The right listening environment is the most key tool an engineer has in their arsenal. To provide a flawless mix it is required that the engineer is able to concisely define flaws and this requires a suitable environment. If the listening environment is viewed as the canvas and the engineer a painter, it would be almost impossible to create a piece of canvas was in the dark. We don’t perceive these issues as relatives, because we as consumers and human beings are are frequently provided with examples of pristine image quality and therefore know if something is sub par. This however is not the case for music consumption as we are almost never provided with a perfect listening environment and cannot therefore reference it. This is down to the differential physics of sound and light and the way in which they react to our environment. However, the necessity of clear monitoring is essential for both creative processes.
When talking about monitoring environments, we are often told that the aim is a flat room. This isn’t strictly true but it is definitely in the right ball park. When treating a room the aim is to provide the most true representation of sound and as almost no space is naturally flat in frequency response, it seems a little counterintuitive to mix within one. A good listening environment should provide a clean frequency response with minor colouration. As long as each section of the frequency spectrum is audibly clear we are heading in the right direction.
Most professional grade studios adhere to what is known as the “analogue curve”. This phenomena describes the a gradual roll off of frequencies from the upper midrange onwards. This is helpful for a few reasons. The curve initially occurred as a compensation method for the loss of high end frequency content on magnetic tape allowing engineers to record a brighter sound to the tape initially. But has been adapted over recent years to help reduce high frequency ear fatigue, helping to avoid mixes becoming too bright. When ear fatigue sets in, we lose our perception of high frequencies, analogous of a frequency roll off pad, meaning that we over compensate and increase the high frequencies more than is desirable.
This having been said many digital recording rooms are able to bypass this curve because there is no loss of audio in the digital domain. Bob Hodas states ” However, the fatigue factor is still at work, and if any roll-off is applied, it is usually based on the engineers listening levels. I believe that one of the reasons many of the early digital recordings were harsh is that they were made in rooms originally set up to do analog work. Old habits die hard in the audio trade.”
Achieving a good listening environment requires the application of a combination of techniques. Firstly, one should address room layout. Everything within a room from the walls to the empty coke can on the desk affect the way a room sounds. So to treat a room every detail should be addressed. In a budget-less world, the room could be floated to reduce audio bleed and your monitor’s should be floated by a multi-thousand pound hanging system. But in the world that I live in these just aren’t possible. To address the issue of the listening environment I have implemented the following techniques. When building the room I parallel mirror offset the walls by 3 degrees in each parallel set of walls to avoid standing waves. I used triple layered dB plasterboard and double thickness Rockwool, with a 20mm air gap to achieve the highest absorption coefficient possible for the space and budget. I then measured the rooms frequency response and RT60 values. After studying these results I began building diffusers. Unfortunately because of the size of the space their is not enough room in my mixing room for bass traps – I decided that having a seating space for clients was more pertinent as a lot of the work I currently do is producer based and requires long sessions with artists to develop. Distinguishing where the sound first meets the wall I implemented diffusers to break up this sound and avoid reflection and medium transference.
To improve my listening space I could look in to methods such as Sonarworks reference 4, which uses a computer application to measure the room and tailors the output of the system to act flat within the room. I could also experiment with different types of treatment to see which provides the best results.