If your mixes sound thin or you can't figure out why your tunes pump at home but sound like mud in the club, chances are you need to take a look at your monitor setup. Don't feel bad. A lot of us started out using old hand-me-down home-stereo monitors as we got our studios off the ground, and sometimes it takes a while before that “a-ha!” moment hits and rubs our noses in one of the harsh facts of studio life: Professional mixing requires professional monitors. Even experienced producers using quality gear have trouble with monitoring for entirely different reasons — from poor room acoustics to substandard D/A conversion. So wheel those tower speakers back into the living room, and we'll examine the core issues in studio monitoring.
WHAT IT IS, BRO
If you're relatively new to music production, you might be wondering what exactly monitoring is — and how it could really be all that different from listening to tunes from the living room couch. If dad's old amp is good enough for listening, why not for mixing? Those are good questions that we've probably all asked ourselves at some point.
Monitoring, simply put, is the single most important thing in your studio. That statement may spark heated debate, but I stand by it for one big reason: You can't mix what you can't hear. If your monitors don't give you a truthful and accurate representation of what's really going on in your music, the mixes coming out of your studio are going to sound radically different in other environments, and generally not in a good way. Once your music is out to the public, it has to stand on its own and translate properly across all systems, from cheap computer speakers to massive club systems pushing hundreds of thousands of watts. Balancing a mix to translate properly across such a wide range of systems presents a staggering challenge.
The trick to getting it right is smart mixing. But again, without proper monitors, it's nearly impossible to make smart mix decisions because your ears simply aren't hearing the whole story. It's like trying to assemble a car engine from a manual that's missing critical pages. It may look like an engine when you're finished, and it may even run, but it won't kick out all the horsepower it could because key elements are missing.
NOT LOUD IS ALLOWED: SPEAKERS
Good monitoring is built on three core essentials: great speakers, quality conversion and a good room. Speakers — the voice of your studio — are where monitoring begins. They don't need to be loud; they don't need to be big; and, in fact, given the size of most project studios, it's usually best if they're neither. What they really do need to be is brutally honest. Selecting such a pair of monitors is an intensely personal process, and ultimately it's up to your ears to decide what sounds best for you, but there are a few basic guidelines that can help narrow down the shopping list to a few likely candidates.
Few of us are working in large commercial recording studios, so give up any dreams you may have of cramming a pair of huge mounted speakers with arrays of 12-inch woofers into your spare room. They might look impressive and sound massive, but for everyday mixing tasks, it's the smaller near-field monitors that get the job done. Most near-fields are two-way systems featuring a single tweeter and woofer, with some models sporting an extra woofer. They tend to be bookshelf size, so they can fit comfortably on a desktop.
Make sure the pair you get is the right size for your room. There's no magic formula for sizing speakers, but think of them like a TV — if they feel large and imposing in your studio, they're probably too big. It's easy to assume that bigger is better and head straight for the most speaker your wallet can handle, but consider how far you'll be sitting from the monitors before buying into a behemoth setup. Optimal positioning for studio monitors is an equilateral triangle between your head and the speakers, so take that into account and size accordingly for where you'll be sitting.
Naturally, larger speakers tend to reach farther down into the low end as big woofers move more air, but pay close attention to the sensation of tightness in bass with these larger drivers. Bigger drivers tend to produce more earth-shaking low end but occasionally do so at the expense of punchiness in the higher bass registers. Pay attention to frequency response plots, too. A good pair of medium-size near-field speakers should stay relatively flat up to and beyond 20 kHz. Don't worry too much about bass response — while some near-field speakers do produce satisfying low end, it's generally something that's best handled by a subwoofer, particularly if you're producing bass-heavy music that's destined for club play.
YOU'RE GOING TO HOLLYWOOD: AUDITIONING
Any music shop worth its salt should have an enclosed listening room or at least a dedicated area set aside for auditioning monitors. Don't even think of buying a pair of monitors until you've heard at least five different sets. It's important to take a CD that you're familiar with, preferably a burned disc full of a wide variety of music in different styles and genres with which you're intimately familiar. Try the disc on every pair of speakers you can.
When auditioning monitors in a retail environment, all of the speakers are usually irregularly spaced against one wall. Monitoring is as much about the room you're in as the speakers, so keep in mind that they'll sound somewhat different once you get them out of the shop. Try to reposition yourself while auditioning each set so your head forms and equilateral triangle with the speakers. No matter what it takes, make sure your ears are even with the tweeters. Even better, if you're on good terms with the dealer, arrange to take a couple of your favorite pairs home. There's really no substitute for hearing how each pair will sound in your particular space.
Listen as long as it takes to get a solid perception about the monitor's characteristics. Getting a feel for this unique personality is key in selecting the perfect pair of speakers. Listen closely to the treble frequencies. Is the stereo field wide with good imaging? Do you feel enveloped by the sound? Can you pinpoint individual instruments “hanging in space,” so to speak, between the speakers? Do vocals sound like they're placed solidly in the center of the stereo field? Listen closely to long reverb tails and try to pick out details within the reverb itself as it decays. A good pair of monitors will accurately reproduce this level of detail to such an extent that it seems as if the music is under a microscope. If treble sounds harsh or fatiguing in any way, then move on. Remember that you'll be using these speakers for hours on end, day after day, perhaps year after year. Listening should be a pleasure, not a chore.
Midrange frequencies encompass most of the actual music, so accurate reproduction in this area is key. Think of mids as the meat, and treble and bass as salt and pepper. Listen for midrange that's full, developed and cohesive, gluing the bass and treble regions together. Vocals in particular live in the mids, so if you work with voices, spend a lot of time listening for any peaks or valleys in this area. Monitors that boost mids unnaturally can leave you mixing holes into your music, producing that “smiley-face EQ” effect that's prevalent in radio and on cheap home stereos. A lack of midrange can trick you into boosting things unnaturally, resulting in a brash and clangorous mix that's unpleasant and fatiguing.
Bass is by far the most difficult thing to gauge accurately. Low-end reproduction depends highly on the room you're in, so what you hear at the dealer may be quite different at home. The lowest of low frequencies are the hardest to judge, so focus instead on the upper-bass registers. Is the bass tight, punchy and focused, or is it loose and boomy? Boominess sometimes sounds good on dance music, giving you that loud, big club feeling, but it's deceptive and can often fool you into over- or under-compensating in a mix. Too much bass — especially in a club — can rapidly overpower the rest of a song and kill the experience. It's better to forgo earth-shaking low end in favor of tight focus in the upper-bass registers.
BOTTOMED OUT: SUBWOOFERS
With a pair of near-field speakers rated down to only 50 Hz, is it really possible to get a true idea of what bass will sound like on the dancefloor? With near-field speakers alone, probably not. The trunk-rumbling lows that really move air happen down below the response curve of most small speakers, so adding a subwoofer to the monitor rig is the best way to shore up that deficiency.
Studio subwoofers vary in size from eight to 15 inches, with a few larger models available for particularly demanding environments. Most small to medium-size project studios will pick up more than enough low-end thump with a 12-inch sub. The trick here isn't buying a huge, powerful speaker, but tuning the subwoofer you buy to integrate seamlessly with the existing near-field speakers. Because bass tends to lack any real stereo imaging, it's no problem getting by with a single sub in most small studios.
Subs are a great way to shore up the anemic low end on most small near-field speakers, but integrating a sub incorrectly can pose a lot of potential risk. Let's face it, bass sounds good. It adds a sense of drama to movies and music, and as long as it isn't overpowering, it's easy to keep turning it up, thinking that more is better; the result is skewed bass response and inaccurate mixes outside of the studio. Powered subs generally have crossover and volume knobs on the back, and finding the right setting for both is critical in balancing the subwoofer with your near-field speaker setup.
A quick way to do this is to throw on a tune you're familiar with, turn up the sub and tweak the crossover frequency until the sub blends into the near-field speakers, picking up only the frequencies they're missing. Once you've established a solid frequency response across all three speakers, turn down the sub until it disappears into the sound field. The idea here is to eliminate any peak or dip around the crossover frequency where the sub and near-field speakers overlap. You should never have any perception of bass coming from the sub; it should sound like your near-field speakers got larger, not like you added a third speaker. If you can pinpoint the sub in the room with your eyes closed, then you can do better. Reposition it and try the process again. For truly accurate level matching, pick up a good measurement microphone, a real-time analyzer such as Behringer's Ultra Curve Pro ($379; www.behringer.com) or Acoustisoft's ETF measurement software ($150; www.acoustisoft.com) and ring the room with pink noise. Both will show you peaks and valleys in your setup and help you zero-in on the ideal crossover and volume levels for your subwoofer.
HOME IMPROVEMENT: YOUR ROOM
The single most important element in accurate monitoring is a proper room. You can shell out thousands of dollars for the flattest monitors and the cleanest amp around, but if your room has poor acoustics, that precious flat response can wind up skewed without your knowledge. The result: mixes that sound like a million bucks in the studio but still translate poorly in the outside world.
Unfortunately, this is the one area where most project studios suffer the most because most of us are pressing a second bedroom or converted garage into service as a one-stop shop for tracking, arranging and mixing. Few of us have the luxury of building home studios from scratch, so we wedge gear into attics, basements, spare rooms, etc. — all spots where bizarre or otherwise suboptimal room dimensions significantly impact the quality and accuracy of mixdowns. One of the biggest problems in project studio recording is phase cancellation, or nulling, where the sound coming out of the speakers intersects with waves reflected from the walls of the room. The perceived result are holes or gaps in the sound, and regardless of how good your monitors are, there's little they can do to mitigate this problem. The only solution is treating the room.
When the subject of acoustic treatment comes up, special foam products by companies like Auralex (www.auralex.com) and Sonex (www.sonexfoam.com) come to mind. Auralex, in particular, has tackled the project studio market with its Roominator kits, which range from a few hundred to more than a thousand dollars, and include multiple types of foam panels and traps for rooms of all sizes. Foam works well for absorbing high frequencies and deadening a room's natural reverberation, and it has the added benefit of being relatively inexpensive. Keep in mind that foam panels need to be securely attached to walls, and the needed adhesive can be hard to work with.
A great alternative is acoustic paneling. Acoustic panels are wood or metal frames filled with specific types of Fiberglas or mineral wool covered with fabric that helps them easily blend into studio decor. The absorption properties of acoustic panels generally exceed that of foam, and the thickness of some bass-trapping models (a maximum of six inches) provides superior control over unruly low frequencies. Corner-placed bass traps constructed of the same material also help soak up renegade low end so you hear only what's coming from the speakers, and none of the muddy boominess that results from bass bouncing around the room. Acoustic panels also have the added benefit of mobility: You can hang them on a wall or use wheeled stands that make it easier to dial in the perfect setup.
Good places for acoustic panels include GIK Acoustics (www.gikacoustics.com) and RealTraps (www.realtraps.com). Both sites include a wealth of information and articles about acoustics, room treatment and even tips on how to build your own acoustic panels.
ATTACK THE SYMPTOMS: CORRECTIVE EQ
Another option that's gaining some traction is corrective EQ. IK Multimedia ARC ($699; www.ikmultimedia.com/arc) provides a measurement microphone, analysis software and a corrective EQ plug-in. A few powered monitors, such as JBL's LSR4328P Pak ($1,759; www.jblpro.com) speakers, even have similar corrective EQ built right in. The concept — sample the room's normal acoustic fingerprint and use EQ to boost or cut problem areas, thereby mitigating any issues with room acoustics — sounds simple. The effectiveness of these methods, however, has stirred up some controversy. Some feel that corrective EQ results in an excessively narrow sweet spot and compromises acoustics elsewhere in the room, and fails to properly compensate for phase-cancellation issues. EQ itself does by nature introduce sonic artifacts of its own, so consider all those factors before purchasing a corrective EQ system and do as much as possible to treat the room first.
PRISTINE PATH: D/A CONVERSION
Much ado is made about good A/D conversion, and for good reason. Quality A/D converters are a big deal for anyone working with lots of outboard gear, and can mean the difference between a thin, narrow recording and a rich, vibrant track with detail and character. What many fail to realize is that the output channel — digital-to-analog conversion — needs just as much love. It's always fascinating to see studios that spend thousands on high-end A/D converters and then monitor the whole setup through a $400 FireWire audio interface.
Great D/A conversion is a must for anyone looking to squeeze maximum performance out of his/her monitors. Granted, if you're working with a pair of speakers that set you back $500, shelling out another $1,000 on conversion isn't going to make them sound like a $1,500 set of monitors. However, high-end speakers capable of producing subtle detail will benefit greatly from quality conversion.
Upgrading converters can be rather expensive, but a number of more accessible new options have hit the market during the past few years. Lavry's DA10 ($975; www.lavryengineering.com), Benchmark's DAC1 ($1,275; www.benchmarkmedia.com) and Apogee's Mini DAC FireWire ($1,095; www.apogeedigital.com) are all topflight units that offer onboard volume control, doing away with the need for an external device to handle volume. Alternately, standard D/A units without volume control can be used with passive attenuators like the SM Pro Audio M-Patch 2 ($219; www.smpro audio.com) and iNano ($69), or the PreSonus Central Station ($699; www.presonus.com).
Upgrading output conversion may seem like a luxury, and in the context of the studio as a whole, it probably is. But keep in mind that what you're hearing out of your monitors is hampered by the weakest link; if you've upgraded your monitors and treated room acoustics, consider investing in quality conversion to seal the deal.
A MATTER OF OPINION
With a few exceptions, I've avoided mentioning or recommending any particular monitors because monitors are an intensely personal choice, and what's perfect for one person may not work for another. Yamaha NS10s — the white-coned near-field speakers in pro studios everywhere — are a perfect example. Seasoned engineers swear by them and hundreds of hit records have been mixed on them, but personally I find them thin and harsh and can't tolerate them for more than five minutes. Does that make them bad speakers? For me, yes. For anyone else, perhaps not. Discovering what works is often a process of trial and error that spans many years. In fact, it's only within the past year that I have found a pair of monitors I finally feel comfortable with on every level. Some may find such comfort with their first pair; others may find it takes a bit longer. What's important is that you become intimately familiar with your monitors. Learn where they tell the truth and where they lie, and why. Understand them inside and out, and you'll inch ever closer to the perfect mix.