December 30

0 comments

My mix doesn’t sound good on the phone, laptop, or in my car. What should I do?

By Keith Livingston

December 30, 2022


You've spent hours slaving over your mix to get it just right. You've done it! It sounds great!

You decide to do a quick check on your phone, laptop, and in your car. Oops. It sucks like an old buffalo trying to get up a hill, while smoking. Why? Is it important? How do you fix it?

I see this scenario, or a similar one, a lot in audio home recording forums. And I see a lot of bad advice given out, too. Here's the worst offender.

"Everything sounds bad on a phone speaker. Don't worry about it. People who listen to music on a phone speaker are idiots."

Nameless Audio Dweeb

Let me tell you why that's terrible advice, and what you should do about it if you mix doesn't 'translate' on different speakers and in different environments.

Getting Your Music To Sound Good In Different Systems Is Literally Your Job

First of all, one of the most important aspects of a mix engineer's job is to literally do what we're talking about -- getting a mix to translate into different systems. And if you're mixing your own stuff, you are the mix engineer!

If your mix doesn't sound good on a phone, it's a symptom. The mix has a problem, and it's going to show up in different ways on different speakers. And you might not even know, until it's too late.

The main reason your mix might not translate to you phone, is not because phones have crappy audio, but because you're not hearing your mix properly.

As a caveat, I'm saying our mix should sound comparable to professional mixes on a phone. I'm not saying you should hear thundering low end from phone speakers.

Listen To Pro Mixes

Listen to a few good sounding, professional mixes on your phone. If there's a bass guitar, can you hear it? Can you hear the kick drum?

Not the thumping low end of the bass elements. A phone speaker is not going to reproduce those. But can you hear that they're there? Do you hear the kick's attack? Do you hear the melody of the bass?

Drum Set

And the overall mix -- does it sound reasonably balanced?

If it's a high-quality mix, it will sound decent, even on a less-then-ideal system. So, why doesn't your mix sound as good? What are they doing that you're not?

How To Fix The Bad Phone Or Laptop Mix

There are a lot of potential answers to this problem. Let's look at the main culprits.

Excessive, Or Untamed Low End.

Your home studio environment is probably not perfect. The hardest thing to get right in an acoustic environment, is the low end. It's also the hardest thing for studio monitors to produce accurately.

Studios spend a lot of money on professional-grade speakers and control room acoustics, so the mixer can accurately judge what they hear. You, on the other hand, are probably mixing in your living room, basement, or bedroom.

Personally, I'm in my living room, with a $100 pair of speakers. They're not going to reproduce low end the same way studio speakers 3 times as big, and costing multiple times as much do.

PreSonus Eris E3.5

Here are PreSonus Eris E3.5 speakers I'm currently using in my living room, and some information about how accurately they produce various frequencies.

Particularly from 80Hz or so down, many prosumer studio monitors are not going to be super accurate. Now, one reason this could be important is that low end takes a lot of energy to produce. If you've got a lot of extra low end floating around (and how are you going to know, if you can't hear it), it's going to suck the energy out of your mix.

Keep in mind, there are two full octaves of sound between 80Hz, and 20Hz (the theoretical low frequency limit of human hearing). And you can have audio content below 20Hz, in your mix. Very few speakers would produce it, and you couldn't hear it if they could. But power amps and speakers may try to produce it!

Your mix may sound quiet on Spotify compared to other songs. Why? Because all those low frequencies are taking up sonic space. Spotify matches your overall level, and it sees that low end and turns your mix down.

You're filling up your sonic space with frequencies that may not add the the impact of the mix, but take up a lot of room. It's like eating junk food, and trying to get healthy.

Moving your final mix smaller speakers may (surprisingly) make mixes with too much in the low end sound worse. Imagine a little phone speaker trying to reproduce your excessive 30Hz sounds!

5 Solutions To Excessive Low-End Frequencies

Let's talk about 5 ways to reduce excessive bass frequencies, to help your mix translate to multiple sound systems better.

1) High-Pass Filter

High-Pass-Filter

ReaEQ Set Up As A High-Pass Filter

High-pass filtering is a form of equalization that allows high frequencies to pass through. In other words, it cuts low frequencies. Some instruments have low frequency information that doesn't add much to the character of the sound. Vocals generally don't have much useful sound below 100Hz, depending on the singer. It's all plosives, rumble and mic stand noises down there.

You can roll some of those frequencies out with a high-pass filter, or a low shelf.

You can high pass other instruments, as well. Even kick drum can sometimes use a high-pass filter from 30 or 40Hz down.

If your mixes start to sound brittle and harsh, back off on the high-pass technique.

2) Multi-Band Compression

Multi-band compression divides an audio signal into different frequency bands and compresses them separately. You can use a multi-band compressor to home in on bass frequencies and get them under control.

I often use the ReaXcomp low band to look for the real oomph in a kick or bass guitar. I can keep that low end present and more consistent by compressing it a bit. This way, you hear a solid low end throughout the song, without the bass frequencies getting out of control.

ReaXcomp

ReaXcomp multi-band compressor, compressing low frequencies

A  high-pass filter, in combination with a multi-band compressor to tame the low frequencies, can be very effective in producing a solid, tight low-end. You can cut out the ultra-low garbage and boost the good stuff.

3) Mix With Your Eyes

Yeah, I know. Everybody is telling you to mix with your ears, and you should. But why not make use of the visual tools that are available? It's especially important to do this in situations in which your ears might be fooling you. One such situation is your imperfectly-tuned room, with your imperfect monitors.

I regularly use the Voxengo Span frequency analyzer to compare my mix to professionally produced records in the same genre, at about the same tempo. Make sure you compare at the same level in Span.

Pay particular attention to the area from about 90Hz downward. How does the low end on the pro mix drop off in that area? Where does the drop-off start? How steep is it? How does that compare to your mix?

You can see if you can get your mix closer to the professional recording by using EQ, high-pass filters and multi-band compressors. See how it sounds!

Voxengo Span

Voxengo Span Frequency Analyzer

4) Use Headphones With Good Low End

A good set of recording studio headphones largely takes your room acoustics out of the picture. One problem solved. Listen to the low frequency content and compare it to your favorite songs in the same genre and about the same tempo, and at the same perceived volume.

This is one case in which I recommend occasionally checking the mix a bit louder. This emphasizes the low end and allows you to more easily compare mixes. Don't overdo it, and don't spend a lot of time with it louder. Your ears will tire out.

In general, I mix just a touch louder than a normal conversation.

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Headphones

My 6 year-old HD 280 Pros are falling apart

5) Use Reference Mixes Frequently

You've noticed that several times I've mentioned listening to your favorite professionally produced tracks. These are called reference tracks.

I advise you to use reference tracks throughout the recording, mixing, and mastering processes. If you wait until the mixing phase, you may have some problems already 'baked in' to the track. As a general guideline in audio production, it's better to solve problems early, rather than late.


Low End: Tight, Controlled Low End For Your Mixes

Using two free resources -- a multi-band compressor and a dynamic EQ.

Your Room Is Fooling You

Technically, this is the same as point #1. It's just not specific to low end. The room you're mixing in, and the speakers you're listening to may emphasize certain frequencies, and de-emphasize others.

That means you're not hearing what you think you hear. So when you take your mix to other places that don't have the same problems, it's going to sound different.

But if you have a mix that's well-balanced across the spectrum, it will have a decent chance across a wide range of systems.

Solutions

1) Use Suggested Presets On Mastering Plug-ins Such As Ozone

Ozone by Izotope, is a mastering suite. Izotope often has earlier version available at a steep discount. Ozone has what's called Master Assistant. Ozone's Master Assistant analyzes a bit of your mix and then suggests levels of compression and EQ, among other things.

If something is out of whack frequency-wise with your mix, Ozone will probably move it in the right direction. See if their EQ suggestions bring you closer to the sound and EQ curve of your reference mixes. You can also make your own tweaks to their equalizer, using their suggestions as a starting point.

Ozone EQ Suggestions

Ozone EQ Suggestions For A Mix

If Ozone is making wild cuts or boosts, it's probably best to figure out why, and correct the problem at the source. As an example, if you're seeing a 5dB cut at around 1kHz, you might go into your mix and find out what's so hot in that range. Let's say it's guitars.

You can then listen to the guitars in your reference mixes and see if you need to bring yours down, or EQ them differently. Then run Ozone Master Assistant again.

2) Use Intelligent, Dynamic EQs/Multi-Band Compressors/Resonance Suppressors

Intelligent dynamic EQs, or intelligent multi-band compressors such as Soothe or Smooth Operator, tend to smooth out the frequencies in your mix. If some frequency is popping its head too far out of the mix, these plugins can take care of it.

The way I suspect they work is by breaking the audio spectrum up into bands, analyzing those bands, and compressing them, based on the curve you set. They operate based on the input signal, so they adapt as the sound goes along.

With a typical EQ, if you cut out a harsh frequency, the EQ reduces that frequency for the whole track. With these intelligent processors, if you dial it in to cut out a harsh frequency, they will only attenuate it when that frequency crosses the threshold you've set.

Lots of times a guitar might be harsh when the guitarist is hitting certain chords, or banging away harder on their guitar. And a singer might be sibilant only on certain sounds such as 's' and 'ch'. If you cut brightness with an EQ, it will cut the brightness on the whole track. A de-esser, or a muliti-band compressor, or one of these intelligent dynamic EQ/Multi-band processors, will not have that drawback, if set properly.

Smooth from Baby Audio

Smooth from Baby Audio on the "Be Yourself" preset I made

Presets Made From Other Songs

I don't have Soothe, but I hear it's great. I do have Smooth Operator, from Baby audio. One of the way I use it is to look at my reference mixes. I set a curve and bring the threshold down on my reference mix. Whatever compresses first, I move the threshold up in that area.

I keep doing this until I get a curve that pretty much evenly compresses the song, across the frequency spectrum. Now, I save this as a preset, and put it across a similar mix of my own. As I bring the threshold down, and can see which frequencies are out of proportion in my mix, compared to the reference mix. I can either solve that in the mix by bringing tracks up or down, EQ-ing them differently, or bringing the Smooth Operator threshold down until things even out.

As an example, if my kick drum is triggering 8dB of compression before anything else hits the threshold, I probably need to go back to my mix!

In short, I'm using Smooth Operator as a diagnostic tool and solution.

The rest of the suggestions for fixing the "your room is fooling you" problem are the same as the "low end out of control problem.

  • Listen to refence mixes often.
  • Check your mixes on a frequency analyzer.
  • Use headphones, 

Not Enough Upper Harmonics For Low Frequency Instruments

Bass and Harmonics

Bass and Harmonics shown on Voxengo Span

About Fundamental (Root) Notes & Harmonics

Almost any instrument or sound produces a complex waveform. A bass guitar (playing a C, doesn't just produce a note at the frequency of C (the root note, about 65 Hz). It also produces harmonics above that note. 

These harmonics are mathematically related to the fundamental, or root note. They give the instrument its tone. Different instruments playing the same note will generate the same harmonics, but they'll be in different proportions. As you might imagine, a higher proportion of upper harmonics sounds brighter. In fact, when we EQ a sound by turning up the treble, what we're doing is raising the level of upper harmonics compared to the lower harmonics and root note.

There are also some non note-related content in most instruments. Breath sounds for singers, the slap of a string on a slap bass, the attack of a pick on an acoustic guitar, and other sounds may be present, but not a coherent note.

Most of the sound will be the root note and the related harmonics.

Why Are Harmonics Important In Making Your Mixes Translate?

Well, your phone speakers aren't going to do a very good job or reproducing a 41.2Hz fundamental note of an open E on a bass in standard tuning. So, the fundamental note is going to disappear somewhat. There's no escaping it.

However, the harmonics may come through, if there's enough level there. So, one way to get your mixes to translate, particularly to smaller speakers, is to make sure you've got enough upper harmonics present. How do we do that?

  1. Distortion on a bass instrument can emphasize upper harmonics and get the instrument to cut through the mix better. In fact, many pros split the bass up with a crossover and use distortion for the top end. I also sometimes add a touch of distortion and/or saturation to a kick drum.
  2. Plugins such as RBass (Renaissance Bass) from Waves are designed to solve this very problem, and can be used on other instruments than bass guitar.
  3. EQ: You can use and equalizer to find a spot which helps a low frequency instrument cut through.

To a certain extent, when we get the harmonics to cut through the mix, our brains will fill in the root note in our perceptions. we know it's supposed to be there, so we hear it.

Getting Your Mix To Translate

There are lots of ways you (or I) can screw up a mix. But most of them will sound bad on your studio speakers, too. The above reasons are the main reasons a mix might sound good on your speakers, and not so good on others, and how to fix your mix so it translates well.

Resources

Here are links to the resources mentioned on this post.

Voxengo Span: Voxengo Span is a free, useful frequency analyzer which includes a peak meter. Windows & Mac.

Rea (Reaper) Plugins: ReaEQ, ReaComp, ReaXcomp, ReaDelay, ReaFIR and others come with Reaper. If you don’t have Reaper, you can download the VST versions of ReaEQ, and these other useful plugins here. If you want to follow along with my tutorials, it will be good to have these. VST/VST3 versions available for separate download (Windows & Mac).

TDR VOS SlickEQ: is a high-quality EQ which can be used for mixing/mastering, or on individual channels. It's free, paid upgrade is available. Windows & Mac.

TDR Nova: Dynamic EQ. The version I used here, is free. A paid version with more features, is available.

Soothe2: Dynamic resonance suppressor.

Smooth Operator: This resonance suppressor will help even out your mix.

Waves RBass: Can help you translate low end instruments well to smaller speakers. 

Izotope Ozone: Mastering suite.

Enjoy
Keith

Keith Livingston

About the author

Keith Livingston is a musician, producer, recording engineer, songwriter, hypnotherapist and NLP trainer. He spends much of his time writing, arranging and producing music, and thinking about the best way to get it out there!
Keith's Music Site

You might also like

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
>