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How to calibrate your studio monitors

Recording studio control room

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Monitoring is arguably the most important part of mixing. Without being able to hear the music properly, you won’t be able to mix it. Your monitors, room treatment and your positioning are all critical factors in ensuring you’re able to deliver mixes that translate to different speakers.

Calibrating your monitors helps your ears to become accustomed to a standard level of volume which enables you to listen to sound in your environment more accurately. It’s also another great way to preserve your hearing.

Since you’re listening to everything at the same SPL, your brain can judge the levels more accurately. You’ll become much faster at deciding when something isn’t leveled correctly which in turn will make your mixing decisions not only more accurate but also much easier.

Calibrating your monitors is the process of understanding and setting the level coming out of your DAW relative to the SPL that’s leaving the speaker. This lets you know that when your mixer is set to unity or your output level is at a marked spot (more on this later) that you’re able to hear the volume level your speakers are calibrated to.

You also have to make sure that both speakers are accurately reproducing the same level of audio. No two pieces of electronics are the same so just setting the two volume controls to the same level isn’t enough to ensure consistency between both speakers.

In order to calibrate we’ll need to use pink noise. Pink noise is a tone that consists of every frequency band at exactly the same level. This makes it the ideal tool for many types of acoustic measurements including speaker and room calibration.

To calibrate your speakers,

  1. Turn the independent level controls on the back of each of your studio monitors all the way down.
  2. Set your interface output to unity if there is one. If it doesn’t have a unity level, then you can choose where you’d like your output knob to be when you reach the desired level you’re calibrating to. Mark the spot on output knob with a white china marker or a piece of console tape.
  3. You’ll need to set up a track in your DAW with a tone generator to output pink noise. Most DAWs have a tone generator built in. Set the level to -18dbfs (you can use -20dbfs if you want more headroom). If you did step 1 correctly, then you shouldn’t hear anything yet. (We are calibrating to -18dbfs because it is considered to be the equivalent of 0 dBVU which is the sweet spot for analog gear)
  4. Now you’ll need an SPL meter. If you don’t have one I recommend buying one, but you can also download an SPL meter app on your phone. You’ll need to make sure the SPL meter has a C-weighted scale. Unlike the A-weighted scale, the C-weighted scale does not cut off the lower and higher frequencies that the average person cannot hear which makes it more suited for calibration purposes.
  5. Point the SPL meter at the sweetpoint in the center of the speakers where you would typically have your head. Make sure the meter is at about the same level as your ears.
  6. Pan the pink noise all the way to the right, so it’s only coming out of the right speaker. Start turning up the volume knob on the back of the right speaker until the SPL meter reads 78-85 dBs depending on what you decide to calibrate your speakers at. I’ll be calibrating my speakers at 80db. If you’re sitting closer to your speakers, you can calibrate them lower. Renowned mastering engineer Bob Katz likes to monitor at 79 dB.
  7. Now pan the pink noise to the left and repeat step 6 with the left speaker.

You’ll now know where you should be keeping your monitors output level to ensure you’re listening at the desired level!

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The most embarrassing audio mistake I’ve ever made

Broken SSL compressor VU meter

We’ve all had embarrassing moments in the studio. From an intern to lead engineers, everyone royally messes up sessions in significant ways, from recording over that perfect take to dropping a microphone worth more than a car. There are so many different ways to make mistakes while recording that I’m surprised I don’t mess up more often.

I’ve had my fair share of accidents, way more than I’d like to admit, but for the sake of the enjoyment of others, I will.

Although a studio environment does not have to be stressful, it can be, and a lot of times, it is. If there is a big session or high profile client, there’s a lot of pressure on the engineer to make sure the session not only flows well but is executed perfectly, both artistically and technically.

There used to be a time when the engineer didn’t have to worry about running the tape machine or setting up the microphones. This freedom allowed the engineer to focus on the more essential things like the sound. Well, not anymore. Today, engineers do everything, from managing the studio to cleaning the bathrooms. We do it all. I enjoy this aspect of it, I like doing a lot and not having to rely on others to move microphones around, but it also leaves more room for error.

I hate messing up. Like really hate it. I still cringe while thinking about some of these things I’ve done over the years. Hell, thinking about hugging the wrong dad when I was three still sends shivers down my near-30-year-old spine. I’m not sure if anything is worse than when I was about a year into my internship and was asked to run a session of my own.

We have a very informal internship policy at Sabella Studios; we welcome anyone that wants to learn and is willing to lend a helping hand and rarely turn people away unless they are a distraction. It was my third year of college, and I had been hanging around the studio and helping for some time. I had been asked to be the lead engineer on smaller sessions such as short piano/vocal sessions or rap/hip hop vocal sessions. These were sessions that were more straightforward and hard to mess up. Or it should have been…

At this point in my career, I’d probably only run a session on my own a few times before, but I was asked to record a rapper who just needed to book 2 hours. Simple enough, I thought. I got everything ready, set up the microphone, set up headphones, created a new Pro Tools session, set the preamp, checked to make sure I was getting signal, patched in a compressor and an EQ. I was all set for when the client arrived, and when he did, we greeted each other and had him settle in the live room. I had him begin running through a warm up take so he could practice and so I could get sounds.

The problem was everything sounded way too echoey, but I didn’t have any reverb turned on yet. Maybe I had something patched in I wasn’t supposed to, or maybe the compressor was crushing it or not set correctly, or maybe there was a bad cable? After frantically searching for the source of the problem for the next three and a half minutes while the artist ran through the song, I still couldn’t figure it out. After finishing that pass, my client had motioned to me that he was ready, and I gave him the okay to give it another run through, which would give me another three and a half minutes to try and figure out what the hell the problem was.

The artist was now about to finish his second pass, and I still couldn’t figure out why it sounded like the microphone was 50 feet away from his mouth when I could see he was singing not even 6 inches from the capsule.

Just as the client finished and said: “That take was perfect!” I realized what I had done wrong when I noticed the microphone’s Neumann logo plate was on the side facing the control room. I had the microphone facing the wrong way.

I learned a few valuable lessons that day. The first was that on large diaphragm condenser microphones, companies would usually put their logo on the front pointed on axis. If you don’t see the logo, it’s probably pointed the wrong way. The second thing I learned was to be humble. If you had told me 5 minutes before I had done it that I should make sure the microphone was pointed in the correct direction, I would have said. You’re crazy. I knew everything already! Well, that day, I got fed a big ol’ slice of humble pie.

Even while I run sessions and consider myself experienced, problems happen all the time. The difference is I don’t panic and have become very good at troubleshooting an issue as it arises. Troubleshooting is a part of working in audio, and if you want to do this, you should get used to it. I always try to think about problems and how to fix them analytically. I’m much better now, but back then, if one thing went wrong, I would be sent into a downward spiral of anxiety and fear, and it was tough to regain my composure.

What mistakes have you made? What did you learn from them? Comment on FacebookInstagram or send us an email using our contact page.

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