People are listening to music on iPod earbuds, they’re listening to it on laptop speakers, they’re listening to it on mobile phone speakers.
So that’s what we should use to make our final mix and master decisions on, right ?
Make it sound good on what end users are listening to it on – the lowest common denominator. Simple, right ?
Here’s the problem
That theory is nonsense.
Have you ever heard a really great sound system ? One that’s incredibly accurate, that’s incredibly revealing, that’s incredibly expensive ?
Your music sounded great on it, right ?
- The better the reproduction system, the more music that sounds bad on it.
- The more revealing the monitoring, the more revealing it is – of flaws and problems.
- The more accurate the playback is, the harder it is to make something sound great.
- The closer to perfection the speakers are, the closer to perfection your mixes need to be.
Only a handful of albums sound outstanding on the very best playback systems in the world.
Whereas crappy playback systems hide all those flaws.
Most people listen to their music in the background, while they’re doing other stuff, talking on the phone, with the kids playing in the background – so why do we bother with dedicated studios ? Why not mix on laptop speakers, sitting at the kitchen table ?
Because all that stuff is distracting, it adds noise, and it masks details.
The same thing is true of crappy speakers. Their poor frequency response, substandard imaging and high self-distortion hide all the details in your mix and master. They also hide the damage you can do with over-compression, excessive distortion, digital clipping – and plain old bad mixing.
If all you use to judge your mix is a cheap pair of earbuds or a set of laptop speakers, you can do huge amounts of damage – without realising it.
If you aren’t listening on the best quality system you can get, you might as well have your fingers in your ears.
Hang on, though
If all that’s true, why do so many people swear by NS10s ? Why were those crappy auratone speakers so popular ? And why do so many engineers still check their mixes in the car ?
Because those are still useful perspectives. They can still tell you useful stuff.
The best-sounding mix in the world can fall apart on a crappy speaker. And despite everything I just said, people do listen to music on some of the lowest-fidelity systems imaginable. On mobile phone speakers, FFS !
So every so often, you need to do a reality check, and make sure that amazing subby baseline is actually audible on small speakers. You need to make sure that those vocals still cut through on laptop speakers. And that you can still hear the drums when you’re doing eighty on the motorway – and yes, on earbuds too.
But those are the worst-case scenarios, and if they’re all you mix for, you end up with worst-case mixes. Who knows how it will sound on a best-case system ? Or even just a half-way decent one ?
When you make your real decisions, your final calls, your best choices, do it on the best gear you have – for the best-case scenario. Then you get best-case mixes, that still work in the worst-case scenario.
Mastering engineers have been doing it this way for decades. Because it works.
Mastering and mixing for the lowest common denominator ?
Image by Jonathan Powell