Ideal Speaker Placement for Stereo Mixing
Anyone who has delved a little into the deep waters of sound mixing will have realized the difficulties involved in this craft. It involves paying attention to many variables at the same time, and this can be overwhelming, especially for those who get carried away by the basic recommendations of a manual and avoid studying on a regular basis. Truth be told, a professional in the sound mixing industry, such as Enhanced Media, must study constantly, keep up to date, and remain attentive to technology changes.
One of the hundreds of mistakes that may happen when mixing is a spatial issue — placing the speakers of a stereo mixing. As important as getting the right equipment and a suitable location, is knowing how to place the speakers for avoiding echoes, interference, or other basic problems.
The first thing to consider is the dimensions of the room where you are planning to work. Depending on this, you will have to make some adjustments. The room could be square or rectangular. If you have a choice, your first option should be a rectangular room. Due to the natural behavior of sound waves, square rooms can be quite problematic. Let’s say that when speakers generate sound, the waves propagate through the air until they reach the wall and bounce back, meeting the same wave in the process (just like water waves in a swimming pool). That sum of waves can cause phase cancellations, peaks, and valleys. This results in volume enhancements and cancellations at certain frequencies. So, to avoid this, professionals look for spacious rooms (the general rule is that rooms dedicated to a recording studio are rectangular, about 22 x 39 feet), with the objective that the wavelength at which such standing waves are produced reaches only lower frequencies.
Now, in case you have a rectangular room (of these or other dimensions), try to place the speakers at the back of the room, with the two long walls on either side. The reason for this is due to the behavior of sound waves, specifically, the resonant modes and the standing waves. If your room does not have windows, you are on the right track, but, if it does, try to have the windows as far as possible from the speakers since glass does not absorb sound at all.
It is no coincidence that several professional mixers are known to be obsessive-compulsive people. Symmetry is a fundamental factor when placing the speakers for the simple reason that this will avoid an imbalance in the primary reflections. In a studio, what you are looking for is producing sound in controlled conditions, without unnecessary alterations. The symmetrical placement of the speakers in the center of the back wall is not a whim but a requirement for a uniform and clean sound. You don’t want more reflections on one side than the other, and, therefore, a serious issue to solve during the editing process. Thus, place the speakers and you in the shape of an equilateral triangle, in the center of the room.
On the other hand, it is crucial to keep in mind that placing a speaker exactly against the back wall of the studio makes its volume increase by about three decibels, and even double if you place them in the corners of the room. The low frequencies propagate in a much more dispersed way than the high frequencies, which are much more directional, and this means that you are negatively affecting the high sounds of your production. Ideally, place them away from corners and about 12 inches away from the wall.
Likewise, the acoustics of your room can work against you. If you are not attentive to the places where unnecessary reflections and reverberations occur, this will significantly affect the result of your work. Hence you should cover the walls with surfaces that effectively absorb sound. This does not have to be done throughout the whole room: only where you identify a problem. You can use panels, curtains, or other surfaces to correct these errors. If you look carefully at a professional recording studio, you will notice that there are panels (functional and decorative) behind the speakers, on the ceiling, on the walls, and at the back of the room (including the door). This work will depend a lot on what you are doing in your studio. One thing is producing podcasts or interviews, and producing music or sound effects for film and television is an entirely different story. Each case will require more or less floor space.
Finally, place your speakers on suitable stands, with a horizontal tilt that, again, forms an equilateral triangle towards you, with a vertical tilt that also points directly at your head. It’s a bit like adjusting a car’s rear-view mirrors: it’s up to the driver.
The ideal placement of your studio speakers is a matter of minimal care, which can save you hundreds of headaches. Never forget that.