The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon

We’ve all had this problem: we finish a mix that we spent 20 hours fine tuning & tweaking, made every .5 db adjustment that needs to be made, replaced every snare hit with 7 different perfectly tuned snare samples that we got from Steven Slate, we have 5 parallel compressors on the mix bus that’s adding just the right amount of glue. Then, we finally bring it in our car so we can make sure it’s still sounds rocking and… It  sounds like shit! What the hell happened?

There have been times in the past when listening to a mix in the car has brought me to tears… I’ve contemplated giving up recording music after hearing a bad mix in the car. But why? Why does this happen? Why don’t our mixes translate to car speakers?

Well, there’s really no single answer to that question. Like most audio engineering questions, the correct answer is, “it depends.” However, what I can do is give you advice on how to get better at being able to accurately judge how mixes will translate to different sound systems. The first issue, and it’s probably the one that affects most newer audio engineers, is the acoustic treatment of your mixing environment.

If the acoustics of the room you’re mixing in sounds bad, your mixes are never going to translate properly. It’s like trying to measure something with a tape measure that doesn’t have any numbers on it. You can’t mix properly if you don’t know what you’re hearing. Let’s say your mixing room has a large frequency build up at 250 Hz. Because your room is accentuating this frequency, you go to an equalizer and cut 250 Hz to compensate for this. Well… now when you go into your car there’s not going to be enough 250 Hz and your whole track is going to sound thin.

The other thing that that will help is listening to reference material on all of your monitoring devices. Find a few songs that you think sound good and are very familiar with and play them in your studio, your car, your headphones, your phone, etc. Actively listen to what each mix sounds like. Hone in on what you like and don’t like about the mix, then listen to one of your mixes. What do you hear? Do you not have enough bass? Is your bass too boxy? Your vocals too shrill? It’s easier to tell what’s wrong with something when you have something with which to compare.

The truth is, this is not some phenomenon, your mixes are just bad so they aren’t translating to your car stereo system. They won’t translate until you’re really familiar with your room, your room is treated, and you know your monitors well. It’s crazy that people purchase expensive monitors before putting up any treatment in their room. Treatment is far more important than the monitors you are mixing on. If your aren’t hearing your expensive speakers properly there is no point in having them.

Related articles:
5 mixing mistakes that I used to make… and how to avoid them
[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
8 things that will help your mixing that have nothing to do with mixing

David Silverstein

David Silverstein began engineering at the age of 14 when he purchased a Fostex four track cassette recorder. After high school he enrolled at Five Towns College where he graduated with a Bachelors of Professional Studies in Business with a concentration in Audio Recording Technology. He has worked under renowned engineers and producers Jim Sabella (Marcy Playground, Nine Days, and Public Enemy) and Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Spacehog, The Ramones and The Lemonheads). David currently works out of Sabella Studios in Roslyn, NY.

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