14.7.2019

Tuning In - Won’t Get Fooled Again

For me it all began back in high school. Sure, I enjoyed riding dirt bikes and played my fair share of Atari, but I had a passion for music and playing guitar which eventually took me down the path of recording. Equipped with a four track cassette "portable studio", a drum machine - and a lot of ambition - I experimented with writing and recording my own music. 

My parents fully embraced my loud rock and roll residency and had no problem with me cranking my amp and jamming along with my stereo at full throttle. The stereo system in my bedroom was fair-to-decent and seemed to be the most obvious place for me to monitor my four-track playback. The mix results I achieved weren’t quite the same as those of the rock heroes who covered my walls, but I was making music and having a blast in the process!

I followed my parents’ advice to pursue college and enrolled in one of the first sound recording programs in the US, at a local state university (let’s just say that was about a decade or so ago - give or take a decade!). It wasn’t law or medical school like my Dad had hoped, but heck, it was the way cooler option for me and I had both my parents’ full support! A rock and roll career in audio awaited me, and more importantly I wouldn’t have to cut off my long curly locks and put on a suit to go to work.

So now that you have a little bit of my backstory, let’s get to the crux of the situation… 

The main studio at the college was pretty amazing compared to my bedroom setup - we can say ‘world class’ amazing! There was a huge mixing console, a 2” 24 track machine, a DAT recorder for mixdown and just about every cool piece of outboard gear that you’d find in any professional studio at the time - including the iconic Lexicon 480L! It was just like the big-time studios that I had read about where all my favorite bands recorded. The caveat was that I had to wait 2 years before I could set foot in it and start working! Think Karate Kid - two years of Wax on Wax off, Paint the Fence, etc. - except replace that stuff with Calculus, Acoustics, Solfege and Music Theory. There may even have been a bowling elective in there, but I digress.

I managed to make friends with some of the upperclassmen who had access to the big studio and they let me hang out when they booked studio time to record or mix. The main control room was built in a very long and narrow space. It was in a wing of the building that they had re-purposed for the recording program, meaning it wasn’t designed specifically for a recording studio. This was a relatively new program and they had to work with the space they had – so not much different from what many of us have to do in our home studio spaces. 

The school had just installed some new soffit-mounted speakers in the room and had an acoustician come in to “tune” them. Of course I knew you could tune a piano or a guitar, but why or how would you ever tune a speaker? I had no idea what it all meant at the time, but it looked complicated and there was quite a bit of time and equipment involved in the process. I knew that they came up against some challenges during the process, and the speakers were never 100% tuned the way they had hoped they would be.

Fast forward two years. Now I’m ready to go to work in the big studio and produce a killer demo for my band. Nothing had changed with the speakers - they sure sounded GREAT to me. They certainly were a significant step up in quality from the old stereo system in my bedroom back home! I managed to get some great tracks recorded with my band and booked another day to mix down the 3 songs we had tracked. This is where all my training was going to pay off and I would get to use all that cool outboard gear I’d been studying! (remember the Crane move in Karate Kid?) Studio time was precious, so you had to work quickly and efficiently, especially if you were trying to knock out a three-song demo. I used all the tricks I had learned in my classes and got things sounding HUGE in the studio! We were all ecstatic. I mixed everything down to DAT and then ran a couple of cassettes for us to listen to in our cars. The drive home was where I was given a huge dose of reality - and it wasn’t pretty. The mixes I was so proud of sounded awful! How could this be?! Everything sounded incredible in the studio. Where was all my low end? Why did everything sound dull? Why couldn’t I hear my guitar solos? Ugh!

What I learned was that the speakers in the studio weren’t telling me the truth - because they weren’t “tuned”. It would have been easy for me just to blame the speakers, but it was much more than just that. I learned that it was more about how the speaker was interacting with the acoustics of the room that was affecting how I was perceiving the sound coming from it - hence the original reason for the tuning. I could have taken those speakers to a completely different room and they would have sounded entirely different because a new room would most likely interact with them in a different way. My mind was completely blown!

I was able to get a few more sessions booked to try and salvage my mixes, but I entered what seemed to be an endless loop of compensating inside the studio for what I was hearing outside of the studio. My mixes didn’t have enough low end in my car, so I would try adding more low end in the studio, to the point where it sounded like there was too much. I made similar adjustments to other frequencies in the mix, trying to compare my mixes to commercial recordings and making educated guesses as to what was too much and what was too little - all because I couldn’t trust the studio speakers.

I couldn’t understand how anyone could work in a scenario like this in the professional world, and figured that this had to be an unfortunate but unique situation. But when I landed my first internship at a commercial recording studio, I learned was that this wasn’t a completely uncommon dilemma for audio engineers. I discovered that many engineers would listen to their mixes in several different places to make sure they were translating properly outside of the studio. The difference is that these engineers I was meeting had years of experience, and were very familiar with their specific monitors and mix rooms. This really added a layer of mystery to the whole mixing process for me - and I still struggled to achieve the results I was looking for with the tools I had available to me.

These early lessons taught me the importance of using an accurate monitoring system to achieve accurate results. I think back to those early mixes that I cut my teeth on - and how great they sounded in the studio - but those speakers weren’t telling me the truth! There’s a time and a place when you may want a speaker to accentuate certain frequencies during a playback situation for what I like to call “added emotion”. A good example would be giving your subwoofer a little extra bump in level to get a dance floor filled. But during the creation and mixing process, it’s all about keeping things honest and accurate so that you have material that will play back consistently and predictably on any system outside of the studio.

Happily, achieving accurate and consistent results today is much easier thanks to technology such as Genelec’s Smart Active Monitors and the Genelec Loudspeaker Manager (GLM) system. GLM will analyse the frequency response of a Genelec Smart Active Monitor system in any room - from stereo to multichannel immersive configurations - and then make corrections via the speaker’s onboard DSP to flatten the frequency response. So if there are certain frequencies that are being boosted or “hyped” by the natural acoustics of the room, GLM will use intelligent EQ to reduce those problem frequencies. What this means at the end of the day is that when you adjust the low end of your mix, it will sound the same in your car or in your home as it did in the studio, making your workflow much more efficient and allowing you stay in the creative zone without having to second guess your mix decisions.

So the moral of the story is this: the tools you use to create are super important to help you channel that creativity. In order to properly convey the emotion and passion put into any art, it needs to translate to the outside world. If you’re destined to paint the next Mona Lisa then you probably wouldn’t want to be wearing the wrong prescription eye glasses. The same holds true for making music. You want a clear window into your world so that people can hear and feel what you want them to. So a pair of Genelec Smart Active Monitors may just be the right prescription for your mixes!