Let’s cut to the chase: For critical listening situations in the personal studio, such as mixing and mastering, you want to avoid monitors that are flattering or that make your music sound exciting, either by boosting the highs or emphasizing the lows. Rather, your goal should be to assemble a system that reveals any aspect of a mix that is out of balance.
However, monitors are only one part of the equation. Other aspects that determine the resolution of your critical listening environment include room dimensions, surface materials, and where furniture sits in the space.
While discussing room treatment in the March issue of this column, I mentioned the importance of having your studio analyzed before investing in, and installing, acoustic treatments when you’re serious about creating a trustworthy environment for critical listening. Room analysis can be expensive on the front end, but it will save you time and money in the long run.
To some people, this level of investment sounds like overkill. But I’m not suggesting that you need anything exotic, such as thousand-dollar speaker cables. Rather, in order to increase the quality of your work, at some point you will need to examine your listening environment acoustically and correct any issues that alter audio playback in ways that might not be easily heard in the listening position.
This is important to remember when shopping for monitors, either for the first time or when upgrading. Buying the most expensive set you can afford isn’t necessarily a good idea. You have to keep them in balance with other aspects of your studio’s level of resolution, which includes the quality of your microphones, preamp, and audio interface. Moreover, you need to know what you’re listening for in order to get the most out of the purchase. And you need a room that supports the resolution you are working with.
Let’s use the metaphor of the human voice to represent a studio playback system. Consider how much the physical characteristics of your vocal tract (among other things) affect the sound emanating from your vocal cords. The interplay between all of the parts—from the vocal folds to the lips—play a role in how your voice’s personal “playback system” sounds.
Now let’s use your speaking/singing apparatus to model how a room can affect the sound emanating from your monitors. Try this simple experiment: Play a continuous sound from your smartphone’s tiny speaker, but aim the speaker into your wide open mouth; next, silently shape the words “wow wow wow” as the sound plays. Instant talkbox!
Next, look at your studio and where the speakers sit in relation to all the materials in the room. Although you can’t move the walls and boundaries as fast as you can move your lips when silently mouthing “wow,” each surface in the space is impacting the soundwaves that leave your monitoring system in a similar (though stationary) way. Your ultimate goal in the studio is to minimize any coloration the room might add to what emanates from your monitor speakers.
LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION
A colleague of mine is part owner of a small studio that has steadily increased its client base. Consequently, he and his partner have been upgrading their gear whenever they can afford it. When he is not engineering or playing gigs, he writes product reviews, which have occasionally included near-field monitors.
When it came time to upgrade the studio’s monitors, he and his partner brought in an acoustician to help optimize the room so that the new system sounded its best in the main mix chair. Immediately, the two engineers heard the difference that proper positioning makes (not to mention other important room tweaks). And from that point on, my colleague would no longer review near-field monitors again: With his listening setup perfectly dialed in, there was no way he was going to change a single thing to test other products.
Mind you, these guys were already doing high-quality work. But like many pros, they continue to strive for greater resolution in their work environment. And often, it’s only after you’ve spent countless hours using a particular set of tools with acute focus that you are able to hear the finer details in a higher grade of equipment.
Now let’s step back for a moment: You don’t need to have a perfectly tuned room to hear the difference between most near-field studio monitors. Even in a casual environment, it’s surprisingly easy to tell them apart. (The caveat, of course, is that you have to make sure that you’re always sitting in the sweet spot for the pair you’re auditioning, in order to avoid phase issues and other anomalies.)
These days, many companies produce highquality active monitors at relatively affordable prices, allowing you to get a reasonable amount of resolution on a tight budget. But don’t think you need to overspend on products that are currently out of your league. Allow yourself to grow into higher-resolution audio naturally over time, as your studio and ear mature and your budget allows.