When big studios ruled the earth, they used the best monitor speakers they could afford, treated the control room acoustically, and mounted the speakers optimally. However, engineers and producers realized that only a tiny fraction of consumers would hear audio—whether for broadcast, music playback, or videos—with that level of quality. So, it was common to add some lower-fi speakers (such as consumer-level bookshelf speakers, or the “default reference” Auratones), and then switch among speakers for a “reality check” during a mix’s final phase. A product like Radial Engineering’s MC3 is the modern equivalent of this type of switcher.
We’ve since taken a step backward in terms of what to expect from consumer systems. Decades ago, the odds were good music would be heard over hi-fi speakers, a radio, or maybe a TV. If the music sounded decent over all of those, you were done with the mix. But today, it’s a gamble as to what will play back your audio. Smartphone speakers will destroy the lows, and some popular fashion headphones (you know the ones I mean) trade-off high frequencies for a booming bass. It’s anyone’s guess what a tablet will sound like, and earbuds are the main way some people listen to music…then there are those who listen in cars, over tiny apartment-friendly stereos, or even (yes, really!) over decent stereo systems.
For mastering, corporate presentations, broadcast, videos intended for mobile device playback, and other media, it’s important to know what the final mix will sound like in the real world. Before MixChecker came along, I made multiple copies of final mixes, and played them over as many playback devices as possible. MixChecker and MixChecker Pro make this process more efficient, and far simpler. We’ll start with MixChecker.
What It Is
MixChecker is a VST2/VST3/AU/AAX plug-in, 32- or 64-bit, that updates the concept of using “real-world” speakers to do a reality check on your mixes. It emulates 12 different types of playback devices: two speaker types, on-ear headphones, smartphone, tablet, laptop, car, television, “micro hi-fi” stereo system, radio, desktop speakers, and earbuds (Fig. 1).
However, note that MixChecker’s goal is not to emulate specific speakers and rooms. Instead, Audified measured multiple examples of each listening device, and took an average. This makes sense; for example, no two models of smart phone have exactly the same response, but they share particular characteristics.
Also, MixChecker doesn’t provide variations on the different playback options. For example, you can’t choose between super-bad airline earbuds and high-fidelity ones. To be fair, though, the goal is to give a reality check for different types of playback devices, not specific devices—and it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
Now Audified has introduced MixChecker Pro, which builds on the original with a more comprehensive implementation. However, we’ll look at general applications before covering what the Pro version brings to the party.
Typically, you’d insert MixChecker in a master bus, then compensate for your particular monitoring system with one of the three compensation buttons—5-inch speakers, 8-inch speakers, or headphones. (However, note that MixChecker Pro removes these because they’re not necessary with decent monitoring systems.) Then, click through the various buttons to hear what your mix will sound like in the real world. Note that while not intended for this purpose, you can also use MixChecker to provide lo-fi special effects—if a movie shows someone listening to music on a tablet, you can create that effect.
Both MixChecker versions use iLok copy protection. However, you don’t need the hardware dongle, just the License Manager software. Furthermore, Audified gives two authorizations per purchase, so you can use the plug-in at the same time on two different computers—a considerate touch for those who have teams working on a project, or those who double on desktop and laptop machines.
The pro version (Fig. 2) includes several new features that enhance the original MixChecker.
The main attraction is new simulations, but that’s not all. Here are the main changes.
- 54 new simulations. There are now 66 simulations instead of 12, and each of those offers additional variations. They were also made with a somewhat more accurate modeling process, as opposed to the Impulse Responses in the original MixChecker.
- An Android/iOS device remote. At first, I thought this was a “because we can do it” feature. However with some of the emulations, it’s useful to be able to hear your monitor speakers from a distance, and take what happens in a room into account. A more practical advantage is that you can gain screen space by closing the plug-in, and just using the app (Fig. 3).
- Automatic advance. MixChecker Pro can step through the emulations automatically. For example, load the eight different car audio emulations, and have MixChecker cycle through them.
- You can place the selected emulations in any order on the MixChecker Pro selection buttons, rename the labels, and assign one device to several buttons with different settings (e.g., volume or distortion changes). The editing screen (Fig. 4) is the key to doing customizations.
- Adjustable background noise. People used to laugh at my recommendation to mix with noise injected in the background—until they tried it, and found out that it was a great way to find out if lower-level sounds would be masked by background noise. MixChecker Pro not only allows adding background noise, but changes the character based on the chosen simulation. Background noise can come from 14 different environments (street, park, playground, station, bar, bus, etc.). Note that these backgrounds can also provide useful sound effects.
- Distortion. It’s a fact of life…and if you want, you can hear how it affects your mix.
- Stereo monitoring options. Swap channels, monitor one channel over both speakers, test for mono compatibility, and check different stereo widths.
Overkill, or Worthwhile?
With so much recording software reaching functional parity, and a cornucopia of plug-ins for effects and virtual instruments, the next frontier in plug-ins may be analytics and utilities. MixChecker is a modern version of speaker switchers, except that you now have a lot more options in order to accommodate the proliferation of consumer-oriented playback devices.
The original MixChecker served me well, and it’s great for quick checks. I thought MixChecker Pro might be overkill, particularly because it offers so many options—I didn’t want to go down an editing rabbit hole. However, the customization possibilities actually made it easier to select the targets of most interest to me. For example, I check the audio for my YouTube videos over laptops, tablets, earbuds, TVs, and speakers; I don’t expect people to watch videos in their car. On the other hand, the car audio options are important with mastered music.
Of course, listening to your carefully crafted, meticulously mixed audio over a simulated lo-fi playback system can be disheartening. But, it’s the real world—and the sound of consumer playback devices is something you need to consider. Often, even a minor tweak can help your program material sound better over a wider variety of systems, without negatively impacting those systems over which the audio sounds inherently good.
If your mix can survive all these different playback scenarios, the listener will at least hear an approximation of what you intended—which means you’ve created a truly transportable mix.