Calibrating Your Ears – Why Referencing Matters

Objectivity

As anyone who’s banged their head against a troublesome mix for hours on end, only to be dismayed at the results the next day will know – staying objective in the studio can be difficult.

You only get a few seconds of objectivity when you listen to something before your brain simply gets used to whatever you’re hearing. So the trick is to listen carefully in these first few seconds, work on the problems you’ve identified and then re-calibrate your ears by listening to something else when you just can’t tell anymore.

Knowing your room

Just as important is knowing your room and your set up like the back of your hand. No room is acoustically perfect, no matter how well you treat it; and no speakers or headphones are completely transparent. Listening to a wide range of commercial material will alert you to the imperfections in your set up, allowing you to mentally account for them when you’re working.

For example, if your room has a bass resonance at 50Hz or so, when your kick drum is booming like a bomb, you’ll know that’s at least partly because it’s activating a room mode, and resist the urge to just cut everything in that region to tame it.

Setting benchmarks

In the same way, listening critically to a wide range of commercial material will give you a better idea of what lies within the acceptable range of variation, and what is just not up to scratch.

Many small studio owners fall victim to setting a mythical quality benchmark in their head that doesn’t actually exist. This can lead to obsessiveness over certain details that are actually fine to begin with. Sometimes it’s better to leave things sounding natural than process every inch of life out of them – try listening to a few Tom Waits recordings to see what I mean.

Make sure you listen in the appropriate format: CDs or CD quality files. MP3s and Spotify do sound different, and you don’t want to be emulating the degradation of lower quality files in your mixes.

Similarly, I have been known on occasion to despair at the lack of warmth and punch in what I’m working on only to realise I’ve been listening to too much vinyl lately…

A few tips…

  • Always start a mixing/mastering session by listening to reference material
  • Go back to it during the course of mixing to re-calibrate your ears
  • Use a range of reference material within a similar style of music
  • Use only CDs or CD quality files – MP3s, Spotify etc. all sound different
  • Import it into your DAW project so you’re using the same playback engine

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