Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mixing On Computer Speakers - The New NS10?

I'm sure you've heard of people doing it. I'm sure you might have even thought it was a stupid idea. Maybe you've seen people claim they have the "perfect set" of flat you could sear a burger on their frequency response. Yeah, whatever. There are some great monitors out there for mixing and mastering, but who in the world other than engineers actually listen on those? Nobody! No. Body. What are they listening on? In the industry, it's commonly described as a "consumer speaker," or "real world reference speaker."

Does that mean all "consumer speakers" are crap? Of course not. In fact, they're getting pretty good these days for pretty cheap. However, it would probably be a safe guess to say that 90% of people are still listening to music on these four things:

1. Car.
2. Stereo system.
3. Ipod Headphones.
4. Computer Speakers.

To be honest, that's where I listen to most of my music, except I have a good car system, a good stereo, studio grade headphones, and mixing mains. However, people like you and I have to break out of our boxes and realize that most people don't have speakers with NEARLY that accuracy or precision. That can help us to some degree, because many people won't hear some of the bad-sounding details in the music that drive us crazy. However, the situation is twofold--those same people might not ever hear the really subtle good-sounding details we added.

Generally though, these speakers share certain characteristics. They may or may not have a limited frequency response, their accuracy is probably somewhat diminished due to cheap parts and design, and their overall projection is most likely mediocre.

Seems like most headphones claim to be around 20-20khz, even if they aren't. They don't show you a response that might mean that the headphones put out about -42dB at 50Hz, but it's there, so it counts, right? Eh....whatever. Stereo systems range from tiny Ipod Docks to $20,000 home entertainment systems. It seems like the main characteristic shared with these is that they are played loudly and have a low of low end. People like to pump up the bass. Computer speakers often have a response around 70Hz-15kHz. That seems to be the most popular range I see, but sometimes even something like 100hz-12khz. Ipod headphones have a fairly nice frequency response, but certainly not accurate, and in fact usually accentuate highs and lows, and ipods also have EQ functions (Which sound awful by the way...they're all active and they can distort the headphones very easily! Come on Apple...make a passive EQ.)

Maybe you're saying at this point "WHO CARES. WHY ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT THIS, KENDAL?" Well I was just about to explain!

It's important for us to check mixes...and perhaps completely mix...on some or all of these systems. It's a fascinating experince to do an entire mix on a set of computer speakers. Just try it. Try to make it sound as good as possible on these computer speakers. Notice what you have to do. Notice what things you have to change. After you do the mix on a set of small speakers, turn it back to your mains to adjust lows (below 100Hz) and highs (above 12k) just so you really have a good idea of what's going on in those ranges, making sure not to add too much in each.

I'm sure you've also heard of the Yamaha NS-10 speakers. These little things are infamous. You have probably seen them on so many console meter bridges in pictures of professional studios around the globe. Here are some sample pictures.

    (an old NS10 spec sheet)

These monitors were originally supposed to be consumer speakers. They were made for use with stereo systems, as they originally had the wire jacks in the back like your old stereo system from your childhood. So how in the world did these things become so popular? I see these go on ebay for $600/pair, and since they're passive, that doesn't even include your power amp! What the heck! They used to be dirt cheap and sold at electronics stores! 

Regardless of your opinion, the facts are shocking. Why were they so popular? Well they had a pretty dominant midrange with some smeared low end and a weak top end. When mixed on these quietly, it allowed engineers to focus ONLY on the midrange, so they weren't being biased by lows and highs. As you can see from the frequency response, they only go down to 60, and even there is a pretty sharp rolloff. The top says it goes to 20k, but as you can see from the graph, there is a slight rolloff there starting from maybe 12 or 14k. Hm...what does that sound like?

Computer speakers perhaps? Maybe.

The idea is right. The old phrase "if it'll sound good on NS10's, it'll sound good anywhere," has gained immense popularity since the birth of these monitors. In my book, the phrase should go "if it sounds good everywhere, why does it matter what speakers you used to get there?" The point is, it doesn't. It is foolish of people to pay $600 + $400 amp for these speakers USED on EBAY beat up and probably broken. The woofers are PAPER. Seriously. They're about the thickness of a credit card in paper. They're not high quality speakers, folks. They're not really for details, they're for REFERENCE mixing.

Many people swear by them. I like them. I've used a pair once and they seemed to do the trick. However. Let me present to you a simple alternative that will only take a bit of your time.

Introducing the "Cyber Acoustics 2012" computer speakers. "Twenty Twelves" has a nice ring, sort of like "N-S Tens," right? Anyway. These things cost about $15 and you can get them from Walmart. They aren't that great. I think their max output is around 10 or so watts and their frequency response is something like 85Hz - 18k, but down at 85 and up at 18k it's very weak. Truth be told, for audio engineers and mix engineers, they suck. Really bad. The only reason people write good reviews about these is because they are consumers that don't's not the speakers than sounds's the professionally done music you listen to that sounds good!

HOWEVER. I challenge to two things. First, try to mix on them. Do the whole mix, make it sound as good as you can. You want to be able to hear the kick's upper register and the upper harmonics of the bass. You want it to sound as good as it can on these. Then switch to your mains and see how it sounds. 

My second challenge is this: listen to a well produced song on the speakers and hear how it sounds. A great example that I go by is Train's "Drops of Jupiter," which is a great rock song that won two Grammys, one for Best Rock Song and one for Best Arrangement. It sounds amazing as it was recorded at Ocean Way Nashville. Another great rock song to listen to is Third Eye Blind's "Never Let You Go." Listen to how good it still sounds on these little speakers. It may cause you to rethink their potential...or your skills!

Who knows. For you, it might sound like crap. Maybe for your genre it will. For me, however, it's been completely opposite. I find that any genre, any style, can benefit from mixing on these $15 speakers.


Monday, March 1, 2010

I just noticed this...but...did you ever notice how the Line 6 Pod looks like a butt? Yeah, it sounds like one, too.