IK Multimedia

How to Set Up A Studio Part 3: Developing Your Ear

It’s all well and good setting up a solid listening system, and forking out for expensive monitors and/or headphones, but actually monitoring your mix requires an enquiring, patient mindset. In this third section of our series on monitoring, we’ll give guidance on developing your ear when deep listening, as well as provide some prized insight from the industry on how to hear better. Read parts 1 and 2 here.

IK Multimedia
IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitors.

Though we’ve explored the purchasing, placement and best practice guidelines for setting up monitors, and the differences between listening to a mix with a set of headphones and hearing everything via speakers, when it comes down to the crunch, what exactly are the major things you’re listening out for?. It’s critical to know when you should take action on a mix, fully grasping that your ears and monitors need to work together to land on a winning track.

Ask any professional producer, and it’s soon obvious that the most consistently beneficial qualities of a good pair of studio monitors is their ability to present the fine detail of a mix clearly – this trumps volume, size or any aesthetic considerations. “My personal thing in monitors that I look for is great clarity and detail.” Explains house music DJ and production legend Lenny Fontana. “The second part is you need to trust the room that these monitors are going to be placed in with regards to the bass frequencies coming from the corners of your room, and the top end that may throw you off when mixing or just listening.”

For Lenny’s line of work, understanding how the room reacts to the sound emitted from his monitors, and how that affects his perception, is integral; “The room should have some sort of sound reinforcement to help control these false frequencies created because of the reflections going on.” Fontana tells us. From the outset, Lenny would advise anyone to get to know their monitors’ sonic character from the get-go. “When testing your monitors, play music that you are very familiar with to see how the placement of the mix sounds on your monitors in the room. This will give you a good point of reference.”

When actually mixing, Lenny provides the following wisdom – “A good tip that I know a lot of the engineers that I worked with do, is to monitor low (quieter) when tracking and mixing. The reason is to help you keep your hearing intact through your session and you don’t suffer from ear fatigue. You will find mixing can be very tedious and the more you are working on songs the better your mixes will sound.”

Lenny Fontana Monitor
Lenny Fontana’s Studio. Used with permission.


As Lenny indicated, making sure your ears aren’t overloaded and impaired from too much exposure to eardrum-shattering volume is something that you would think would go without saying, but it’s astonishing how many forget this pivotal aspect of self-care, and how it can majorly skew decision-making. Some will go for days on end (and with few breaks) wallowing in potentially damaging, high-volume audio. It’s always advised that you work at quieter levels (typically between 83-85 dB) with only occasional monitoring volume raises to hear how certain aspects punch or work together when pumping out. But, in terms of the fine-detail of your mix, you can get far more surgical when the volume is lower.

The same principle applies to prolonged headphone-use too, though it’s likely you’ll be more aware of the discomfort, particularly when wearing ear-smothering, bulky ‘cans. With the physical characteristics of headphones, the sound pressure levels (SPL) will be considerably different. “A neutral loudspeaker will provide (more or less) a flat free field SPL response.” Explains Beyerdynamic’s Senior Signal Processing Engineer Dr Simon Grimm and Acoustic Engineer, Sebastian Haberzett, “That isn’t the case for the headphone, because only some parts of the human ear will interact with the sound wave that is propagating from the headphone’s driver diaphragm into the ear canal.”

This consideration will differ even between types of headphone, something that Beyerdynamic in particular have worked hard to overcome. “An in-ear headphone will have a different target SPL response than an over-ear headphone, because different parts of the human ear will be exposed to the sound field. The art of creating a balanced sound character is to cope with these differences and acoustically mimic the covered areas in the excluded parts of the ear by acoustical means. Also, acoustic resonances inside the ear cup are another important topic that a professional pair of headphones must cope with. It is quite a challenge to handle these resonances. A good pair of pro headphone will not show prominent peaks in the upper midrange or treble response.”


Be aware of how the headphones SPL and its relationship with your ear affects your perception of a mix.



A poor workman blames his tools, or so the old adage goes, yet when it comes to studio monitoring it’s actually really important that your tools are up to scratch. Don’t settle for consumer-grade bookshelf speakers, or the same head – or ear – phones that you wear on the bus, investing in some high quality listening kit, designed to deliver a balanced response.

But beyond the physical aspects such as the room, the volume, your ears, low-quality gear and sound pressure, when it comes to actually zoning in and mixing your music, then you really need to know what to look out for. Firstly, something that many mix engineers will loudly espouse is that you should never work on EQ, compression or processing with solo’d tracks outside of the context of your mix. It’s understandable why you’d feel inclined to *zoom in* on a mix element and fix problems at a macro level. But your stems in isolation aren’t going to be heard by the end listener in isolation. It may sound contrary to perfection-seeking, but it can make sense to have track elements that sound wonky, off-kilter or even EQ’d in totally perplexing ways on their own, if the final sound work *better* in the context of the overall mix. It really doesn’t matter if something sounds utterly beautiful in isolation.


FabFilter Pro Q3 - EQing but listen to monitors!
Be wary of getting sucked into ‘visual’ mixing.

On the topic of EQing – and really, any mix process which requires visual feedback – try not to get sucked to far into what many disparagingly refer to as ‘visual mixing’, whereby you’re prioritising how your transients, scoops, gates and wave forms look visually over what you can actually hear. As with the previous point – how things gel together in the aural universe is far more important. While the capacity for dazzlingly efficient plugin GUIs to give us unprecedented insight into our frequencies is astoundingly useful, these tools should be used as suggestive, insight-providers, as opposed to the hard director of how you should proceed with your tracks. Trust those ears of yours.


Genelec The Ones Monitors
Trust those ears of yours.



Perhaps the most essential advice when it comes to monitoring is the one that nearly everybody in the professional audio field will tell you. Make sure you have a good set of reference tracks that you know inside out, that you can use as a benchmark of pro mix quality. From the low end, the mids to the higher frequencies – if you’ve got a solid mix objective that you can hear via a reference track, then your life will be significantly easier. While having one, two or even ten reference tracks is useful in a studio mixing setting, it’s also an idea to take out the reference tracks and play then alongside your mix on consumer grade speakers, a battered old pair of cheap headphones or even a tinny car radio. While the quality of the overall listening experience will obviously degrade, the actual mix of the reference track itself should still be pretty robust. If your mix is similarly solid sounding, then you’re potentially on to a winner.

Over the course of this series we’ve underlined that when monitoring, your understanding of frequencies, the quality of your kit, the sound of your room and, most importantly, your ears are the most central factors to consider. Every mix will be different, and your judgements will differ depending on the track you want to create. But hopefully the vital elements we’ve highlighted will set you on the right path to listen better.


Read parts 1 and 2 here.