Most of the world is shut down. People are working from home, staying indoors and wondering when life will return to normal. Those of us who work for ourselves, or who are artists, or who are simply workaholics wish to continue creating, despite the situation and mood outside. I’ve taken to self-isolation, staying at home with my family, while we wait out this pandemic. I have made some serious adjustments to my work-style and I want to share some tips on being productive in this downtime.
I mix and master mostly in my private mix room and a couple of days a week I’m at Chalice Recording Studios, a multi-room studio complex in Hollywood. Los Angeles, like many cities around the world, has shut down, but I have clients and projects that will continue for the foreseeable future. I have decided the safest course of action was to move the essential components of my studio to my home. I can always make a trip back to the studio, if necessary, to get additional things, but I would rather do without and stay home with my family.
For my pared-down studio setup, I chose to bring home my Mac trash-can, running Pro Tools HD, Logic Pro X and Studio One 3, along with an HD Native Thunderbolt box, an AVID Omni interface, a UAD Thunderbolt DSP, and my NHT Pro A20 and Reftone monitors. I also have a few pairs of headphones, including Beyer DT770 Pro, Sony MDR7506 and a beloved pair of (super-cheap) KOSS Titanium headphones. I was somewhat nervous about trying to work without my main studio monitor system and a nice selection of analog and digital outboard gear, not to mention my Antelope clock and multichannel interfaces, but I decided to make do with the minimum.
Obviously many of you are thinking this is still an extravagant setup, and it might be more than some have, but for the caliber of records that I work on, it really is about the minimum and even if I was working on a laptop with a budget 2-channel interface, my workflow and ability to work would remain the same. As my home is an old building, I also brought home a UPS battery backup to power all my gear. Who knows when the power might fail?
I know that the most important issue will be accurate monitoring at home, where I have no acoustic treatment. I decided to put my monitors and computer screen on my dining room table, where the front wall is about 1.5 meters (5 feet) away and there really is no back wall. The dining room is open to my living room and the rear wall is about 7 meters (23 feet) away. The ceilings are about 3 meters (9.5 feet), so I don’t really have any first-reflection (SBIR) problems to worry about. The closest wall to me (6 feet) is a side wall, and on that wall, I’ve set up a long coat rack and I’ve hung all the coats and sweaters from my closet so that wall is essentially dead. The opposite wall is about 10 feet to my left and has curtains, so the room is essentially symmetrical.
My NHT monitors are only about 15 inches (38cm) tall, so I thought about setting them on some books, but I ultimately decided a small block of wood will angle the monitors up to my ears, so the tweeters are aiming at my head. This setup also helps eliminate high-frequency reflections off the table and keeps the speakers placed on top of similar surfaces, whereas I might not find two of the exact same book to set them on.
The first thing after setting up my DAW was to run Sonarworks Measure on my NHT monitors. These monitors, like many monitors, have a few built-in EQ adjustments and I started with the settings that I felt were appropriate: whole space bass EQ (no bass boost), near-field locations (neutral HF EQ), and sensitivity to match my interface. I ran through Sonarworks Measurement software and noticed by the graph it generated that my bass response below 100Hz was kind of weak. I increased the bass boost EQ one or two clicks on the monitors and ran through the measurement process again. Now I had a more reasonable bass response. Overall my room’s speakers’ response curve was respectable, as shown in the graph below.
I feel much more confident mixing, even on modest 2-way monitors, knowing that Sonarworks Reference 4 is dialing in a truly flat response. After listening to a few reference songs and some of my own recent mixes and masters, I chose to use the Linear Phase response and I also chose to enable the bass tilt EQ and click it one notch towards favoring the bass. Below is Sonarworks’ Simulated After EQ profile of my monitors. The top-end may be extended even further by adjusting the high-frequency limits in the Limit Controls section of Systemwide.
You can see that even with a modest 2-way monitor with a 6.5-inch woofer can provide a flat bass response down to 50Hz and useable bass response as low as 30Hz (-12dB). Between these monitors and my Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 250 Ohm headphones (which have a really nice bass response), I feel confident that I can mix and master any style of music and get an excellent result. Below you can see the corrected response for the DT770 headphones.
I’m using the Sonarworks as a DAW plugin, so to switch between the speakers and ‘phones, I created busses in Pro Tools where I have a Master fader and two monitor faders, one that feeds my speakers and one that feeds my headphones. The Omni interface can send DAW output 1-2 to the speakers and another stereo DAW output to its cue/headphone output.
In my Pro Tools routing setup, I route all my mixing tracks and buses to a stereo bus named “MIX”. Then I assign a Master Fader to this MIX bus. Then I create an Aux that picks up the MIX bus and sends it to outputs 1-2, my speakers. I also create an Aux that picks up the MIX bus and sends it to my CUE output for my headphones.
The Aux tracks labeled “Speakers” and “Phones” both have a Sonarworks plugin with the appropriate settings for either the monitors or the headphones and either, or both Auxes may be monitored with their own volume level and mute.
The image also shows a “Print” track that picks up the MIX bus (after the Master Fader) so that I can record my mixes right back into my session.
Most DAWs and many interfaces provide some similar methods of monitor routing. Cubase’s Control Room feature and UAD’s Console software, for example, allow speaker and headphone routing and control.
If you are using Systemwide software instead of the Reference DAW plugin, you can simply create presets for each monitor system you use and switch between those. Set your DAW output to Systemwide and you can even use a midi controller to send messages to Systemwide to recall specific presets, like listening to speakers vs headphones. Check out that feature in our article that explains midi mapping.
Dialing it In
I spent an hour or two listening to some great sounding reference mixes (J Cole KOD, Bruno Mars 24K Magic, Damien Rice Blower’s Daughter, Daft Punk, Portishead, etc…) and oriented my ears to my new environment. After mixing on headphones for a while, I take a break and then switch to the monitors at a moderate volume. When I start a mix on the DT770s I seem to nail the low end right away, but the vocals come out crazy bright. I need the speakers to dial in the vocal, percussion and reverbs.
After I finish a mix, I take another break and then I bounce a mix to a USB stick and go listen in the car, on my Sony 7506s and even my KOSS headphones. As long as I’m not shocked by any one of these monitors, I feel good about my mix. No two monitor systems sound the same, so I don’t expect the exact same sound from everywhere, but I expect the same overall impact and vocal vs music levels and I want to hear the important elements properly.
Just Do It!
It takes a leap of faith to move out of our comfort zone, but these times call for drastic measures and I jumped in with the belief that my talent and the tools I have, including my favorite software and Sonarworks room and headphone correction, I can make really good mixes. During the past week, I’ve mixed four songs and mastered more than one full album in my dining room. Since I’m working at a slightly more relaxed pace, I find myself spending a bit more time exploring my new plugins—I recently subscribed to the Plugin Alliance Mega Bundle, so I have 110 new plugins to learn! I’m also spending a bit more time trying out new effects and tricks, rather than my same-old routine.
All my clients have been super happy with my output and I’m left wondering why I’ve been paying studio rent for so long. Oh yeah, my dog wants a walk, the dishes are dirty and I’m home. I wish I could head out to the studio, hah! Actually, being home with my family, especially at this time, has its obvious benefits.
Remember to stay healthy, keep a consistent schedule, and continue to create great music! A little disruption to your daily life can open your eyes to so many new ideas!