Using Reference CDs to improve your recordings and mixes

So, you’ve put a lot of time and energy into recording and mixing you latest and greatest song. You’ve finally got it to the point where it sounds great in your own studio and you can’t wait to play it for your friends! But, when you play it for your friends for the first time on a different system, it suddenly sounds totally different than it did in your studio… maybe way too bass heavy, or too harsh/bright, or simply dead and lifeless.

What went wrong? sad

If you’re like most home studio owners, your system is crammed into some existing space that hasn’t been properly treated acoustically to deliver a flat and neutral response. Maybe you’ve put up cheap studio foam, egg cartons, or some other material in an attempt to “sound proof” your room, and have only made the situation even worse.

Also, if you are like most home musicians, your budget is pretty low, so you didn’t spend very much money at all on your studio monitors, or maybe you are just using headphones.

The problem you are having is that the sound you are hearing in your home studio isn’t very accurate and is not translating well to the outside world. So, what may sound great in your studio suddenly doesn’t sound so great when played on other systems.

This is not an article on acoustics and rooms treatments, so we won’t go into those areas. Instead, I’ll share with you some ways that you can improve the sound of your recordings and mixes using what you already have.

Reference CDs can come in VERY handy at several stages of the recording and mixing process and can help your recordings and mixes translate better in the “real world”.

Before you go into the studio to work on a song, you should assemble a collection of CDs that are similar to the style of the music you will be working on, that you also think sound great, and that you are very familiar with (meaning that you’ve listened to them many times on many different systems, such as your home stereo, your car, other people’s systems, etc.).

Now, when you are initially recording and trying to capture great sounds from your instruments, pop in your reference CDs every once in a while and check your sounds against those on the CDs. You should be listening through the same system that you are recording with (same amp and monitors) so that you can compare how your tracks sound against a known CD through the same system. If your tracks are way off from those on the CD (such as too much low end, or not enough, or too bright, etc.), then you should make adjustments.

The same applies when you are mixing your song. Check out some mixes that you think are great on CDs with a similar style to your own and see how your levels and EQ and other settings compare. Again, make adjustments as necessary.

It’s important that you do this several times throughout the process, and several times in any day that you are working! The longer you work, the more your ears get fatigued, and you start hearing things differently and start adding too much EQ (usually high end) to compensate. Make sure you check against the reference CDs to make sure you aren’t over compensating just because your ears are fatigued.

Also, take plenty of breaks and give your ears a rest on a regular basis! Especially when mixing, you shouldn’t be making critical EQ and level decisions if you’ve been working for more than a couple of hours without a break. If you like to monitor at loud levels, you’ll need to take breaks even more often. Be aware, though, that monitoring at loud levels will tend to make things sound bigger and better than they really are. The generally accepted SPL for mixing is 85 dB, which isn’t that loud at all. Get an SPL meter from Radio Shack and use that to check your monitoring levels when you are mixing.

After working this way for a long time with the same studio setup, you will eventually get used to the way your studio monitors sound in your space, and you will learn how things are supposed to sound on them and you won’t have to check the reference CDs as often. However, it’s still a good idea to check against reference CDs on a regular basis.

Another way to improve your odds of making mixes that translate well to the real world is to have several monitoring options to switch between. You’ll notice that most professional studios never have just one set of studio monitors. They will usually have one (or more) really nice pairs of near field monitors, then maybe a really big system mounted into wall soffits, and then usually some really small cheap speakers as well.

You should at least get a second set of really cheap speakers and have some way to quickly switch back and forth between those and you main monitors. Headphones are also OK for an occasional check, but they really aren’t good as your main source of listening when mixing. A boom box is also a great thing to check your work on. If you don’t have a boom box with an Aux In jack that you can hook up while working, then burn a reference CD and listen on the boom box. A reference CD is also good for taking out to your car and listening in there. Car stereos are a great place to check your mixes since most people spend a lot of time listening in their cars while they are driving, so they know how things are supposed to sound in there. You can also use the reference CD to listen on your home stereo, or to take over to a friend’s house to listen on his system.

The more places you can listen to your work the better. Take notes of what things need adjusting as you listen on many different systems, and then try to average things out with adjustments until it sounds good everywhere.

Another use for reference CDs is if you are working at different studios that you aren’t very familiar with. Many pro recording engineers and mixing engineers are freelance and work out of a variety of studios. Although many of them bring their own favorite near field monitors with them, the same monitors will sound different in a different room. So, the pros bring reference CDs that they are very familiar with to the other studios so that they can learn how those rooms and monitors sound and make the necessary adjustments to what they are working on at the time.

Even if you go to another studio where they have their own engineer recording or mixing your work, you should bring reference CDs with you so that you can get used to how that studio and their monitors sound so you can give the engineer the proper guidance if you want something changed. If you aren’t used to how that studio’s room and monitors sound, you may think that the engineer isn’t putting enough bass or high end into the mix, when he actually may be since he knows how things are supposed to sound there. So, having a reference CD that you can listen to there will help you understand what the engineer is doing and will allow you to better communicate with him.

You can also use reference CDs in other studios to give the engineer an example of what you want a certain instrument, or even a whole song, to sound like. Obviously, it may not be possible to achieve that sound if your instruments and/or talent aren’t up to the task, but it will at least give the engineer a general idea of what you are trying to achieve.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of the value of reference CDs!


© copyright 2005, DBAR Productions, LLC
This content may be downloaded for personal use only, and may not be reprinted in part or in whole in any form without the express written consent of Stephen Sherrard and DBAR Productions, LLC

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