Mix Translation: The Importance of Listening to Your Mix Everywhere
Most producers and mixing engineers are familiar with mix translation concepts such as “the car test”, checking your mix in mono, mixing at low volumes, and so on. But what’s the deal with these concepts and why are they so important?
There are many reasons why they’re important, but the key takeaway is they give you a way to listen to music under different circumstances. Circumstances that are more normal for the average listener than what you hear in your studio.
So in this article, I’ll go through some of the reasons why these mix translation methods are important, how a mix will never sound “perfect” on every playback system, and some things to keep in mind to make sure your mix translates well anywhere.
Listening to a mix at various volumes is a great way to identify problems in the mix, get a fresh perspective and hear if your mix is translating the way you want it to on all volumes.
When listening at different volumes, how we perceive the audio is affected by something called equal-loudness contour (commonly known as Fletcher-Munson curves). The basic concept is that the volume/loudness of a frequency determines how well we hear it. And especially our perception of high and low frequencies varies widely when turning up or down the volume.
This also means that a mix will never sound the same when played at max volume compared to when played on a minimum volume because our ears simply perceive sound differently at different volumes.
The trick is to balance your audio in such a way that the mix pushes through in a representable way on all listening levels. As our ears perceive frequencies differently on various levels, it might be a good idea to check your processing on various levels all the time, to make sure what you’re doing actually helps improve the overall song.
Different playback systems
A mobile speaker has a totally different frequency response than your studio monitors. And your studio headset has a totally different frequency response than your earbuds.
If your bass is booming on your studio monitors, don’t expect it to boom in the same way on your phone. Because it can’t. But it can boom in a way that fits the frequency response of your phone.
The same is true for a Bluetooth speaker and a car system. The systems in themselves all sound different, so don’t expect your mix to sound the same on all systems either.
The trick is to make sure the relative levels in your mix are well balanced so that they push through well regardless of the frequency response of your playback system. And as all playback systems usually have the most similar frequency response in the mid-range, getting the mid-range right is crucial for a mix to translate well on any system.
As with the points made above, different rooms call for different listening experiences. A club sounds way different than your living room, and your bathroom sounds way different than your studio.
Expecting your mix or any mix to sound the same (or “perfect”) in all listening environments would be foolish. In fact, if you try to listen to other people’s mixes as detailed as you do your own, you’ll soon discover how widely different (and sometimes even bad) they sound in different rooms and environments.
The goal should be to make the song push through in any listening environment. It’s impossible to make it sound “perfect” everywhere, but it’s very possible to make it sound “good enough” anywhere. By good enough I mean that various elements push through in a desired way, and that the mood and energy of the song pushes through regardless of where or how you hear it.
By making sure you’re controlling the audio through detailed level balancing, dynamic processing and equalizing, and making sure everything is in phase and not peaking unwantedly, your mix has a much higher chance of pushing through in all rooms because the audio is well controlled and technically treated in the first place.
A mix will always sound different unless you are sitting in the exact same spot in the exact same room and listening on the exact same volume every time.
The best mixes in the world sound great in almost all listening environments. They don’t sound the same everywhere, but they sound good. That’s because the mixer and mastering engineer has carefully crafted the audio in a way that makes it push through everywhere.
By fixing all technical problems, and consciously controlling and shaping the audio while keeping in mind all the factors I’ve mentioned above, they manage to create art that sounds representative everywhere. Don’t aim for perfect, aim for something that works and represents your work in a way you’re proud of.
About Gerhard Tinius
Keeping Track, Music Mixing