you.

Get the most out of your speakers

There are some things everyone can do to enhance their monitoring experience:

  • Speaker Stands

Speaker stands are great for monitor placement, and getting them off any surface that could cause unpleasant resonances, such as tables and shelves. You’ll get more room on your desk for moving the speakers away from it. Stands also guarantee a better sound. Heck, you could even fill them with sand to provide additional acoustic isolation.

  • Isolation Pads

Little foam pads such as Auralex MoPads serve a great function if your monitors are on your desk, or any other surface, because they isolate your monitors from whatever they are placed on. This results in better overall sound and tighter bass response. The difference is impressive.

  • Speaker Placement

Speaker placement is very important to achieve the right stereo image and sound stage. Ideally, the monitors should set in an equilateral triangle from your listening position – your ears. If your monitors are an X amount of distance apart from each other, that same X should be the distance of each monitor to your ears, therefore forming a perfect triangle. As for speaker height, as a general rule of thumb the space between the woofer and tweeter should be at ear level.

Two monitors and the listening position should form an equilateral triangle. Photo Credit: Julia Manzerova via Compfight cc

Two monitors and the listening position should form an equilateral triangle. Photo Credit: Julia Manzerova via Compfight cc

Last but not least…

Learn your room and your monitors. This is the culmination of everything. If you know your sound, you’ll have no problems whatsoever. The sound will “grow” in you within time, and eventually you’ll produce and mix killer sounding music in your room.

Learning your sound environment can take weeks, months and even years easily. Be patient, and commit to one studio space for a long time, if you are able. If you need to move around, give the new environment time and listen to your favorite music for your ears to become accustomed to it.

To conclude

Do research and do listen to different monitors before you buy, and you won’t be disappointed. If you already have purchased a set of monitors, look for options to improve the experience.

Don’t forget about your ears. At the end of the day, they are all that matter.

-JP

Are you looking to purchase a pair of monitors / do you already have a pair? What are your experiences in studio monitors and environments? Go ahead and leave a comment below and I’ll make sure to get back to you.

How to Stem Mix – The Art and Advantages of Stem Mixing

Stem mixing is a mixing technique concentrating on the macro level of a mix. Stem mixing, if applied, is usually the final stage of a mix before bouncing the stereo mix to audio. There are many advantages in stem mixing. Read on to find out how to stem mix your music in a proper fashion.

Stems?

Stems? Photo Credit: bradleygee via Compfight cc

Stems? Photo Credit: bradleygee via Compfight cc

You might wonder, “what is a stem?” Well, a stem is a stereo audio track consisting of multiple instruments of the same kind. Stems are also known as a submix, bus, aux or group. To clarify more, a drum stem would be a stereo track where you have routed all your drum sounds in your mixer. When you mute this track, you would hear drums no more in your mix.

Stems could be used to organize a mix, to route everything in their rightful groups. In the usual mix, you could have drums, guitars, vocals, keyboards, pads and sound effects for example, in their own stems. The instant advantage of using groups like this is the ability to mute any one of them, which offers perspective between instruments.

How to mix using stems

Basically there are two ways to stem mix:

  1. Mix using stem buses in a full project context
  2. Bounce stereo stems out of a project and import them into a new mix project

It’s a matter of preference how to approach stem mixing. Personally, I like to mix within a project I am working on as I go, so to speak. But bouncing out all the stems to form your full track could be very useful, especially if you’re planning to get your track stem-mixed or mastered elsewhere, or get your track summed using analog gear.

Bouncing out stems could also be useful for yourself for applying final polishing or tweaking to your stereo stems. It’s easier to get the right final balance with only 5-7 stereo tracks, by making adjustments to them each. And in a clean new project, it’s a breeze.

Mix stems in a project, controlling different instrument groups.

Mix stems in a project, controlling different instrument groups.

Mixing with stems can be anything from subtle tweaks to exploring borders of creativity. Here are some ways to work with stems:

  • The fader! Adjust the overall balance of your song by tweaking the stem faders.
  • Use broad EQ boosts and cuts to shape the tone of an instrument group
  • Use surgical EQ cuts to take out clashing frequencies between stems, clarifying a mix
  • Use filters to cut unneeded frequencies from the whole group
  • Apply compression to “glue” things together, such as the drums for cohesiveness
  • Apply parallel compression to add excitement while retaining the original sound
  • Use one reverb for a certain group to place them in the same “space”
  • Apply special effects by automating plug-ins on and off in certain parts of a song, giving the impression that a certain instrument group is effected, while the others are not

As you can see, there are various ways to work with mix stems. The rule of thumb is, always approach instruments individually in a mix, using their own faders and mixer channels. When you get the desired balance with individual faders, you can play around with the stems to fine-tune and polish the mix even more.

You could even group multiple stems together to process them together. You could send all the keyboards and guitars to the same bus to apply effects to them, or bus the drums and bass together and compress them. There are no limits, so take advantage of the technique of stem mixing. Be creative!

Processing drums and bass together using a compressor.

Processing drums and bass together using a compressor.

The End Result

A stem mix is the cherry on top of the well-built "mix cake".

A stem mix is the cherry on top of the well-built “mix cake”.

Think of stem mixing as the cherry on top of the cake. The mix should already sound good before approaching the mix at stem-level.

Sometimes a simple rebalancing of the stem faders by 1-3dB will do the trick, sometimes a few surgical EQ cuts here and there. The goal here is to make the mix clearer, cleaner and pop out even more.

You will also want to try applying exciters, tape machines and other “character” plug-ins to your stems. With an exciter, you could bring out the high-end sizzle in a drum track, or the sparkly midrange of the music track. A tape machine, however, could beef up a vocal stem or bass stem. See?

As in mixing in general, and as said before, there are no limits here. Try different things, and you’ll find plug-ins and settings that will make your stem mix pop out.

I hope you gained some new information in mixing from this article. Have fun with stems, and happy mixing!

Please leave all your comments below, and I’ll be sure to get back to you.

-JP

Have you used stem mixing before? What are your favorite stem mixing techniques, plug-ins or even hardware? You can share them below. Let’s discuss!

What Are the Best VST Plugins – Stop Looking Now

Alright, to those of you looking to find a list full of the “best” plug-ins available, you can stop reading right here. To everyone else, I will tell you why such a list doesn’t and never will exist, and why you should stay away from the temptation to always look for better and better plug-ins, never being satisfied with what you already have in your arsenal. Quit asking yourself the question “what are the best VST plugins”, and read on…

Plug-ins, plug-ins, plug-ins…

No doubt, lots of plug-ins on the market today are of different quality. There are great plug-ins and not-so-great plug-ins. But generally speaking, every plug-in available to purchase is “good” and will do its job properly. Every decent DAW has its stock plug-ins pre-loaded into the software, too.

Any EQ will get the job done, as will any compressor. They are pretty much identical in their core functions.

The Best Plug-ins

Are you sure you need a new plug-in? Photo Credit: Images_of_Money via Compfight cc

Are you sure you need a new plug-in? Photo Credit: Images_of_Money via Compfight cc

The market is filled with plug-ins of different kinds, and while it being a very positive thing, there is also a negative side to it. Plug-in developers have large-scale sales all the time, which is good for business, but makes it worse for the consumer. Why do we need to throw our money away like that, thinking we “gotta catch them all”?

In addition, new plug-ins are developed all the time. We constantly need to update our best plug-in to even a better one, right? Unless you really have the money to spend like paper, then I say no.

Just as I have in the past (and I’ll have to admit I sometimes still do), everyone is always looking for better and better options in the plug-in realm. It can be addictive, because new is hot, and as humans, we love anything new.

This is a battle against our own mind – and it can be beaten.

The Process of Forming a Toolbox

The key is this: when you find a certain plug-in you absolutely love, stick with it and make it your default.

Create your own plug-in toolbox. Photo Credit: Philip McMaster PeacePlusOne_!/ via Compfight cc

Create your own plug-in toolbox. Photo Credit: Philip McMaster PeacePlusOne_!/ via Compfight cc

There will certainly be a process involved in forming your own toolbox of plug-ins. You might have to go through various plug-ins before you find a suitable one.

Here’s an example: I went through various delays throughout the years, never being fully satisfied with any that I used. I used stock DAW delays and third party delays – until one day. That one day I happened to try EchoBoy by Soundtoys, and I don’t see myself looking back ever again. EchoBoy is all I need in a delay, and it’s my personal preference for any delay duty.

Understand, that you might prefer a different one, so keep on the lookout!

Know your toolbox – the advantages

When you know your plug-ins inside out, you’ll always have an edge to everyone else, who are constantly searching for new plug-ins. When you understand what every knob, button and function does in a plug-in, you will instantly know what you need to do, and how you get it done with that specific plug.

Navigate your plug-ins with speed. Photo Credit: Victor Svensson via Compfight cc

Navigate your plug-ins with speed. Photo Credit: Victor Svensson via Compfight cc

Advantages? Speed. Workflow. Intuition. When you know your plug-ins, your workflow and speed will be turbo-charged.

You’ll start to use your plug-ins in creative ways you wouldn’t have thought before. This is because the basic functions and operations have already been “carved in stone” in the back of your head. You’ll start to think of advanced ways to use a plug-in, such as automating it creatively.

A Few Principles

Here are a few good starting points and questions you might want to ask yourself whether or not you need to expand your range of plug-ins:

  • Am I satisfied with what my DAW can offer me?
  • What’s wrong with my DAW’s stock plug-ins?
  • Is my DAW missing a certain kind of plug-in that I need?
  • My DAW has the plug-in, but the plug-in itself doesn’t have a function that I need.
  • Can my needs be satisfied with third party plug-ins?
  • Am I satisfied with the sound that my current plug-ins offer me?
  • Do I work efficiently enough with my current plug-ins?
  • I want to find a plug-in that suits my workflow.
  • Does this plug-in inspire me?

    You should be satisfied with your plug-ins... Like this cat. Photo Credit: CaptPiper via Compfight cc

    You should be satisfied with your plug-ins… Like this cat. Photo Credit: CaptPiper via Compfight cc

So…

In the end, choosing and using plug-ins are a matter of preference. So if you like to use a plug-in a lot, stick to it and don’t try to find alternatives for it. Your personal goal should be to find only one plug-in from each category. One equalizer, compressor, delay, reverb, saturator, and so on.

Of course, you can have different equalizers and compressors because they each offer a different sound. But be reasonable, and limit your selection to a few – and learn them well.

Ultimately, good music doesn’t need insane amounts of plug-ins to be brought to existence. When you use less and a select few of handpicked plug-ins, I guarantee you will start making better music, and make it faster than ever. As you might have already guessed, our minds can function more efficiently when they aren’t occupied by a flood of information.

I hope this article has helped you in becoming a more efficient and productive music producer, and hopefully you have learned something from it about using plug-ins.

Please leave your comments below and I’ll be sure to give you an answer.

Do you have the “new plug-in” syndrome? Do you work with stock plug-ins or 3rd party plug-ins? Have you found any plug-ins that you’ll never replace with another one?

What Does a VU Meter Do and Why It Is Essential For a Great Mix

In the modern times of digital music, we have many sophisticated metering options available to us. Sometimes these modern meters can be a bit “too much” in visual and numerical information. The solution: let’s go back in time and look at the VU meter. You might be wondering: “What does a VU meter do and how can I use it to make my music any better?” Well, read on to find out…

What is a VU meter?

The VU (volume unit) meter is not a gain reduction meter which are seen in compressors, even though they look similar. VU meters are not peak meters either, such as the ones found in every DAW’s mixer.

StereoChannel VU-meter by Sleepy-Time DSP

StereoChannel VU-meter by Sleepy-Time DSP

VU meters were originally designed for the analog world to visualize the average volume of a signal. That’s right, a VU meter displays the average volume or loudness of the signal that’s sent through it.

VU meters are very slow, so they don’t respond well to quick transients. For this reason, VU meters don’t show available headroom like peak meters do, where the headroom is clearly visible under zero dB.

What does it show then? Let’s continue…

Why would I need a VU meter in my music?

As said before, a VU meter shows the average loudness of a signal. It shows the energy and intensity of the music. In mixing, a VU meter shows the actual level of the mix.

One of the purposes of a VU meter is this: it’s healthy to have some kind of “borders” when mixing music. The 0VU can be thought of as the border. But it’s not an absolute limit. It’s fine to go a little bit beyond 0VU, as it doesn’t “hurt” the mix in any way. Go too much, and your mix could suffer. Generally, 2-3VU could be considered as the very limits.

The 0-3VU range is what should be considered as the limits.

The 0-3VU range is what should be considered as the limits.

The VU meter can be calibrated so the end result of the music achieves the loudness or average volume that is desired.

Personally, I use a VU meter on the stereo mix bus on every mix I do. As a result, my music has more consistency in sound levels and average loudness; my mixes are at the same volume level every time and have similar, punchy dynamics.

A VU meter needs to be calibrated to get the right results.

How to calibrate a VU meter correctly?

In order to calibrate a VU meter, we need to decide a nominal operating level which will equal to 0VU on the meter.

In StereoChannel, the nominal level is found by clicking the small drop-down menu button. All VU meters have the same function.

In StereoChannel, the nominal level is found by clicking the small drop-down menu button. All VU meters have the same function.

In the digital world, a healthy signal level is about -20dB on the peak scale on average. There can of course be peaks above -20dB, but to play safe, keep those peaks under -6dB. So think of -20dB as the average level of any sound signal.

Let’s say we would send a pure sine wave gain-staged to -20dB on the peak scale, through a VU meter. The VU meter’s needle would stay at 0VU if calibrated to a -20 nominal level. The sine wave always stays at the same volume level, so it’s a good example.

If you calibrate your VU meter to a nominal level of -20 or -18, you will always have a nice amount of headroom and your mixes will never clip, causing unwanted digital distortions.

The VU Meter In Action

Don't pin the needle, just make it "dance" around 0VU.

Don’t pin the needle, just make it “dance” around 0VU. Photo Credit: PSYJAZZPOP via Compfight cc

The point here is to calibrate a VU meter for the stereo mix bus, and adjust the individual faders so the VU meter’s needle would be “dancing” around 0VU. Do that, and you’re already on the other side.

Of course, as a smart mixing engineer you would have gain-staged each instrument individually in the beginning of a mix, according to the rules of the VU meter, and letting no channel peak above -6dB on the peak scale. You can gain-stage each instrument to the nominal level of -20, which is the same level used in calibrating the master bus VU meter.

Note that transient-rich, high frequency and fast material doesn’t necessarily even move the needle on the VU meter at all. Don’t worry about it as it’s completely normal. Sustained sounds such as bass will respond nicely to the VU meter, because they have so much energy. As I said before, the VU meter has a very slow respond time.

It’s important to use a peak meter together with a VU meter for best results. If you use both correctly, you’ll get a killer gain-stage and mix.

I pulled a recent mix of mine to FL Studio. As you can see, the VU meter looks as it should, and the track has 10dB of headroom, which can be seen from the peak meter on the right!

I pulled a recent mix of mine to FL Studio. Since I mixed it at a nominal level of -20, the VU meter looks as it should, and the track has 10dB of headroom, which can be seen from the peak meter on the right!

VU meters are very handy for judging bass levels of your mix. Let’s say you have a kick, bass and drums mixed together nicely, the meter moving around 0VU. Then you decide to bring in the sub bass full of the very lowest frequencies.

In your room, you don’t really hear the sub bass because of bad acoustics or too small speakers. What you do notice though, is that the stereo bus VU meter’s needle is now pinned all the way to the right, and this is a clear sign to back off the sub bass. So use the VU meter as an aid.

The other advantage a VU meter has it ensures your mixes will have enough headroom for mastering, because like I said, it sets the “limits” for the level of your mix. If you let the VU meter help you and mix to 0VU at a -20 nominal level, you will have a nice, healthy mix with at least -6 to -10dB of headroom. The mastering engineer will thank you.

Even though you don’t see the available headroom on the VU meter, it doesn’t matter. When calibrated correctly, you’ll be swimming in safe waters. You can always double-check using a peak meter.

Awesome, VU Meters Rock!

Photo Credit: Daniel Dreier via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Daniel Dreier via Compfight cc

VU meters are great tools from the analog era – and a gift for us digital musicians. It’s so easy on the eyes as well, and who wouldn’t dig such analog vibe in their sessions than what a simple VU meter brings?

Learn VU meters, live with them for a while and see how it behaves towards your music and you’ll begin to understand it.

Produce great-sounding music by having a VU meter as your friend!

Leave all comments below and I’ll make sure to get back to you.

(Psst… Check out the great free MonoChannel and StereoChannel plug-ins from Sleepy-Time DSP.)

-JP

What do you think about the VU meter? Did you only use a regular peak meter before? Did you know about different metering options? Let’s discuss!