[Editors Note: This article was written by Gary Gray of New Artist Model’s ‘Lucrative Home Studio’ program.]
Whether you’re a songwriter recording your own songs or a professional producer and engineer with a home studio, how you set up your gear is vitally important. With the right setup, even less expensive speakers and headphones can perform and sound great.
Now, a lot of times the process of setting up speakers in your home studio can be confusing and over-complicated. And how do you even know when you have it right?
So today I’m going to share a quick and easy method for setting up your studio monitor speakers. Within a few minutes and for almost no cash outlay, you can accurately adjust your home studio monitors for optimum performance just like the top pros do in Hollywood multi-million dollar studios.
If you want more tips for setting up and optimizing your home studio equipment, I’m doing a free webinar that will show you how to create great, high-quality recordings with the gear you already have.
But for now, monitors! Let’s get started.
Calibrating Your Speakers
If you have a smartphone, I suggest you get the app called SPL from StudioSixDigital.com. SPL stands for “sound pressure level” – another term for how loud a sound source is, as described in decibels (abbreviated dB). The StudioSixDigital.com SPL app is an SPL Meter – which will readout how loud a sound is in decibels.
The optimum loudness level for mixing is 85dB. It is absolutely vital that your speakers are accurately calibrated so that you can create the best possible mixes.
Let’s break down the steps:
1. Position your speakers correctly.
The best way to set up your monitors is to have them at the same height as your ears, and ensure they are not pointing slightly up or down, but exactly AT your ears. They should be as far apart from each other as each speaker is apart from you; in other words – your speakers and you should form an equilateral triangle. Point with both hands at your speakers. Stand between them at a position where both of your index fingers are barely touching your speakers.
2. Find a sound source for calibrating your speakers.
“Pink Noise” (sounds like static or a waterfall) is the industry standard calibration sound source used.
3. Set up your pink noise in your DAW.
Turn your speaker volume control all the way down to silence. In your DAW, set your left and right locators to create a loop around your “Pink Noise” file and pull the fader of the “Pink Noise” track all the way down to silence. Push play. Since your speaker volume control is turned all the way down, you will be doing this step in silence, looking at your Stereo Buss Out meter to determine an average loudness level visually.
If your main genres are current popular styles such as pop, rock, hip-hop, r&b, country, reggae, etc., slowly bring the volume of the “Pink Noise” track up until the Stereo Buss Out meter reads an average of -14dB RMS. Note: Use an RMS Meter (RMS stands for Root Mean Squared, and it shows an average loudness over time).
If you are working on genres such as Film Trailers, Orchestral-Centric Film Score Music, Orchestral-Centric Video Game Score Music, etc., slowly bring the volume of the “Pink Noise” track up until the Stereo Buss Out meter reads an average of -20db RMS. -20dB is used in the Film Industry because the average dialogue track is -20dB and this way your mixes won’t drown out dialogue. Your Home Studio will now be calibrated pretty much the same way as multi-million dollar Hollywood Studios film score studios are calibrated. Note: Use an RMS Meter.
Important: Be very careful about playing back any popular styles with this -20dB calibration. Any music that hovers around the 0dB mark, such as pop, rock, hip-hop, r&b, country, reggae, etc. will sound VERY LOUD with this calibration. You’ll need to turn down your speaker volume control knob before playing back any such genres.
4. Calibrate speakers individually.
Turn on only your left speaker to begin. Hold your SPL meter in the “sweet spot” (right where your head would be while you work in your studio – exactly where you do your mixing, in front of and between your speakers). Hold the SPL meter at arms length, or your body can affect the reading. Set the SPL meter for “C” weight and slow calibration. IMPORTANT: SPL meters are made to be pointed at the ceiling, not at the sound source. Point the microphone on your phone towards the ceiling.
Adjust the level of the left speaker until the SPL meter shows 80dB. Now, turn off the left speaker and turn on the right speaker.
Do the same with the right speaker; adjust the level of the right speaker until the SPL meter shows 80dB. Now, turn on both speakers. The SPL meter should show approx 83dB. Now your monitors are set at the optimum volume level for mixing.
Note: When sitting in the sweet spot, between your speakers, with both speakers playing pink noise, if you perceive the pink noise to be exactly in the center between the two speakers, you’re good. If you perceive the pink noise to be off to one side, even slightly, adjust the volume of your speakers so the pink noise is in the center. Only slight adjustments, if any, should be needed.
Important: If your room is especially small, you can use 75dB as a reference point while testing each individual speaker.
If you do not have separate volume controls on your monitors, then make the adjustments within your computer by adjusting the pan control on your master fader out. Write down the settings of all of your computer and outboard gear.
5. Mark your settings.
I suggest using a small piece of tape or a marker on your volume control knob to mark exactly where 83dB of “Pink Noise” occurs through your two speakers. I also make a mark on a louder setting (where I quickly test my mixes at a loud level) and a mark on a softer setting (where, in my opinion, it is best to do most of your mixing). Mark your “Pink Noise” test level when you are at the end of step 4 above.
In order to mark your “loud” and “soft” settings, go to one of your mix sessions and set the controls according to your ear while listening to your mix. Set the “loud” setting at a level where you feel you can hear the mix cranking at a good volume. Set the “soft” setting at a level where the mix is loud enough to hear every instrument and vocal clearly, but not louder than the test level (83dB).
6. Calibrating your Subwoofer.
If you have a subwoofer, follow the same process. If you don’t have a subwoofer – It is VITAL that you get one in order to increase the quality of your mixes.
The exact placement of the subwoofer is not as important as your higher frequency monitors. The human ear cannot perceive the direction of a low frequency sound source as well as a higher frequency sound source. Try it yourself. Close your eyes and try to pinpoint the exact location of a speaker emitting a hi-hat track. I bet you will be able to point to it exactly. However, if you try to pinpoint the exact location of a bass guitar sound with your eyes closed, good luck!
7. How To Overcome The Drawbacks Of Mixing In Headphones.
The difference between mixing with your monitor speakers and your headphones is NIGHT and DAY!
When you listen to a mix with speakers, the mind actually fills in the middle of the sonic picture with a phantom center channel. Headphones take away the mind’s ability to accurately fill this phantom center channel so the mind will place the center channel in an indeterminate location. Hence; your mixes will never sound the same through headphones as they do through monitor speakers.
I TEST my mixes through headphones. I never mix through headphones if possible. However, if I’m forced to mix in the middle of the night in an environment where I might wake someone up with even a soft level mix through my speakers, here’s what I do (and I suggest you do the same).
Use a plug-in called 112dB Redline Monitors. You can find out more about this product here.
Besides the omitted perception of the phantom center channel while mixing through headphones, mixing through headphones causes ear fatigue (this is reduced with the Redline Monitor plug-in) and can even causes EAR DAMAGE, especially if done at high volume levels and/or for long periods of time. So, I recommend only mixing through headphones if you absolutely have to (and definitely get the Redline Monitor Plug-In).
8. A/B your mixes.
Now that everything is all calibrated, what do you do to increase the quality of your mixing? You do one thing and do it often – A/B while mixing! I can’t cover how to A/B here, but I teach A/B’ing extensively in my Lucrative Home Studio course. Essentially A/B’ing is just comparing your mix to a reference track(s).
Using the three markers on your volume control knob, my suggestion is to spend most of your time mixing (and A/B’ing) on the soft volume mark you made. Then the next setting to use most often would be your 83dB mark. And finally, from time to time and for short periods, use the loud mark on the volume control knob to check your mix.
A great trick is to set the volume on the loud mark and then go outside of your studio door, shut the door, and listen to your mix, while looping between your mix and the reference track. Talk about eye opening! This will be ear opening! You will definitely know exactly where you stand as compared to your reference track.
Applying the principles above will make a WORLD of difference in the quality of your mixing. Have at it!
Gary Gray is the teacher behind the Lucrative Home Studio online course. He’s an award winning composer, producer, and engineer, and has produced multiple projects for 20th Century Fox, Disney, Hollywood Records, A&E, EMI, CBS and many others in his home studio.