Even the best mix won’t work with some speaker placements.
Once upon a time, back in the big-dang vinyl-record-label era, I was one of two mixing engineers on a big-dang album project with a huge-dang artist. We had the luxury of working in a recording studio with a vinyl-disc-cutting mastering room down the hallway, so, naturally, we took advantage by having reference discs – “refs” – cut just for us. We then schlepped these one-off 33-1/3 RPM acetate LPs around to different homes and stereo systems to check our mixes – too much vocal? Not enough piano? Let’s go out in the world and listen.
We were in the process of spending three months overdubbing and mixing an album that would become the most expensive ever made (until Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” came out three years later). Worth it to the big-dang record label, though – it sold upwards of four million copies for them.
Each of the eleven songs were painstakingly mixed, with a lot of attention to stereo placement – the left-right “panning” balance of each voice and instrument. Hours and hours making the stereo sound image perfect, each of us in the control room offering strong opinions about volume and panning for everything in the song. It was really cool, in retrospect.
One sunny LA afternoon, having mixed ourselves silly, we drove out to someone’s friend’s home to check the ref of our latest mix. We walked into the house with our freshly-cut masterpiece and stopped short – the big, expensive stereo system had an unusual ‘feature’: the left-channel speaker was on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen, and the right channel speaker was on the floor behind the living-room couch.
We half-heartedly played the song and blew outta there after a hasty thank-you, all the while thinking of the endless hours spent building the perfect sound image. Yes, we knew part of our job was to mix for everyone’s stereo, whether a super-hi-fi wonder or a $10 piece of junk. That’s the grail of the mix engineer – perfect sound images, wherever, whatever. But that day in sunny LA reminded me that the best mix in the world won’t sound remotely like it did in the studio if the consumer’s speakers are in Very Bad Places. Be careful with your speaker placements, folks; a lot of time went into those mixes.