Getting your mix sound right – especially in the low frequency area – can be challenging. If you don’t have a proper listening environment and a decent monitoring system you easily end up with an unbalanced mix that doesn’t translate very well to other audio systems (club PA’s, car stereo’s, etc).
In a situation like this, spectrum analyzer comes in very helpful. It will show you visually what’s going on in your mix in frequency-wise and this will help you to tweak your sounds in a way that they won’t clash with each other too much.
In addition to the built-in analyzers that comes with your DAW, there’s a bunch of really good free third party spectrum analyzer plugins available such as Voxengo SPAN and Blue Cat Audio’s FreqAnalyst. My personal favourite is the Seven Phases Spectrum Analyzer (if the original link is down, check out here or here). I like it because it can show the frequency peaks as bars and personally, I find it easier to read bars than curves.
But how do you use a spectrum analyzer in practice?
Firstly, it’s a good idea to drop it into a Master channel. This way you can see the frequency spectrum of each sound in your mix individually (by soloing the tracks/channels) as well as the whole mix.
How do you read the spectrum analyzer? What to look for?
For instance: check where in the frequency range your sounds are peaking in solo… do they clash badly with each other? Are there any unwanted frequencies in your sounds/samples that needs to be EQ’ed (ie. low frequencies in hihat samples)? Then make changes to your mix according to that.
I find spectrum analysis extremely useful especially when working with kick drums and bass sounds. Due to the limitations of my budget monitors, I can’t tell for sure how low the kick drum or bassline will go so I quickly check it in the spectrum analyzer. For example, if I have sub bass peaking in the 30-50Hz area and I see that the kick drum’s ‘tail’ is also peaking heavily in the same frequency area there will be problems: they clash, make the low end sound messy, may cause phasing issues and they will unnecessarily use most of the mix headroom. So I need to make a choice: I can try to make the bass sound less prominent in that area either by EQing it, using a different bass sound, re-arranging the bass sequence (so that the bass doesn’t hit at same time with the kick) or using sidechain compression. Or I can just roll off the low end from the kick. Anyway, without the spectrum analyzer these kind of problems wouldn’t be so obvious.
Another thing you can do with spectrum analyzer is to check the frequency range of a reference mix – a well produced commercial song in the same musical genre as yours – and do a comparison: try to identify in what frequency areas your song is lacking the power or on the contrary, if there’s something that is unnecessarily prominent. Then make changes if necessary.
Check the video below for a spectrum analyzer in action. In the video, I have an example mix with sub-heavy kick and sub bass and you will see how the analyzer reveals a problem in the low frequency range which wouldn’t have been so easy to detect with my monitor speakers. I’m using the Seven Phases Spectrum Analyzer in the video:
That's about it. As a summary I would say that a spectrum analyzer is an indispensable tool in bedroom studio.