How To Make Your Mixes Sound Great On Small Speakers

It’s the end of a long day, and your mix sounds slammin’.

The 808 is shaking the floor. The kick hits you in the chest. The bass sounds monstrous.

You lean back in your cushy office chair and smile.

“Dave Pensado has nothing on me,” you conclude. “Should I call Mix Magazine for an interview?”

But before clicking bounce, you decide to listen one more time.

On a MacBook.

Ugh.

Suddenly, the 808 is nowhere to be found. Your “massive” kick sounds like a bag of rice being hit with a spoon. And the monstrous bass is a tinny, wimpy mess.

“Is this really how people are going to hear my mix?” You wonder. “There’s got to be a better way.”

Luckily, there is. The following tips will help you make mixes that sound great on small speakers. Follow the advice below, and you’ll avoid this MacBook nightmare—guaranteed.

Don’t Attempt The Impossible

First, a word of caution.

Don’t attempt to make a mix sound perfect on small speakers. This is a waste of time, and will often lead to compromises that make things worse. An 808 will never sound massive on an iPhone. This would defy the laws of physics.

Try to please everyone, and you’ll end up pleasing no one. Instead, just make sure whatever propels the groove and sells the song doesn’t disappear. Let the other stuff go.

The Poor Man’s Auratone

Auratone studio monitors

An original pair of Auratone studio monitors

Many mixers swear by Auratones.

These 4 1/2″ monitors have almost no top or bottom end—they’re all midrange. Monitoring through them will help you avoid many mix translation surprises.

Why?

Master-mixer Jack Joseph Puig explains it best:

“I have always felt that midrange is the most important band. The one common factor with all systems is they all have midrange. Some systems have or don’t have subwoofers, and some have or don’t have extended high frequencies. But all have midrange. Get the midrange right.”

– Jack Joseph Puig, Interview in Mix Magazine

If you don’t have a pair of Auratones (or modern equivalents, like the Avantone MixCubes), you can achieve a similar effect by strapping an EQ across your mix bus. I call this the “poor man’s Auratone” technique. Here’s how to pull it off:

  1. Add an EQ to your mix bus (any will do).
  2. Set a high-pass filter to 18 dB per octave at 170 Hz.
  3. Set a low-pass filter to 18 dB per octave at 5 kHz.
FabFilter's Pro-Q 2, set up with the poor man's Auratone technique

FabFilter’s Pro-Q 2, set up with the poor man’s Auratone technique

(I recommend saving this as a preset, so you can pull it up easily while mixing.)

To take this technique further, sum your mix bus to mono. This will simulate the experience of listening on an iPhone or in a grocery store. (Yes, mono still matters. Think about it—when you step back a few feet from any pair of speakers, you’re effectively listening in mono.)

If key tracks become hard to hear or disappear when you kick in the EQ, the following techniques will help.

Crafting The Aural Illusion

Some tracks—like 808s and sine basses—disappear completely on small speakers.

Why?

Because tracks like these have almost all their frequency content in the low end. And small speakers can’t play back low end.

So how do you get an 808 to cut through on small speakers?

One word—distortion.

Distortion creates harmonics. And since harmonics extend up the frequency spectrum, small speakers can play them back.

Problem solved.

But that’s not the only reason this technique works.

When you hear harmonics, you also “hear” the fundamental frequencies they were created from, even if those frequencies don’t actually exist. Your brain fills in the blanks. Meaning you’ll hear low end, even when it’s not there.

Weird.

I call this the aural illusion technique, and it’s a great way to trick listeners into hearing low end on small speakers. (This is how plugins like Waves’ RBass and MaxBass work.)

SoundToys' Decapitator

SoundToys’ Decapitator

To pull this off, just add a little crunch using your favorite distortion plugin (I like SoundToys’ Decapitator). Remember—a little goes a long way. Obvious distortion is not the goal. You just need a bit of color to help the track cut through.

This is one of my favorite ways to enhance bass. It can add clarity and presence, without muddying up the low end.

Own The Upper Bass

We all love sub-bass.

But as mixers, we tend to go a little trigger happy with it. We’re quick to add anything below 80 Hz. After all, there’s nothing more exciting than feeling the floor shake.

The only problem? You’ll never hear this stuff on small speakers. Because most don’t extend below 80 Hz.

But they do play back bass above 80 Hz.

“Whaaat Jason…there’s bass above 80 Hz?”

Yes! And don’t forget it.

The upper bass region—from 80 to 200 Hz—is crucial. Pay close attention to it while mixing. If you can center the punch of a kick at 80 or 100 Hz instead of 60 Hz, it will often translate much better on small speakers.

Opt For Clicky Kicks

We all love kicks that rattle the floor. But when it comes to making them cut, more sub usually isn’t the answer.

The most important part of a kick is the click on top. This is usually found around 5 kHz, but can vary based on the drum.

To add clarity to the kick, look here first.

FabFilter's Pro-Q 2, set to boost 5 kHz on a kick drum

FabFilter’s Pro-Q 2, set to boost 5 kHz on a kick drum

Since all speakers play back this part of the frequency spectrum, it’s often the best place to boost. Like the aural illusion technique above, this will often make listeners feel like they’re hearing more low end than they actually are.

Don’t believe me? Listen to a few of your favorite records. Notice how much click there is on the kick. There’s often a lot less low end than you think.

PS—If you’re mixing a sub-kick with nothing above 200 Hz, a boost at 5 kHz won’t do you much good. Instead, augment the track with a hi-hat sample, or add another kick with a high-pass filter (set so just the click cuts through). This is more effective than trying to boost something that isn’t there in the first place.


What are your favorite techniques for crafting mixes that sound great on small speakers? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

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