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An Introduction to Equalization - A free download from Audio Masterclass

Equipping Your Home Recording Studio - A free download from Audio Masterclass

An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression - A free download from Audio Masterclass

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The new Apple HomePod smart speaker - what difference will it make to your mixing and mastering?

Not content with its mighty market share of the computer, phone, tablet and music industries, Apple Inc. tries to take over home hi-fi. But what implications will it have for music producers?

Think about how many different ways people listen to music...

  • On a state-of-the-art super hi-fi system
  • On a 'Richer Sounds' hi-fi system (you'll see what I mean if you click the link - don't forget to come back)
  • On a television set with integrated loudspeaker
  • On a television set with a sound bar
  • On a portable radio (in stereo)
  • On a portable radio (in mono)
  • On high-quality headphones
  • On ear buds
  • On a Wi-Fi speaker or speakers
  • In their car
  • On studio monitors that are identical to yours

There is a whole different article in the list above but the essential point is that your music has to sound as good as it possibly can in ALL listening scenarios.

Oh, and that last one almost certainly isn't going to happen unless it is another producer who coincidentally has the same monitors as you. But that is the only way anyone will hear your mix and master the same way that you hear it.

But recently there has come yet another way people can listen to music...

On their Amazon Echo, Google Home, or - now - Apple HomePod. Generically we can call these 'smart speakers'.

I think it is fair to say that no-one expects high quality audio from an Amazon Echo or Google Home. They expect quality similar to a portable radio. Of course your mix still has to sound as good as it can, but users of these devices probably want music in the background. I doubt if many people would listen concentratedly on these devices, as they would on headphones, ear buds or hi-fi speakers.

But Apple's HomePod is different. In the keynote speech of their developers' conference on June 5 2017, Apple specifically stated that their aim was to make a device that sounds great. In their words it "rocks the house".

So what difference will this make to your mixing and mastering process?

At this point, I need to say a few things about the HomePod.

  1. You can use one by itself, or two. Or you can use multiple HomePods around your house or apartment and they will intelligently communicate with each other.
  2. At no point did Apple say that one HomePod will give stereo sound, although they did make reference to a 'spacious' sound, and a single HomePod is definitely not mono. They also used the term 'spacious sound' when two HomePods are used.
  3. The HomePod intelligently analyses the acoustic environment that it is in and uses beam-forming technology to adapt the audio appropriately.
  4. The HomePod intelligently analyses music into centre vocals, "direct energy" (Apple's term), and ambient audio including backing vocals and reverb. It processes all of these elements into "a full rich mix that fills up your room".

From this, we can see that the HomePod is a massively different way of listening to music than your studio monitors. It is also massively different to anything else that music consumers would use (accepting Apple's assertion that other smart speakers are significantly inferior to HomePod in audio quality).

I could say similar about Wi-Fi speakers such as the Sonos range, but Apple has a greater influence and proven ability to create revolutions in the way we use tech (MP3 players were a mess before iPod, there was no such thing as what we would now consider a smartphone before iPhone, before iPad no-one thought that tablets would ever properly catch on). So if HomePod sparks a similar revolution then we may have to think seriously about our mixing and mastering processes.

What's different

  1. Listeners might use one or two HomePods, or several throughout their house or apartment.
  2. Emphasis on a spatial sound rather than a stereo sound stage.
  3. HomePod adapts to the acoustics of the room and where in the room it is placed.
  4. HomePod analyses music into its components and handles those components differently to each other.

Of course there are other differences but these four are more than enough for now. Let me look at just one - No. 3 on my list.

Currently it is considered proper professional practice to have alternative monitors. Normally these would be a large pair of main monitors, and a small pair of near fields. With these, you can hear your mix in high quality, or quality more typical of a home hi-fi. Between the two you should be able to achieve a mix that sounds good on most systems.

But HomePod is so different that you might buy one to use as a third alternative. But where in your mixing room do you place it? As it will adapt to different locations in the room, the sound will change too. Should your mixing practice extend to trying out different HomePod placements? Should you buy two HomePods so that you can monitor the twin HomePod experience? And since your mix room has acoustic treatment, HomePod will alter its sound in response. So should your mix room be more like a normal living room?

What I'm saying is that HomePod throws up a whole new set of variables. If it proves to be a minority taste then perhaps nothing need change in either mixing or mastering practice. But if suddenly everyone is buying HomePods or the 'me too' products that will inevitably emerge, might this lead to an entirely new paradigm for mixing? Might we eventually discard our normal two monitor stereo setup for a smart speaker? Might pro audio manufacturers develop their own version of a 'smart monitor'? Actually I like that idea last - it could be interesting. Or maybe a software company could develop a HomePod emulator plug-in (I don't like that idea so much). Or maybe Apple will develop control software for Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro so that users of those softwares can monitor to best advantage on HomePod.

Apple's HomePod creates solutions for listeners and challenges for creative musicians. This article might pose many more questions than it supplies answers, but hopefully solutions will emerge over time.

According to Apple, HomePod will be available from December 2017. Here are a few pics to whet your appetite...

By David Mellor Thursday June 8, 2017
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