The Loudspeaker Dilemma

horn speaker

OK, so you’ve spent countless hours recording and mixing a new song. It sounds great on your hi-fi system. You are so excited that you drive over to a friend’s house to show it off. You arrive, plug your phone into the stereo receiver, and hit play. As the song comes on, your face turns pale. The song doesn’t sound nearly as good as it did in the studio or at home. In fact, it sounds kind of awful.

This is one of the harder aspects of completing a recording project. Making sure that your recording sounds great on every possible set of speakers. That includes….

  • Studio speakers
  • Hi-fi system
  • Over-ear headphones
  • In-ear headphones
  • TV speakers
  • Crappy PA system
  • [you get the picture]

Your music, assuming it has reach, will be listened to on any number of playback mediums. Each one has a different frequency response, phase, and mono quality.  On top of that, you have room characteristics such as modes and specular reflections. Room modes can either blow your bass up or make it disappear entirely. The room reflections, if extreme, can over-pronounce the top end and make it harsh.

No single set of speakers and rooms can translate to all these scenarios.

As a real-world example, one of my productions (Vertigo) was almost completely missing the bass when played back on some hi-fi systems. Given that the production was supposed to be “finished”, I panicked. Why didn’t I test my mix on a hi-fi system???

Well, I wrongly assumed that my ATC SCM25a’s would translate accurately to hi-fi in all scenarios. The hi-fi system in question had a steeper roll-off on the bass, making the soft 808 kick non-existant. Normally the 100-200hz band makes up for this with a nice hard thump for the kick….unfortunately, that frequency band wasn’t coming through. I ended up boosting that frequency range and now it sounds alot better.

Another unexpected problem scenario is when music is played back on a hi-fi system that is set to DTS or Dolby Surround. What happened in this case? The top end on a couple of tracks was very harsh. To fix this, I tweaked the multiband compression that was already in place to bring the top end under control.

Your audience will not purposely listen to your song in surround but if it does happen, it still has to sound good. If it sounds off then you’re audience is going to get turned off. When all else fails, check your song on that playback medium with a few comparable commercial recordings. If the commercial recording doesn’t sound good (and this assumes that it is well mixed and mastered) then you probably shouldn’t worry about it.

So the moral of the story is, don’t skimp on testing your mixes across different mediums. Listen to it on your phone at the gym. Put it on your hi-fi system and walk around the room. Mono it and put it through some crappy speakers.

It can be tedious but this is your song, and you want it to shine. Even on the shittiest speakers on earth.