Hey FP!I'm new to the site,but I've been an engineer and studio owner for over 20 years now.One of the most common questions I hear from aspiring engineers and music producers is "Do I REALLY need good speakers for a crisp mix?". I wrote this post up to help guide those who may just be starting out
One of the biggest concerns when recording with a laptop or a home computer is the monitoring capability. You simply cannot expect to be able to hear what you need to hear through the $19 speakers that most laptops use or the $30 set that you picked up to plug into your PC. The simple lack of bass, or low-end response, should be very, very obvious from the minute you try to listen to them. High-end response is very limited as well, and obviously you won’t be able to push any real volume. For watching youtube vids of funny cats and people falling off skateboards they’re just fine. For making YOUR music sound good on car speakers, headphones, real speakers, and a PA, they’re a very far cry from sufficient.
Here’s a simple, quick example: Let’s say you’re recording some hip-hop and want the trademark heavy bass. You’re using Reason or FL to create a beat. You start with a string line that’s been in your head for days. All is well so far. You then put down a nice, crisp hi-hat. Still fine. Now you move on to an 808 kick/bass sound. You hear it, but it doesn’t push well, so you turn it up. It still doesn’t sound like it does in your head, so you crank 60 or 80 Hz up a few decibels. Still not enough. You crank it a little more. It gets a little louder, but you heard a little crackle of distortion, so you back it off until it sounds clean, then you move on to your snare. Fast forward now to a point where you love the beat and you want to cruise around in your car and critique and enjoy it. You pop it in, turn it up and BLAM! distortion and HUGE, OVERPOWERING BASS EVERYWHERE! Obviously, this is not acceptable. This is caused by your tiny laptop speakers’ inability to produce bass, making you turn it up louder than it should be.
In my studio it’s quite common for a rapper or a singer to bring in a production created by a friend. It’s crushing when someone brings in a beat that they’ve only listened to on a phone only to hear it completely out of balance and unusable - even distorted - when it’s played on high-quality speakers. It’s simply the result of creating music on speakers (like laptop or small computer speakers) that can’t reproduce frequencies accurately.
Bass is the most common frequency range to have problems with in this area, but certainly not the only one. Simply put, you NEED accurate speakers in order to create and mix music. There is not a laptop or $40 pair of speakers on earth that can give you this. Sure, you can reason that you should just use a little less bass and maybe reference back to your car or your buddy’s speaker system, but that’s only going to help a little, and it’s a hell of a lot of playing around.
There’s a reason that professional studios spend the money they do on great monitors and usually multiple monitors. No one expects you to buy a set of $5000 speakers for your home setup, but there are options that can help quite a bit - especially if you’re able to treat your music right and send it to a pro for mixing.
Here’s where it gets tricky yet again. We have two issues; the monitors themselves, and the monitoring environment, or the sonic space in which the monitors sit. Let’s pick them apart one at a time.
Monitors come in two basic flavors; unpowered and powered. Simply put, the powered ones have their own amplifiers built in, so there’s no need to buy a separate amplifier. Which one’s better? Well, that’s for you to decide. The powered monitors are more expensive on the surface, but that’s because the amplifier is already taken care of. It’s less flexible this way because you can never just upgrade the speakers or monitors separately, but by the time you’ve outgrown them you’ll likely outgrow both, anyway. They’re also more difficult to fix because there are more parts. The simplest way is definitely with powered monitors. Don’t go for the cheapest you can find… they’ll sound just like that. Spend a few hundred bucks at least on a pair of powered two-way (one woofer and one tweeter in each) speakers and call it a day. You’ll be upgrading and switching things until you die or go deaf, so don’t get overly tied up in one decision. Musical gear has decent resale value as long as it’s kept in good condition.
Purchasing a subwoofer to go along with your speakers is a great idea. You do have to keep in mind, however, that not everyone has one. Also, a subwoofer turned up too loud can cause the exact OPPOSITE problem that tiny laptop speakers cause. Another example: Let’s say you have your sub turned up quite a bit. When you’re mixing or recording a bass guitar, for instance, you’re artificially hearing too much bass and you’ll end up turning it too low for normal speakers and headphones. There’s no magic setting for the volume of a subwoofer or for the “perfect” bass level. It all comes with experience.Trust your ears !
One VERY helpful method is to compare, or A/B, your music to something that you’re accustomed to listening to. Compare their mix as it sounds on your system to your own mix. This way, you can aim for your mix to be something like an established product that’s acceptable to industry standards. Now, obviously you won’t have the equipment or the recording environment to match that commercial mix, but it will aid you quite a bit.
A major drawback to this method is that you’ll be hearing mastered versions of the commercial mix and your mix will not be to that point. There are magical things that happen when a track is mastered that will make mixes wider, louder, deeper, and crisper than can be accomplished through mixing alone. It doesn’t hurt to come as close as you can, but don’t be discouraged when your $4,000 setup can’t get the results of a $400,000 studio and a mixing and mastering engineer with decades of experience.Make sure you're maxing out the potential of your set up instead of being upset that you don't have a more expensive one.
If you do get discouraged, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Commercial studios are here for a reason. Not everyone is cut out to do it. It can be VERY difficult to do both the technical side and the musical side of things.If you realize that the mixing side isn't for you,find someone who understands your vision and can make it come to life.This way,you can focus on writing amazing music and the engineer can make it as polished as possible
Give It A Try
Try it out on the simple, cheap side and see what you think. Most people will be immediately hooked or immediately find out that they should find a great studio to make their dreams come true. If you’re in the middle and can’t decide, just spend some more time. It will soon become clear whether you’re cut out for it or not