As a record producer, I gotta say I love it when people give me straight-up advice. When I was figuring out what gear to buy for my first project studio, a veteran engineer buddy told me, “Your studio is only as good as its weakest link.”
And man, he was so right. You can’t skimp on your speakers, because they’re everything when it comes to hearing and mixing. Sure, you could spend all your cash on vintage keyboards and collectible guitars, but if your speakers are off, your music will be too.
The same goes for all that hi-fi and consumer equipment. What’s the point of having a massive 4K TV if the sound coming out of it is muffled and weak?
So let’s get into some common issues and potential fixes, starting with music mixing-related problems.
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Professional Studio Monitors
When you’re working in medium-sized studios, it’s pretty common to use three different sets of monitors: mono or consumer reference, nearfield, and midfield. Even pro-project studios use this setup nowadays.
Nearfield recording studio monitors usually range from 5 to 7 inches and have a classic tweeter and woofer cabinet. Personally, I use the Dynaudio BM6As for nearfield and the Dynaudio Core 47 for midfield.
I went with Dynaudio over other “fancier” brands because I could adjust them to the room. When I first put them in my soundproof room, I was surprised at how dull they sounded compared to the demo at the store. Acoustics play a huge part in why speakers can sound muffled.
To avoid your speakers sounding all muffled up, I’d recommend getting monitors that you can mess with at the back to roll off certain frequencies based on the room’s position. And you gotta use Auralex MoPADs under all monitors to cut down on resonance because that can also cause a muffled sound.
Normally, high-quality studio monitors won’t sound muffled unless something’s wrong with the tweeter, the driver, or your acoustics. When you’re shopping for new monitors, just make sure to thoroughly test all your favorite tunes from your top albums. You know them so well that if something’s off, you’ll catch it right away.
Car Speakers – The Famous Mix Test
So, you might remember those Yamaha NS-10 monitors that were pretty famous (and kind of infamous). They sounded terrible, so it was always a mystery why every studio had them.
I remember asking the Grammy-winning engineer Joe Chiccarelli why he used them, and he said that if you can make your mix sound good on those, then it’ll sound good on anything else; they’re that bad.
Some of us use the famous car test to check our mixes, which can be a bit of a downer. The idea is that we mostly listen to our albums in the car, so that’s the goal, right?
There’s some sense in that, except cars also have terrible acoustic layouts in general. They also have very hyped EQ systems, so make sure all your settings are flat.
Yamaha NS10 Alternatives
Nowadays, there are all sorts of “punishing” speakers out there that make you feel like your mix is garbage! But personally, my go-to speakers for that are the Hafler M5 and the Anker Soundcore 2 – they always do the trick. Give them a try and see for yourself.
There’s always a debate going on about why musicians bother with fancy monitors when everyone is just going to listen through crappy speakers like AirPods or the ones I mentioned above. Shouldn’t we all just mix on crappy speakers?
The truth is that the more balanced and accurate your frequency balance is in your final audio, the better it will sound on any speaker. It’s not some kind of guessing game; it’s just science.
It’s the same reason we sometimes mix at 96k even though most people will hear an mp3.
Bluetooth and Consumer Speakers (a.k.a BestBuy)
Have you ever noticed that your music sounds totally different when you play it on a Bluetooth speaker like Anker? Yeah, most of the time it’s not as bright and punchy as you’d expect – in fact, it’s kind of muffled. What gives, and what can you do about it?
Well, the culprit is actually crossover frequencies and SPL. See, when you’ve got a mix that hasn’t been mastered, there are a ton of low frequencies hanging around below the usual cutoff of about 70 Hz. You’d think that would make your mix sound brighter, since it’s getting cut, right?
But here’s the thing: when the subs start pushing too hard on that low-end driver, they create overtone harmonics that show up higher in the mids. And that actually makes your mix sound pretty boring, in a way. This happens in car speakers too, believe it or not.
The good news is, you can use a tool like Izotope’s Total Balance Control to help deal with these problems. It’s got AI that can balance out those crossover points and make everything sound better. Use it when you’re bouncing your test mix.
Bluetooth Speaker problems
Alrighty, let’s talk about some of the design and technical issues that can make speakers sound a bit muffled.
Bluetooth speakers usually have two audio modes:
- High Quality (for streaming and video playback)
- Speech Mode (used for Siri and commands)
Occasionally, a Bluetooth speaker that uses Mac drivers will switch to the low-quality mode if you’re using video conferencing or chat apps that also use the same driver as, say, Spotify. Just close all microphone or two-way-based apps, and reset your Bluetooth connection. You should notice a difference right away!
Once, I was having trouble with my iPhone because my music sounded really bad. It was all mixed up and hard to hear. I tried a lot of things, but nothing worked until I found something in the Accessibility section of Settings. I went to Audio/Visual options and turned off Mono Audio.
I don’t really understand why they have that option. It was really confusing for me. Now, every few weeks, I have to check to make sure it’s still turned off. Nowadays, lots of devices have noise cancellation software, which can be great for blocking out wind and other distractions, but if you don’t use it correctly, it can mess up your music really bad.
Everyone’s going crazy over the new home entertainment systems. I mean, those 4K TVs are so thin and sleek, right?
But you know why they’re so thin? ‘Cause they skimped on the speaker system. Most of these TVs have these little tablet-like speakers, so you gotta get an add-on that goes under the TV.
Soundbars are great for adding some low-end presence to your system. The only catch is that most of them need an app to control their settings, ’cause they’re too small to have all the controls on the unit.
Just be careful with the multi-band EQ on those apps. They ain’t no Protools or Sonnox, so don’t mess around too much. If you got a quality unit, everything should be set to unity, with no boosts or cuts. And if you do cut frequencies, just use the highest and lowest faders.
Oh, and here’s a tip: if your sound is muffled, it might be ’cause your EQ is out of whack. And once you get that Soundbar, don’t use the speakers on the TV anymore. Having all those speakers can really mess up the sound.
Cables – Real or Hype?
Hey folks, have y’all noticed the number of cables being sold by Monster and Rocketfish? As professional musicians, we sometimes think they’re just snake oil, but I actually did a shootout with some Rocketfish HDMI cables from Best Buy and noticed a bump in fidelity. So maybe they’re worth it for us audiophiles.
The truth is, if your speakers sound muffled or distorted, it could be due to cabling, but it’s more likely a serious cable problem, not the quality of the cable. So if your external speaker sounds completely muffled, don’t expect switching to Monster to make it crisp and clear.
Who doesn’t love some low-end in their tunes and entertainment? Even if you’re not a sound engineer, you can still feel the bass in your bones.
So, can subs be muffled? It might seem like a no-brainer, but actually, they can also sound muddy.
I mentioned crossover and overdriving earlier, especially with professional monitors, but this applies to subs too. Don’t forget that where you place your sub in a room is super important, whether it’s in your studio or home theater.
Most subs have knobs for built-in crossovers. Take some time to tune these to your setup; it’ll make a big difference.
For a 5.1 theater setup, place the subwoofer in the center of the room with three front speakers (L, C, R) and surround channels in the back. The muffled sound may indicate the improper distribution of the 5.1 mix from the Blu-ray or streaming device.
With 6 speakers, ensure proper connection of positive and negative cables to maintain sound quality. Check tweeters for blown sound. Review EQ settings on the streaming device or AV receiver to ensure proper configuration.
Now we’re getting into the most common way people listen to things these days: computer speakers. But, Apple has really stepped it up with their four-speaker array in both the iPad and MacBook Pro, and let me tell you, it really does make a difference.
Usually, if your computer or laptop speakers sound muffled, it’s more likely to be a software issue than a physical one. These devices have microphones and speakers that use the same driver, and that can cause all sorts of problems.
And if you add in all the noise cancellation and enhancement gadgets, things can get even worse. So, if you’ve tried the obvious fixes, like using a cutoff to get rid of debris, and you’re still having issues, try closing all your apps.
Then, check your sound settings and turn off all the enhancements, and restart your computer. That should do the trick. Usually, it’s that simple, unless there’s a hardware issue of some sort.
Finally, here’s my top tip for musicians trying to improve their speaker clarity: don’t rely on your computer’s basic drivers. If you’re a laptop producer, grab yourself a Universal Audio Volt or Apollo and hook up your speakers and headphones to that device all day, every day.
When I see people plugging their headphones straight into their laptops and then into their monitors, it makes me feel a bit queasy. Whether you’re using your gear for home jams, laptop production, or professional audio, that final stage before the speakers is crucial. Trust me, it’s not worth skimping on.