There’s a lot of people who believe that to mix and master music properly, you need an acoustically perfect environment and speakers that have great characteristics, positioned perfectly within that room, to present the most accurate and pristine stereo image possible, minimally coloured by the peculiarities of the room. It’s as if the mixing and mastering monitors have to be better than the very best high-end stereo system available, presumably so that an audiophile, listening in their own tweaked and perfected sonic auditorium, will experience the maximum audio fidelity and listening pleasure, when enjoying your music.
There’s a problem with this. The audiophile market is shrinking to nothing. Most people listen to a compressed and compromised version of your music, on ear buds or tiny, tinny computer speakers. The people that care most about music may go as far as buying a decent set of headphones, but music is very rarely reproduced through loudspeakers, these days. At least, not the loudspeakers that a former generation of Hi-Fi buffs would recognise as loudspeakers.
Why are we not mixing and mastering using ear buds, computer speakers and headphones? Surely the purpose of mixing and mastering is to ensure your music is received in its best possible sonic representation, by the majority of your audience. You can’t ignore what most people will be using to receive your music with then, can you? In fact, if you mix and master on gear that is significantly better, from an audio fidelity point of view, than what most people will use, won’t that lead you into error?
I think we have to rethink the audio production chain. The aim is not to sound great on monitors. It’s not very hard to do that, as it happens. The real challenge is to sound good on earphones, headphones and computer speakers. That’s where your audience’s ears are. That’s where your music needs to sound good.
Mixing and monitoring on headphones is fraught with new challenges to audio engineers accustomed to hearing music played back in free air. My solution is to use a simulation package. I have a Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP. That has some software on it that can distort your headphone feed to simulate different listening environments. I encourage you to use tools like this, because they let you hear your music in a variety of ways, some of which are deliberately degraded. Make your music sound good in these environments and chances are that it will sound good to most listeners.
It feels like a backward step, I know. Listening to your music on decent monitors can be very encouraging and comforting. If you need to experience that to feel good about the music you’re making, then by all means throw your audio up on those and turn the volume up a tad. It will bring the smile back to your face, ignite the enthusiasm you need to finish the track and remind you of what it’s like to play the music live. But don’t expect the audience to play your music this way. Increasingly, they won’t. They’re your customers and you need to cater for them.
On the other hand, it is usually the case that if you can make something sound good on headphones, it usually sounds spectacular on monitors. It doesn’t normally work the other way around, though.
Take courage. These audio technologies will one day pass too.