Listening to your tracks at home or in the car is always a lot of fun. But if you’re writing electronic music, then there’s a fair chance that one listening environment in particular is the real deal – the club. A typical club system is quite unlike anywhere else as far as sonics are concerned, and you should be keeping it in mind when you mix down. But it can be difficult to get a club mix right if you’re not regularly playing in clubs and testing your tracks out on the road. So what are the key areas to look out for? Read on, as we check out this tricky area…
Club sound systems have two major characteristics. This is going to seem obvious, but they will define how you need to present your tracks, so we’ll list them anyway: they have huge, exaggerated bass, and they’re very LOUD. These things make a difference!
So let’s start with the bass. This massive bass sound that you get on a club system has a few implications. First, and most importantly, you don’t need to over-egg the sub bass on your mix. It will come through loud and clear, so when mixing just make sure that it’s balanced and sounds good when you reference it on different speakers. You don’t need to crank it. Make sure the levels are comparable to other tracks that you know sound good out!
You do, however, need to write your bass with this in mind, because if you try to do too much with the bass, then on a club system the effect may be one of muddy and indistinct low-end. Make sure the kick and bassline don’t clash too much – side-chaining the sub-bass if necessary, and don’t have an overly complicated bassline. What might sound crisp and tight in your home monitoring setup could well end up sounding messy and woolly once it’s been ragged through a well-used DJ mixer, a couple of old power amps and then bounced around the walls of a 500-capacity room. Err on the side of simplicity, and where necessary, remember that a subtle EQ boost around 200-400Hz can do as much for the audibility of your bass as simply jacking up the overall volume. You can keep your sub-bass fairly heavily compressed, too – dynamics here are less important and won’t come through so well on a big system, but may eat up some of your headroom, causing the track to lose impact!
The loudness of a club system sounds like it should be a non-issue – of course club sound systems are going to be loud. But this really does make a difference. Our old friend the Fletcher-Munsen Curve comes into play here. For real detail on this, you’ll have to resort to Google, but the basic summary is that certain frequencies will sound different depending on how loud they are, and the frequencies where the ear is most sensitive to this are around 2.5 – 5kHz. That means these frequencies will seem much louder than normal when fired out of a big PA at 110dB.
You’ll probably be aware that these are the frequencies of harshness, and therefore if your track is sounding generally a bit harsh in the high-mids area, that will come through tenfold on a club system. So be sure to address this; claps and lead-lines can often be overbearing, and if you have any resonant filter sweeps, make sure that they don’t get too ear-piercing as the filter gets towards the high end.
What this also means, is that the top end of your track may end up sounding quite busy, and so you’ll need to make sure that any important elements really come through. If you’ve got a big piano line, a string part or a new lead line, you need to mix these loud enough to cut through the din. Subtlety gets rapidly lost on a club system, so a synth line that sounds, on your studio setup, like it should accent and lend interest to the track, may be barely audible in the club, and so it won’t have the effect you intended. Turn it up, then turn it up some more, and consider dropping another element out for a few bars when it comes in – just to really ram the point home. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have any subtle or delicate elements to your track – a good tune should work at home as well as in the club – but you need to understand that these subtleties may not be heard by most clubbers. So if it’s important, mix it loud, show it off!
Of course, the best way to learn about all this is to hear your tracks in a genuine club environment. That’s easier said than done, but if you’re DJing out in clubs you should be testing your beats when you can. Make sure you’re sober, mix the track in, then go and stand in the dancefloor with everyone else. That’s the best way to judge what really works and what doesn’t, and you should be able to go and make a few more tweaks for next time. Make some notes on your phone so you don’t forget any issues! If you can’t play your own tracks, see if you can persuade a friend to play them in a quiet moment – perhaps a warm-up slot at the beginning of the night.
Club sound systems are getting better all the time, but they can still present quite a challenge in getting your beats to sound as good on the dancefloor as they do in the studio. But it’s worth taking the time to perfect this art, as it’s essential to getting your tracks picked up by the top DJs! So consider some of these tips, reference your beats on as many systems as you can, and prepare to take your tracks into the rave….