What is ‘translation’ and how does it relate to our mixes? A mix that displays good translation will play back well on a number of sound systems, with all its individual elements remaining clear and balanced. In this tutorial, we look at how you can achieve this with your own mixes.
This means that in a perfect world your final mix should ‘translate’ to a cheap mono radio in the kitchen as well as it does to a large club system, with every mix element just as clear and defined on both. Of course this is a difficult trick and if your track achieves good translation on 80% of the systems you test it on, you’re doing pretty well.
To achieve even a passable level of translation there are a few guidelines you should try and follow. Hopefully following this tutorial will get you started and help you avoid being disappointed with your new track when you play it anywhere outside of your studio.
Step 1 - From the Top
The art of achieving good translation starts during the earliest stages of production and isn’t just something that is achieved through a few tricks at mixdown. To create mixes that are really clear on a number of systems you need to really think about the elements you are putting into the project from the get-go.
Less really is more here. A track with 100 different instruments may sound great on your studio monitors in a controlled environment, but it’s likely to make people’s ears bleed when played back through a $10,000 live rig.
It’s well worth taking a very considered approach when throwing down parts for a new track. It’s not always easy in the heat of the moment, when the creative juices are flowing, but at the very least take a break when you have recorded your initial instruments, come back to the project and be ruthless about what stays and what goes.
When you have chosen the final parts that will make up the track, sculpt them carefully so they occupy their own space and are not at odds with each other. If you can achieve this during each project, half the battle is won before you even get to the final mixing and mastering stage. It’s common sense but clear uncluttered mixes tend to work on more systems than mixes with huge numbers of conflicting elements.
Step 2 - Monitors and Acoustics
Before you start your mixdown or mastering, you first need to think about your monitoring situation and how accurately your mix is represented to you in your workspace. If things aren’t right at this point, no matter what you do during the final stages, the end result will sound different as soon as you play it back on any other system.
The main thing you are trying to achieve here is a flat response, with minimal reflection, no standing waves, no exaggerated nodes and some controlled diffusion. If these terms are all meaningless jargon to you, you may want to delve into the subject of acoustics. There is a whole tutorial in there really (and possibly one coming up) but there is certainly plenty of reading available on the subject.
In basic terms, your room needs to be treated in some manner. Bass traps, absorption panels and diffusers are an easy way to get started here and companies such as Auralex supply some great products and guidelines on how you should go about treating your space. If you’re after a cheaper option check out newer companies such as Universal Acoustics, or if you’re brave enough you could attempt a DIY job.
Whatever you do here be aware that any treatment is better than none, so it’s well worth making a start as the impact on your mixes and their translation to other situations will be immediately apparent. The main issues that people have tend to be with low end and stereo image. With this in mind a good starting point is an acoustics kit which includes bass traps and some broad band absorption panels.
Once you feel your room is treated to a satisfactory level you need to think about your monitors. If you can, make sure you are using a full range system that reproduces as much of the audible frequency range as possible. This may involve investing in a sub woofer or larger monitors but it will be worth the investment. If you are using a pair of tiny monitors to mix with, you shouldn’t be surprised when your bass sounds different on a large system with sub-bass capabilities.
I often get asked if it’s okay to use headphones to perform a final mixdown or master. The short answer is no. Of course, there will be some people finding success using headphones to perform their mixes but 90% of material I hear that has been mixed this way does not translate to real world listening situations. I remember that during my time working at record labels, we would always be able to spot tracks and demos that had been mixed on headphones within moments of listening.
The main problem with using headphones is that what you hear may sound perfect, with all mix elements well-balanced and just the right amount of high and low end, but in reality what you are hearing is in no way accurate. This inaccuracy is caused by the way we listen to sound from headphones. The sound is presented directly and goes straight to our ear drum, with the left and right sides and received only by the left or right ear respectively.
In a situation using monitors in a studio, the sound is subject to all sorts of reflections and diffusion before it enters our ears, and this means you hear some of the left and right side in both ears creating a realistic and accurate representation of the stereo field. Bass frequencies are also allowed to develop and build in the space of the room, and if treated correctly, this will give you an accurate picture of your low end mix.
Of course, in a world where everyone listened to music through headphones, then using them to mix and master would be totally acceptable but unfortunately this isn’t the case and achieving accurate mixes that play back well everywhere requires the final mix to be performed through monitors. It’s worth remembering that good mixes completed using speakers will sound good in headphones but not the other way around.
Step 3 - The Right Audio Interface
Some of you that are less experienced in the world of production may wonder how the audio interface you use is related to good mix translation but they are actually very closely related. The interface you use can have a direct result on not only the quality of your mix but how well it translates to multiple listening environments.
It really comes down to the digital to analog converters used in any particular interface. This is the component used to convert the music in your DAW from zeros and ones, to actual audio that can be heard through your monitors.
Some cheaper products will use lower quality conversion chips and this can result in colored or inaccurate representation of your overall mix. Just as with the monitors you use, if the converters in your audio interface are not telling you the whole story, creating a mix that will translate well is going to be an uphill battle.
A lot of the time you get what you pay for and the interface you choose to purchase may be directly effected by your budget. Not everyone can afford high end Apogee Rosetta or Prism converters, but the technology is certainly more affordable now than ever before. You don’t have to break the bank to acquire an interface containing converters that will do your mix justice.
Companies such as Apogee, TC Electronic and Focusrite all produce entry level products, which perhaps sport less in and outs but feature really excellent sound quality. A stand out contender here is the Apogee Duet, which sports professional grade converters and preamps at a very reasonable price point. Well worth checking out.
TC Fire One
Step 4 - Mixdown and Mastering
The mixing and mastering phase is obviously going to be an important one when it comes to creating a mix with satisfactory translation, so it’s worth taking your time here.
The trick is not to overcook things. Applying huge amounts of compression and limiting to your mix may sound great in the studio and create a mix with a high density and volume level but you have to remember that some playback systems will apply their own treatments and compression. Radio stations and live installations will apply further limiting for example. This doesn’t mean you can’t use some of these processes but giving your dynamics some room to breathe will ensure that your mix isn’t smashed when it is put through one of these systems.
Another good tip is to treat each stage of production as separate entities. Splitting it into groups such as writing, recording, arranging, mixing and mastering can be a very healthy approach. In doing this you will take breaks and allow your ears rest between each stage and the result should be a more accurate mix. It’s really not a good idea to spend a whole day writing and arranging your project at high volumes and then move straight into making critical mix decisions. Take a break or even sleep on it and come back to your mixing session refreshed and ready to make the important decisions needed for a clear balanced mix.
Step 5 - Critical Listening Sessions
Once you have the closest thing to a final mix you can get, it’s time to start testing it out on more systems and some extra ears. It’s well worth getting the opinion of a few people you respect before you take it out of the studio. You’ll be surprised how this can bring out faults in the mix. Often you become so accustomed to something, you no longer hear it as clearly as you should. Take any criticism on the shoulders and then weigh up whether it’s worth making any changes. If 10 people think the bass is too loud it’s just possible that it might be!
Now you are ready to start listening to your prized final mix on other systems. In an ideal world, this would happen in the studio but not all budgets stretch to having multiple monitor set ups. You may have seen these sorts of set ups in professional studios and they are specifically designed for achieving good translation in mixes.
Assuming you haven’t got three different pairs of speakers in your studio, you will have to settle with listening to your mix on as many systems as you can get access to. Try to get a varied picture by using very different test systems, such as a small mono radio, a car system, large hi-fi and a live PA if you can get your hands on one.
Obviously every system will sound very different. Remember you are just looking for a passable result on each, and it is unlikely that it will sound excellent on all of them so don’t be disheartened. What you are looking for is a common thread throughout. If your low end is weak on all of them it is likely that you need to boost it, and if it sounds alright in your studio this maybe a sign of an acoustic treatment problem that needs looking at.
With the new information fresh in your mind, go back to the studio and make some subtle adjustments. Don’t do anything rash and definitely try to avoid making changes based on things you have heard on one particular system. Some common sense is required here. You can now go back and forth until you have a good compromise between all the systems. Eventually you will gain enough experience and get to know your speakers well enough so that less cross checking is required to get a good result.