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The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon

The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon
The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon

We’ve all had this problem: we finished 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 seven different perfectly tuned snare samples that we got from Steven Slate, we have five 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 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 no single answer to that question. Like most audio engineering questions, the correct answer is, “it depends.” However, I can give you advice that will help you get better at accurately judging 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 sound bad, your mixes will never translate properly. It’s like trying to measure something with a tape measure that doesn’t have any numbers. You can’t mix well if you don’t know what you’re hearing. Let’s say your mixing room has a significant frequency build up at 250 Hz. Because your room accentuates this frequency, you go to an equalizer and cut 250 Hz to compensate. Well… now, when you go into your car, there’s not going to be enough 250 Hz, and your whole track will sound thin.

The other thing 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, car, headphones, 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 is different between the two? Do you not have enough bass? Mid-range clashing? Are your vocals too shrill? It’s easier to tell what’s wrong with something when you have something to compare it to.

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 familiar with your room, your room is treated, and you know your monitors well. It’s insane 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 you aren’t hearing your expensive speakers properly, there is no point in having them.

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