So you want to start a home studio. Maybe you’ve heard about studio monitor speakers? You’re first thought is probably, why do I need studio monitor speakers for mixing? So I’m here to tell you why…
Can’t I Just Use Stereo Speakers?
This is usually the first question people ask when being told they need studio monitor speakers.
Let’s start by having a look at any of the speakers in your apartment or living room. You will find that they are all over the place. I bet that everyone has theirs in a different place. No wonder sometimes the music you listen to at home can sound different to what the guys in the recording studio intended you to hear. So where are yours? Are they behind you or in front of you?
Mixing Using Stereo Speakers
The biggest contribution to a bad mix is not always down to the guy doing the mix, even though this often is the case lol. The biggest problem even for an experienced engineer, is a monitoring system that will not reproduce the sound that has been recorded correctly in playback.
How many times have you mixed your sound in your studio and played it back somewhere else just to find that it sounds totally different? This is where a proper monitor system comes in play for any professional or home studio.
Mixing on Stereo Speakers Vs Monitor Speakers
Using monitor speakers ensures you are hearing what is exactly there. That means you can mix the audio properly so that it will play back well on most systems.
The point of having good speakers is to hear your music played back properly and accurately, no matter what system it is played back on. The reason for this is, that everyone has different stereo system, speakers and this could range from massive PA system in a night club down to Joe Bloggs playing your tune walking down the street with his iPhone. So in a sense, this is why it is important to have the proper monitoring system while mixing down your song in the first place.
Life would be so easy if we all had the same systems, monitors and hearing! But this is not the case, when you do find those decent monitors, you have to trust the output they are giving you and this will come through time
So when it comes to buying you monitoring system, get the most out it! Ask the music store for a system that will suit your needs. What is the point in of going overboard? But never buy a system just because the price looks good. You usually get what you pay for when it comes to studio monitors.
Large Professional Studios & Wall Mounted Monitors
The large format studios with huge control rooms that need to output a higher volume level. They often have several sets of monitors to switch between. There will be large monitors; usually ‘soffit’ mounted (that’s fixed in the wall to you and me) which represent the full sound spectrum including the bass end. And there will be smaller nearfield monitors placed closer to the mixing position that, due to the limitations of cabinet size, have a more limited bass response.
Nearfield monitors simulate playback conditions comparable with your home listening environment, reproducing the quality of sound played back on, say, a standard hi-fi system.
Mid-Sized Professional Studios & Home Studios – Nearfield Monitors
As few of us have the budget or space for huge monitors, especially in Los Angeles where space and rent is super high. It’s nearfields that must be the speakers of choice. You can also add a sub if you need more low end bass response.
Why Can’t I Just Use My Stereo Speakers
So, the first question must be, if nearfields are meant to sound like domestic hi-fi speakers, why not use your existing hi-fi speakers and save some money? The truth is, hi-fi speakers are often deliberately designed with ‘coloration’ that flatters the music, rather than reproducing it, warts ‘n’ all.
Nearfield monitors reproduce the entire frequency range as accurately as possible with a minimum of distortion and coloration. So they’re much truer to the real sound.
For example, if you mix music on hi-fi speakers tuned to make the bass sound louder, you might not add enough bass to your mix. In this case it’ll sound lightweight and lacking in bass when played on other systems. Studio monitors are also built more robustly to take higher sound levels; useful when you want to solo a particularly raucous sound at high volume.
Passive Vs Active Monitors
Most monitors these days are active. That means they have their own build-in amp. If you’re buying used monitors on ebay or Craigslist, check to see if they’re active or passive. Lots of older monitors could be passive.
Passive speakers need a separate power amplifier whereas active speakers have the amp (or amps in the case of bi-amped systems where the tweeter and bass drivers have separate amps) built into the speaker enclosure. Active speakers mean you can’t choose your own power amp, but their built-in amps are specifically designed to work with their speakers, creating an efficient, matched system.
Most nearfield monitors have little bass reproduction below, say, 50Hz, so you won’t hear the real low end. Still, if you need to hear these frequencies, the bass response can be extended with the addition of a sub bass unit, which can sit out of the way under your mixing desk.
You want to place the monitors in an equilateral triangle between yourself and the speakers. That means, from where you sit at your desk, the speakers should be the same distance away from each other as you are from them. The tweeters should be at the height of your ears.
If you can’t do this for whatever reason, as a last resort, if the speakers are too high, you can angle them downwards towards your ears.
Either use floor speaker stands or, if you are placing them on your desk use something like IsoAcoustics speaker stands to raise them up to the correct height.
Secondly, the speakers should be angled slightly towards your listening position so the sound focuses towards your head. The recommended textbook starting position is usually to have the speakers positioned to subtend an angle of 60 degrees to the listener. Basically, you sit at the apex of an equilateral triangle formed by yourself and the speakers; this is the ‘sweet spot’ where you’ll find the most accurate representation of the sound.
Personally, I think it makes a little sense to break this rule slightly and point each speaker at each ear rather than the center of my head. This creates a slight increase in the stereo width and separation so that you can hear each speaker individually a little more.
Use Vertical Monitors Vertically!
It’s usually better to mount monitors vertically so the sound from the tweeter and the bass driver arrives at the ear at the same time, although some specific monitors, such as the old Yamaha NS10Ms, can to be placed horizontally as well as the Adam A77X monitors and a few of the other horizontal monitors on the market.
Also, the distance between the speakers shouldn’t be more than about two metres or the central stereo image may suffer. You could also run into problems if the distance between the two speakers is greater than the distance between the speakers and the listener. (Not an equilateral triangle)
Position in the room
Unless you monitor solely on headphones (not recommended, although if you have to, Audeze LCD-X headphones are pretty good), it’s a fact of life that the room you’re in will affect the sound you hear. The size and shape of the room, together with the materials on the walls, ceiling and floor, can all exert an influence on the sound, as can any objects in the room.
Sound from the speakers will be reflected from and absorbed by the various surfaces and objects that can result in distinct echoes, reverb and certain frequencies being cancelled or reinforced.
All these things, can be tackled by acoustic treatment such as bass traps and acoustic panels. In saying that, room influences can also be minimised by using nearfield speakers positioned correctly and won’t be as bad as using large format monitors. Nearfield speakers tend to reduce any room effects, as they are closer to the listener, so the direct sound from the speakers dominates rather than any reflected sound.
Whatever speakers you use though, it’s always useful to minimise the effects of reflected sound as much as you can. Symmetrical positioning of the speakers in relation to the room is important. If the distance between the speakers and their adjacent walls is not identical on both left and right then any reflections from the walls will be different and may disrupt the stereo image.
By the same token, any nearby racks of gear could cause reflections so just keep this in mind.
Reflections can also come from the surface of your mixing desk. If you have a large analogue console, placing your speakers on stands behind the desk rather than sitting them over the meter bridge can minimize this problem.
Once you’ve got those points covered, adding some acoustic panels and bass traps will help increase the accuracy of your monitors more by reducing the reflections further.
Now your monitors are nicely set up, here are a few practical tips to help your mixing. The first one is don’t monitor too loud for extended periods. Protracted listening at high volume cannot only cause permanent ear damage but it can also wear out your concentration more quickly and dull your perception of top-end frequencies.
There is always a temptation to turn things up because, let’s face it, music usually sounds more exciting that way. However, you may soon get immune to the constant high level. It’s far better to monitor at a reasonably low level and just turn it up occasionally for a quick high volume check. Monitoring at different volume levels is good practice anyway. Turning the level right down allows you to hear if things are jumping out of the mix. It’s also a good way to check if, for example, the vocal or snare is too loud. Also – and this may seem a bit strange – listening to the track while sitting at the back or walking in and out of the room gives you a different perspective that may prove useful. Try it and see.
As there is no such thing as a standard monitor speaker. Each speaker design provides its own version of the truth. So it stands to reason that, to get the best results, you need to know your own speakers inside out and to trust what they’re telling you.
The easiest way to get familiar with them is to play your favorite songs through your monitors, both in isolation and while mixing your own tracks, and compare the sound.
Presumably you’ll have some music in your collection mixed in a professional studio on a top-class monitoring system. So comparing this to your mixes in progress, checking not only the overall sound but also specific areas will do no harm.
I’m not talking about making slavish copies here, but it will help check things like if there is enough top end, if the bass is too boomy, if the mid range sounds too harsh, if you’ve added enough reverb, if the vocal sits well with the music and if the drums are too loud.
Using Other Speakers
If you have access to several sets of speakers so much the better. Switch between them from time to time to see how the music sounds on each set and occasionally check how things are sounding on headphones.
If you have just one set of studio monitors you can always run off mixes in progress every so often to play back on a ghetto blaster, domestic hi-fi system, car stereo or personal stereo.
So now you know why you need studio monitor speakers for mixing. Following these tips will help you get have a more accurate listening environment for mixing. Keep practicing and training your ear. Compare with to reference tracks and learn the sound of your monitor speakers.
If you can get your mix to sound good on really bad speakers as well as decent ones, then you must be doing something right.