Listening to Monitors

If you're thinking about buying your first set of dedicated studio monitors or about upgrading the ones you have, it can be daunting to try to assimilate
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FIG. 1: Yamaha''s discontinued NS-10M became a standard for studios around the world. Many speakers can do a reliable job today, because close-field monitors have improved in quality and have become more affordable.

If you're thinking about buying your first set of dedicated studio monitors or about upgrading the ones you have, it can be daunting to try to assimilate the wide range of speaker configurations and products available. There's a lot of confusion out there, even among veteran musicians, about how to select the best monitor for a particular small studio. Here's a quick primer and a checklist of considerations to help you put the right monitors into your studio space.

Close-Field Classic

For years Yamaha's NS-10M (see Fig. 1) and its successors set the standard for close-field monitors. But it wasn't because the monitor sounded great. Even the most consistent supporters of the speaker looked at it as a necessary evil for mixing. The NS-10 emerged as engineers began to appreciate the advantages of close-field monitoring, which included minimizing room characteristics when they were listening to the high output required for rock music. The NS-10 was widely adopted by studios because of its ability to represent the typical home-stereo speaker of the 1970s without adding excessive coloration.

Never mind that many engineers decided to drape tissue over the NS-10's tweeters to limit audible high frequencies. That trick helped control the tendency to limit highs in the mix, which could result in some dull-sounding recordings. (You can check out a serious analysis of that technique by acoustician Bob Hodas at Sample conclusion: “We can see that, at times, two layers of T.P. can simulate tissue curves, but [we] cannot draw positive conclusions about the effect of ply number.”)

So reliable was the NS-10 that it became the de facto standard for close-field monitoring for more than two decades, and it's still unusual to find a pro studio without a working pair in place. Modern monitor technology, however, has raised the quality of consumer audio speakers and close-field studio monitors. But the essential quality of the NS-10 — reliability at all volume levels — is still the primary necessity for a small-studio monitor. Contemporary monitors achieve that in a number of ways.

Power to spare

Modern close-field monitors are typically of the powered variety, and many are biamped. Giving the speaker its own power creates many advantages over the design of a traditional passive speaker such as the NS-10. Like a traditional home-stereo speaker, passive monitors are connected by speaker cable to a separate power amp that is usually positioned in an audio rack far away from the monitor positions. With powered speakers, internal amplifiers can be matched more closely to the monitor's woofer and tweeter. For the novice, powered monitors eliminate the need for impedance matching. (“Let's see. If I have two 8Ω monitors, and my power amp puts out 800W into 4Ω …”) Because powered monitors use line-level signals and typically require high-quality cable with either XLR or TRS connectors, they reduce the chance of interference, hum, and line loss associated with speaker cable.

Material gain

The raw elements that make up monitors have changed over the years. Silk ferrofluid-cooled soft-dome tweeters, MDF cabinets with rounded corners, neodymium magnets, and polypropylene cones have helped monitors such as Mackie's HR-624s (see Fig. 2) put out much higher audio quality at a much lower cost. (That so many models are manufactured in other countries also keeps costs down.) Those elements are also present in home-audio systems, and so the public's familiarity with high-quality audio is higher than it used to be. High-quality components are much more common and affordable than they were at the beginning of the home-studio revolution.

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FIG. 2: Most modern powered monitors, such as Mackie''s HR-624s, use materials such as ferrofluid-cooled soft-dome tweeters, polypropylene cones, and neodymium magnets.

Quality of sounds

The monitor's job is also easier today, because more high-quality sound is going into it. Whereas most studio production depended on careful recording and processing of analog instruments until the 1980s, the vast majority of recorded projects today are made up of at least a few elements that were previously recorded and processed, such as digital instrument samples or pristine electronic signals such as those from digital synths. Those conveniences make it much less likely that your mix's flaws will be betrayed from one monitor system to the next. In the past, it was harder to tell if an overly loud and muddy bass guitar was poorly recorded or handled poorly by bad monitors. Digital technology and new manufacturing techniques have brought about major improvements in music production and reproduction gear such as studio monitors.

System Strategies

Now that you're armed with the knowledge that monitors and music-production tools are better than they used to be, how do you pick the right system from the scores of reasonably priced monitors available today? Here are some suggestions that can help you narrow the choices.

Know your mission

Recording hip-hop or club music? You'll want to hear louder and deeper bass to get a feel for the mix in a large space (even though you probably shouldn't rely on that bass during a mix). That will mean larger woofers, with around eight-inch drivers, or a 2.1 system with a subwoofer. Singer-songwriter demos? A smaller monitor with clean reproduction will do the job. Many different projects for many clients? A system designed for heavy-duty use and with high-quality components makes sense here. Make sure that parts and service are readily available, or keep a backup set.

Know your room

The greatest monitors in the world can sound horrible in a bad space, and taming a problematic room isn't that hard, unless you are creating finished mixes that are ready for mastering. The typical bedroom is not a bad place to do basic recording. Carpets, curtains, and furniture can control reflections. Speakers can be set up at an angle to help avoid creating standing waves from parallel walls. And careful listening to professionally produced CDs of the style in which you usually work, as well as spoken-word and test-tone recordings, can reveal problem areas of your room — especially bass buildup in the corners and overly live or dead spots. More-detailed acoustic tweaking requires an investment that may not be worth the cost, unless your studio is very busy with acoustic recording projects.

Know your material

Audio engineers, even the ones who have vast experience, understand the need to A/B, or compare, their mixes with professionally finished CDs. Comparing helps reveal problem areas in a mix and also acclimates the engineer's ears to his or her own work space. A hit recording sounds different from one pro studio to another, even when both have been adjusted to the highest acoustic standards. If you're a novice and the best-sounding mix from your studio has way too much bass sound when it is played on a car stereo, don't be alarmed. Spend more time listening to the same professional CD in the two environments while A/B'ing it with your own mix. With a more even playing field for monitor components, understanding your listening environment and how your monitors respond to different source material becomes more important.

Sound Suggestions

It can be tough to recognize that a good-sounding monitor is actually not good to work with and that a “bad-sounding” monitor such as the NS-10 (which tended to fatigue engineers after a lot of use) can make your mixes competitive with major-label releases. It often takes years of listening to recognize weaknesses in a model that sounds wonderful at first listen. (My personal trick is to listen for definition in the fingering of various electric-bass playing styles. Muddiness in the low midrange on classic funk records disqualifies a monitor from my studio.)

There are many worthy monitors out there. Listen to as many as possible, take into account the preferences of the producers you admire, and learn how the speaker you choose handles other people's music — the good, the bad, and the ugly — as well as how it handles your own.

Rusty Cutchin is an associate editor of EM. He can be reached