Consider a piece of music that’s very bass-driven, like much of today’s dance music. The natural instinct is to listen loud enough to the music to really hear the kick drum and bass parts—key ingredients in the music.
You turn up the volume until you’re listening at roughly 95 to 105 dB SPL. It’s loud, there’s no question. Everything sounds great—especially the bass at this volume, just as you’d suspect from the Fletcher-Munson curves.
In fact, you’re hearing the bass so clearly, you now think it might actually be too loud! You tuck the bass in nicely with the kick and under the rest of the tracks and now, your piece is done and ready for the audience. As long as your audience listens as loudly as you did, they should get roughly the same balanced mix that you tried to give them.
In the case of dance music, this is often the case, but plenty of folks listen to music from laptops or PC speakers during work, which are incapable of reproducing bass very well. Add to that the fact that they’re at work, which means they can’t play it loud anyway.
This is the classic double-whammy, where two factors work against you. One is that the laptop can’t compete with bass tones. It’s a BIG strike against you. OK, perhaps they have a small personal monitoring system too, along with a subwoofer to reproduce the bass. Still, the challenge stems from their listening volume—it’s significantly lower, more like 65 to 75 dB SPL.
At this range, bass perception is much lower than at 95 to 105 dB SPL and as such, the listener no longer thinks that the bass is “tucked in nicely”—it’s just too quiet. This leaves the guts of the tune lacking in volume as presented to this listener. This is the crux of translation—making your productions sound “right” at as many volumes as possible.
Without going into the science of acoustics, here are seven tips that provide some sure firety methods of honing in on the translatability of your production environments. 1) Pay attention to how loud you work.
If you listen loud all the time, keep in mind how your ears function in that environment. Do they compress? Sometimes, ears that are exposed to high volumes actually compress the sound to attempt to protect your hearing. Here, the eardrums can go stiﬀ and give you less-than-optimal hearing response when they’re overly stimulated by loud sound. In this case, you won’t hear dynamics well at all and you run the risk of over-stimulating your ears to the point of damage. If you listen too loud, you can experience tinnitus, which is a ringing in your ears at very high pitches. If tinnitus doesn’t go away, your hearing is already seriously compromised.
2) Listen to your work in as many places as possible to “hone in” on the real sound.
Consider trying a car mix—an old and time-tested trick. When you ﬁnish a piece (or make some rough mixes along the way), go to the car for referencing. Hopefully, your creation will eventually play on the radio, so check it out on the sound system in a car. And many people listen to music in their cars more than anywhere else and therefore, you may know the sound of your car’s system better than any other environment. Compare your work to the work of your favorite band or artist there, which should give you a sense of whether your piece has too much or not enough of anything. By going back and forth, you can get a feel for what it needs to sound like in the studio in order for it to sound good in the car. That’s your sound!
3) Do the bulk of your listening at modest volumes.
Modest in this case means slightly higher than conversation, but less than club (i.e., threshold of pain) volume. The number varies from about 75 to 90 dB SPL, but most often in small rooms it hovers at about 80 dB SPL. This lets you hear the dynamics of a performance and block out low-level noise, while keeping a high enough volume to get good performance out of your ears.
4) Keep an SPL meter handy while you work.
This will help you hone in on a range of volume at which you can balance the need to hear things well with the need to protect your hearing. SPL meters are cheap (about $40) and cheaper if you use an app on your smart phone. Some of those apps just don’t seem to be very accurate but there are many out there, both free and paid. I like DB Meter Pro and use it all the time. Exactness doesn’t matter at ﬁrst—just a ballpark loudness level is good enough to start honing in on the right level.
5) Repeat the mix/car/tweak process at diﬀerent SPL levels
Do this in the room until you ﬁnd a listening level in the studio that helps increase the translation between the two spots. Invariably, there will be a volume level at which the translation is the best. You might still have tonal issues (too much bass, hot enough highs etc.) but settle on the one that comes closest. We’ll explore other acoustic issues you might run into later, but ﬁrst, lets get the volume right!
6) Once you’ve determined a good listening level for the studio, keep listening at that level for a while.
Play back several of your favorite tunes—or at least play tunes that relate to the music you’re working on at that moment. Study how the tones play—are they bass heavy or mid heavy? Can you hear the dynamics? Is your piece much quieter than theirs? At what volume does their music sound best? All of this information will start to get you to ﬁnd where the sweet spot is. I call this the Room’s Volume Calibration Level (RCVL).
7) Having determined your RVCL, go back to your piece and adjust the listening volume to that level.
Use the SPL meter to see how loud you’re listening—the meter won’t stay at one level as it will go up and down with the dynamics of the piece. Use the average level, then go ahead and remake all of your decisions, go do the car test and see how good the music sounds there versus at the studio. Go ahead and tweak the production until it sounds like it should in the car, then study that sound in the studio and learn it well—that’s your ﬁnal sound. That’s the sound that has the translatability you’ve been looking for.
This blog post is a segment from “Signal Flow”, one of a three part series of Pyramind published books called the Pyramind Recording Method. Find it on Amazon here.