Factoring The Listening Environment Into Your Mix
Whereas once we might have absorbed an album on a beanbag chair in a garage, surrounded by band posters and bathed in the glow of a lava lamp (at least that's how I like to imagine I'd consume music if I was a teenager in the ‘60s or ‘70s). But now the average music fan is just as likely to listen to a few select tracks or an eclectic playlist, and on some manner of portable device. It was a gradual shift - the Walkman and its many similar cassette players certainly started the portable music boom, and personal CD players picked up the slack when tapes started to fall from favor, but it seems like we've experienced a cultural shift in the way we interact with - and create - music.
Look at it this way: if you buy David Bowie's new album The Next Day on CD, you'll get one particular mastered version. If you buy it from iTunes you'll get a special 'Mastered for iTunes' version instead. And I suspect that what this really means is not actually 'Mastered for iTunes' but 'Mastered for headphones.' If you're a huge Bowie geek like me who bought the album in both formats, you can compare the two versions directly: the CD seems to be fuller and with a more prominent low end, while the iTunes version is slightly clearer, with what seems to be a bit more focus on the fine details. As a CD, it's a great 'crank up and rattle the windows' album. As a 'headphones album' it's more of a cerebral experience, as different orchestrational elements draw your ear.
When we spoke to Queensryche's Geoff Tate a few years ago he mentioned how this consideration played into his recording process. "People listen to music really differently these days," he said. "They don't sit in their room with their stereo system and completely absorb the record like we did when we were growing up. They listen to it passively, and most people listen on their iPods now. They plug in when they're on their way to work or bopping around shopping, doing what they do, and they're listening to music through headphones. So we thought, 'Let's just make it that way.' We spend a lot of time with headphones on. That's primarily how we compose, so why not take what we listen to and follow suit with that? We wrote the record on headphones, recorded it on headphones, mixed it on headphones - it's pretty much a headphones thing!"
It helps to keep this kind of stuff in mind when setting up your studio space. How is the end listener going to be listening to your music? Is your recording environment going to serve as an acoustic ingredient to be represented as a key ingredient in the song? Or do you need the room to 'get out of the way' while you record direct via outboard gear or plugins? No matter what your goal, it's important to consider the role of the listener. One old studio trick is to take a mix of the song into the car and see how it sounds on a cranked car stereo. I've even tested out mixes on my iPhone's internal mono speaker, because hey, people are going to listen to it that way too. So I find that it helps to listen to my mixes on as many formats as possible: home studio-geared monitors like KRK's Rokit Series, headphones like KRK's KNS 8400 which are specifically designed for recording, mixing and monitoring; lightweight headphones like the Stanton DJ Pro 60 set; my car stereo (and if you can fade between front and back speakers, you'll hear different aspects of your mix through each set); my iPhone with and without earbuds; and of course the good old fashioned home stereo.